I offer this sermon in the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
First of all, the refrain of an old gospel song says that you should ‘have a little talk with Jesus’. That’s good advice and I’d reckon that all of us have had several occasions to do that. So this morning I’m inviting you to say a prayer for me and then eavesdrop on several mostly monologic conversations I’ve had with the Lord Jesus lately. They begin like this:
Good morning, Lord. I call your given name often because we’re friends, but I’ll address you as Lord because Jesus sounds too familiar when I want some help understanding what you mean in some of your last teachings. The first sentence in today’s collect puts it succinctly: ‘you have prepared for those who love you good things that surpass our understanding’. Although we have talked many times before about what are called your ‘farewell addresses’, I’m really strug-gling for clarity and I want more understanding. I need to craft a sermon on today’s reading from John’s gospel and it reminds me of other related sayings like ‘if you love me, obey me because I will only reveal myself to those who love me and obey me’ – and like ‘when you obey my com-mands you are living in my love’. These are clear to me – if I don’t obey your commands, I don’t love you. But then, just a few verses later, you command me to love other persons the same way you love me – and that’s where I really struggle for understanding. I know I was created in your image – but I’ve evolved and a lot of water has gone over the dam since then. So respectfully, Lord, this ‘new commandment’, as you called it, seems to me an incredulous mandate that, on its face, is simply impossible to obey . Who among us is capable of even simulating, much less per-forming, your love? But there it is in black and white in John’s gospel – and variations of it appear 13 times in other NT writings. So if these writings are somehow inspired and your early followers apparently believed that your later followers should treat them seriously, I will treat them seriously. But this is a very difficult mandate, Lord,
What’s that? You’re glad to listen. Wonderful. Thank you. A related issue is that the architecture of sermons is basically of two types and their difference lies in their subject matter. One is called ‘old expository’ and undertakes to discern and display the meaning of a particular biblical text – to expose what the Bible means by what it says. The other is called ‘new exposi-tory’ and takes its cue from a current event or concern like stewardship or justice or racism. So if I preach from this text, wouldn’t the sermon need to be old expository and take your command-ment very seriously – maybe even literally? That’s fine with me, but it means the sermon will probably be more pedagogic than inspirational because the salient points of your mandate need to be thoroughly explored.
It also strikes me that a related challenge is some of your ‘hard sayings’. If I may say so, Lord, they sound like exaggerations. I’m thinking of the one in Matthew, ‘you have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer’ (5:30) – and another one in Luke, ‘you have to chop off your right hand if it causes you to sin – cut it off and throw it away because it is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go to hell’] (12:51-53). But the most startling among these ‘hard sayings’ is ‘you must be perfect as your Father in heaven is per-fect’ (Mt 5:48). Compared to these sayings, this new commandment doesn’t sound like hyper-bole to me. Moreover, because it comes in one of your post-resurrection appearances and is one of your final instructions, I read it very seriously.
But another issue, Lord is that the grammatical richness of the English language is some-times matched by lexical scarcity when we struggle to say exactly what we mean. Gender iden-tity, as you well know, is currently a huge issue in NC and the old pronouns he/she /him /her are being replaced by individualized choices. The NYTimes reports that Mx is a substitute for Mr and Mrs and I’m told that users of Face-book can select from more than 50 gender identifiers. I think the operative word in your commandment demonstrates similar variances in that a single word can have many meanings. Love in English expresses a long list of idiosyncratic affections. We say I love you – I love baseball – I love coffee – I love the USA – and so on. But love here really means ‘I like ice cream’ – ‘I’m addicted to coffee’ – ‘I’m fond of you’ – and so on. The definitions of the same word in all these phrases are not self-evident and they display very differ-ent relationships and meanings. So I want to know as clearly as I can what love means when you command us to love each other the same way you love us. There are popular tendencies in our cultural and religious settings that now substitute putative virtues like justice or freedom or peace for love. But I think this diminishes and weakens the love you command us to practice. In fact, I think the love you displayed is not achieved by justice or peace-making or loving the USA. I’m told that these surrogate virtues sometimes intend to be expressions of love – but they seem to me a far cry from your love as it is displayed in the NT.
I suppose I’m not sounding very optimistic about the human condition, but I tend to think a similar view was held by John and Paul and the other apostles and that did not stop them con-rasting various loves with your radical commandment. In fact, the New Testament describes sev-ral meanings that attach to the one word ‘love’ bu using four different Greek words to define four distinct kinds of loves. There is eros – a selfish liking that means ‘I love you for what you can do for me.’ And Philia which describes a shared affection for a third party – like the filial love that parents have for their children. And epithemia – which describes the instinctive urge we share with animals for tactile relationships like touching and being touched. What’s revealing, Lord, is that none of these Greek words for love appear in John’s account of these sayings. Instead, when he quotes your commandment that we are to love one another as you have loved us, he uses ano-ther Greek word for love – agape – and says that this is the word that describes your love for us. It comes across as a love that is unconditional – self-sacrificing – active – volitional – a love that in its holiest and purest form is undeserved and independent of our attractiveness or worthiness – and that’s a new idea. We do not have to be likeable to be loved! So this is the love with which you love us and command us to love each other. Is that right, Lord? Then I’m on the right track.
If it is, to be perfectly candid, I’m happy you don’t appear to say anywhere that we have to like each other. That’s important because all of us know some people that are not very like-able. They’re in our churches – our families – our civic clubs – our towns – and they appear to have been in the ranks of your disciples as well. But that is cold-comfort because what you did command us to do is infinitely more difficult than liking each other. The historical novelty of your new commandment lies in loving others not because they belong to the same tribe or nation but because they belong to you. That actually sounds miraculous to me – and yet another reason we can be glad you didn’t tell us that we have to like each other.
It interests me that the Latin word for commandment is mandatum from which we get ‘mandate’ – a word that literally means “You will love one another. I command it, no ifs, ands, or buts about it, you must love one another!” So I think it’s striking, not that you would say it, but that you would order it as a mandate because mandate helps me understand the imperative of your commandment. “I give you a new mandate that you love one another as I have loved you”. And there it is – plain and simple – a commandment – a direct order – no wriggle-room – no debate – no choice.
Because this commandment was part of the conversation between you and your disciples in the upper room on the night before you died, I’ve wondered why this story didn’t come some-time in the Lenten lectionary – before the Passion – before your crucifixion – before Easter? But it seems important to John that, in your post-resurrection appearances, you continue to prepare your followers for the time when you will no longer be with them – and you talk about how they should behave once you are gone. In fact, John makes that point explicit later (15:4) when he relates the vine-metaphor and reports you saying, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me”. The grammar there is so similar to today’s gospel and your new commandment that my take on this is that we need reminders, long after celebrating your resurrection, that your work is not finished – that your followers are obliged to extend your incarnate love in their own lives.
In fact, I’m thinking now that this just may be the best understanding of why you gave us this commandment, Lord. We are to love each other as you loved us if we want to remain connected to you. That helps make this teaching clearer. Even though all sorts of things get in the way of loving each other as you loved us, because you so explicitly commanded it, I can see now that this is not an impossible possibility – an unreachable goal. The kind of love you require is not optional but reckless and uncalculating. I must relate to the unlovely – the undeserving – the unworthy – the unattractive – but not neglect the loveable and deserving and attractive – and do that with a love that is sacrificial and self-denying. In the end, your mandate is still a daunt-ing prospect for me. I’m unlikely to do it often and failure will be my constant companion, But, as John Wesley put it, I will strive to move on to perfection because I promised at my baptism – you being my helper – that I would keep your commandments. Your life will become my life when I display the traits of character and marks of virtue that exhibit the kind of person you created me to be.
In my better moments I think that now and then I have actually witnessed such a love in brief and fugitive acts – so despite all my questions I reckon it can be done. To be sure, these have been few and far between – and mainly performed by people in very intimate relationships, like spouses and parents. But however transient and evanescent, I think I’ve seen your self-sacrificing, unconditional love in its highest and purest form get acted out by human beings.
So maybe I’ve been wrong to think that your new commandment is my impossible pos-sibility. Perhaps you are seriously challenging me to try to perform this special kind of love even though I’m likely to fail more often than I will succeed. I’m thinking that Paul put it best in Philippians (3:14) when he said that he ‘presses on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called him’. Is this a better understanding of your new commandment, Lord? Well, thank you – I think you’ve helped me gain some clarity and I appreciate your listening. I know I still have a way to go and I’m glad this is not your final judgment. So I think my continuing prayer will have to be very simple and to-the-point – like “grant me, dear Lord, increasingly to conform to your will – help me to love others as you have loved me – and find me always faithful in trying to do that.”
But if you will excuse me now, I’ll get on with crafting that sermon.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.