21 May 2017

The Work of Love

John 14:15-24

Sixth Sunday of Easter

In John’s remarkable Gospel, the community that gathers around Jesus is summoned to love. “If you love me,” Jesus said, “you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15).  You.  The “you” is plural in the Greek.  So, a better translation would be, “you all” or, better still, “y’all.” “If y’all love me, y’all will keep my commandments.”  Jesus is talking to his disciples, he’s talking to a community of followers.  We’re the “y’all,” the church, you and me.  “If y’all love me, y’all keep my commandments.”

Unlike the other Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), John circles around a center point.  The Gospel circumambulates, that is, moves around in a circuit that leads to and flows from a center.  And that center is love.  Not generic love.  Not love as romantic feeling or sentiment.  That center is love, God’s love: God’s fierce and tender love enfleshed in human form, embodied in Jesus the Christ.  Love is the center and the ground of everything.  “For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes (or trusts) in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). Even stronger is the next verse, which tells us what God’s love does: “For God sent the Son, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:17).

In fact, John uses love verbs (agapao and phileo) fifty-seven times in his Gospel.  Matthew, thirteen times; Mark, six; Luke, fifteen.  The noun love (agape) is used seven times in John; Matthew and Luke use it once, and Mark never.  Friend (philos) appears six times in John; Matthew uses it once, Mark never, and Luke fifteen times. Only in John’s Gospels is philos, “friend,” used to describe Jesus’ followers. Jesus’ closest friend in John’s Gospel is known as the Beloved Disciple or the “one whom Jesus loved.”  Love is central to John’s understanding of Jesus.  It can’t be any clearer.  Love is what characterizes a follower of Jesus.

It’s so simple.  Why, then is it so difficult?  Christians aren’t the only loving people in the world, but we at least ought to be people known for our unique ability to love.  Shouldn’t we? We read in 1 John, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 Jn. 4:16b). If we claim a belief in God, if we identify as believers and followers, and if God is love, and we’re abiding in God, remain close to God, close in intimacy with God through prayer and action, then love should be more evident in the body of the Church.  And, yet, the history of the Church is marred with so much blood and sin and hatred and shallow, fearful thinking.  We have much in our history and in the present Church that needs mercy, pardon, and grace.  The Church has been complicit in countless atrocities over the centuries.  We need to repent and confess the wrong we have done.  And, in our age, the words “Christian” and “loving” are not synonymous for many—and we only have ourselves to blame.

Two weeks ago, today, I was in St. Andrews, Scotland, and went for a walk with friends down the East Sands, along the coast of Fife, with the North Sea stretching out before us.  It was the day after the funeral of my dear friend, Margaret Murray.  A group of us, mostly Murray family members, people I have known for twenty-seven years, talked about many things as we walked.  Eventually, the subject turned to Christianity and the Kirk, or the Church, in Scotland.  One comment has stayed with me.  It was said by friend Mark, a chap with a keen mind and sharp perception.  He said, “I blame the Church, especially the Church of the last five hundred years,” that is, since the Reformation, “for much that is wrong in Scotland today.”  That’s quite a statement.  He still sees himself as part of the Kirk and attends worship now and again.  His father was a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) minister (whom I knew).  His mother is a member of the Iona Community.  So, Mark knows the Kirk, intimately, especially as a child of the manse.  I wish we had more time to talk.  I wanted to go deeper.  I agreed with him—in part. In many places, the Church is hurting and Christianity is struggling.  I wouldn’t blame the Church, however, for all that is wrong in Scotland.  There is a lot of good in the Kirk today and Scotland is a remarkable nation.  However, the Church has a lot to answer for; it isn’t innocent.  This is true in Scotland and here in the United States, anywhere, for that matter.

Yes, I know, the Church is not perfect because it’s made up of imperfect, broken, wounded people.  As a minister, I know all too well about the fallenness of human nature.  The human heart can be a dark and destructive place.  “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), especially me.  “Sin abounds” (Romans 5:20).  But this language about fallenness and sin and falling short of God’s glory is the language of the Apostle Paul.  And while Paul might be correct about sin, it’s remarkable that in John’s Gospel, sin is mentioned many times, but the emphasis is elsewhere.  It’s about something else entirely. 

Jesus focuses on love.  In fact, in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that we have the capacity within us to love as he loved.  Jesus invites us to dwell or abide or rest in his love—to drop into his love—and live in the love that he knows and experiences when he dwells, abides, rests, drops into the love of his Father, when he abides in the love of God.  Jesus tells us that if we abide in his love, connect in and through and with this love, we are abiding in God’s love.  It’s all about the relationship.  John offers a relational theology.  And, Jesus insists that when we are abiding in his love and God’s love, we will be given the capacity to love as Jesus loved.  In fact, Jesus tells us—only in John’s Gospel do we hear—that we will do even greater works, greater than Jesus, when we abide in and with Jesus, who abides in God. 

It’s right here in John 14:12: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these….”

Let this sink in for a moment.  Go ahead.  I mean it.  Let it sink in.  Listen to this Word—not in your heads, but in your hearts.  “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these….” 

Allow this to sink into your psyche, to settle into your soul. 

Greater works.

It’s stunning to consider how much God trusts us and entrusts to us, how much confidence God has in us, how much God counts on us, and equips us, and expects from us.  Jesus doesn’t say, “To those who are perfect or really good or sinless, I will trust with my work.”  We might say this to ourselves.  Jesus doesn’t.  We might think these things.  When we hear God’s call in our lives—whatever the call might be—we might say, not I.  Not me.  Not us.  I don’t know enough.  I’m not good enough.  I’m not wise enough.  I’m not enough enough.  Not with my past.  Not with the things that I’ve done.  But Jesus never says this to his followers.  Jesus keeps it simple.  Yet we want to complicate things.  We’re good with coming up with all kinds of excuses for why God can’t love us or call us.  Jesus says: love.  We want to make it complex.  But, why do we like to make things more difficult than they really are?  Why do we make Christianity so difficult?  Why do we make Church so difficult?  Maybe that’s where our sin-nature takes over and carts us off into exile away from God, our neighbors, the church, ourselves. These are all defensive excuses and strategies that we hide behind.

“Greater works than these,” Jesus says to us.  “Whether we will do them is up to us; the fact that we can do them is because Jesus accomplished what he set out to do (Jn. 19:30),”[1] and now sends the Holy Spirit to accompany us in the work that is placed before us.  What is clear, here, is that there’s “no room for disciples of Jesus to dream small.”[2] And, yet, consider how many of us prefer to live small lives.  Lives that are too small for us, lives that prevent us living toward our capacity.  As the psychiatrist C. G. Jung (1875-1961) observed, “Most of us walk in shoes that are too small for us.”  The call of Jesus in our lives, however, is always toward greater love, toward greater enlargement, greater expansion of our hearts, our vision, our call; the call is never, ever toward diminishment. Never. Never. Never.

“If you love me,” Jesus said, “you will keep my commandments.” Now, we need to hear this verse from within John’s theological framework. When we hear the word “commandments” we probably think of the Ten Commandments, as well as the many sayings of Jesus throughout the Gospels, especially the parables.  You might think of all the things that Jesus tells us we’re supposed to do as his followers.  Such as, “Take up your cross and follow” (Luke 9:23).  But, you won’t find this in John.  “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:8).  You won’t find this in John.  “Forgive, not seven times, but seventy-seven times seven” (Matthew 18:22).  You won’t find this in John either.  Ironically, in John’s Gospel we don’t have a long list of things we ought to do our not do.  There are no commandments.[3] 

Actually, there is one commandment.  The only commandment that Jesus gives in John is this one: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:34-35).  “Love one another.”  That’s it.  So simple.  So profound.  Everything in John’s Gospel revolves around this command, this teaching.

This commandment is given because Jesus believes we are capable of actually loving one another, with his aid, otherwise why would he give it to us?  To suggest otherwise would be cruel.  We can’t love this way on our own, but we have the capacity to do so.  And, so in love Jesus sends a helper, an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, also known as the Paraclete, the parakletos.  The Paraclete means someone who is at our side, someone who comes alongside us and helps us, walks with us, encourages us, supports us, advocates for us, challenges us, enables us to live deeply in Christ.  We can’t love the way Jesus loves on our own.  Even if we have the capacity to love one another, that doesn’t mean that we do or want to, and certainly not all the time.  We need help.  Jesus says that he won’t leave us “orphans” (Jn. 14:18).

“Those who have my commandments,” Jesus says, “and keeps them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (Jn. 14:21).

And even the command to love, itself, is given in love! The command is not given to make our lives more difficult.  It’s given so that we can have richer, fuller lives, abundant lives—not in things, but in spirit, abundant in love (see Jn. 10:10).

And love is work.  We have to work at it.  Yes, the Spirit enables us.  Yes, grace is at work.  But we are also called to act, to work, to use our God-given capacities to live out our full humanity, the way Jesus used his God-given capacities and lived out his full humanity.  It’s work.  Ergo, in Greek, “work,” from which we get ergonomic.  Jesus is describing ergonomic love.

We have to do our part.  We have to bring ourselves to bear upon this work.  We can’t be passive.  We don’t love when we feel like it.  Love is not always contingent upon feelings.  Years ago, a wise Franciscan brother reminded me that “Love is a choice.”  We choose to love.  It’s a verb.  It requires action.  And a lot depends upon what we bring to the moment.

It’s been said, “All you need is love. Love is all you need.”  But, how do we love one another?  How do we do the work of love?  How does the Church increase its capacity to love?  How do we exercise this love here in community and beyond this community, in our relationships, our families, our neighbors, strangers we meet, colleagues at work.  How are y’all increasing your love for one another?

My friend Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855) reflected deeply on the nature of Christian love.  He said, “Our duty is to love those we see.”[4]  Our task is not to find the lovable object or person and then love.  A change of perspective is needed, a changed heart, in which we bring our love to bear upon an object or person that we, at first glance, might consider unlovable.[5]  We need clarity of perception in order to see. We don’t find the perfect person to love.  Love transforms how we see the other, allows the other to come into focus, not some idealized form, but the real thing.  You see the other with all her imperfections and flaws, you see the other with all his weaknesses and sins, and you love nevertheless.[6]

The practical theologian James Loder (1931-2011), taught me much about how God loves us and he taught me so much about how to love.  He said, “Love is the non-possessive delight in the particularly of the other.”[7]  It’s one of the best definitions I know.  Love can’t be possessive. If you’re going to delight in the particularly, in the uniqueness of the other, you need to see the other.  Love requires attention.  And love requires intention.  It’s a work.  Love is a verb, which means that we have to bring something of ourselves into the exchange.  You have to bring yourself, fully, to the moment, to the person, to the situation, to the circumstance. 

Several years ago, I was introduced to the writings of Kathleen Raine (1908-2003), a poet, a scholar of William Blake (1757-1827), a child of the manse. There’s one insight that I came across that took my breath away. She said, “Unless you see a thing in the light of love, you do not see a thing at all.”[8]  Just meditate on this insight for a while and let this sink in too. 

Love is the light that illumines the darkness, it’s that which allows us to see.  This means that without love our vision is distorted, even blind. We might think we see or know someone, but unless our gaze is mediated through love, then s/he remains invisible to us.  Without intentional love, all we see is what we project onto people, our wishful thinking, what we fantasize them to be, what we want them to be, or we project our fears, maybe even our hate. Through love a thing, a person, even God, comes into focus, becomes visible. Imagine this as the way God sees you, through love.  In love God really sees us and we know ourselves loved for having been truly seen. 

Try it yourself.  If you never really see a thing apart from love, then bring the full capacity of your love, work at it—ask the Holy Spirit to help you!—bring your full intention to something or someone, love it, love her, love him, love the stranger, love your enemy, love your fear, love your anxiety, love your grief, love yourself, love God, and then watch how your perception changes, if not in the moment, then over time.

Speaking of Jim Loder, in addition to being a theologian and professor, he was also a remarkable counselor who weaved together psychology and theology as he counseled students (including me) at Princeton Seminary. Jim shared with me the story of a woman who was plagued by dreams of a monster who was trying to attack her.  The images were debilitating.  Working with Loder, she did imaginal work with the dream. He invited her to go back into the dream, to face the monster coming after her. Then, fully supporting her in this experience, he invited her to love the monster, to have compassion toward the monster, to keep loving it. So she loved the monster.  And then it happened, in her imagination, the monster engulfed in love, split open, and inside was a frightened little child who was also in need of a lot of love.  The monster never returned in her dreams.  She came to love that inner child.  It was a turning point in her therapeutic experience.  “Unless you see a thing in the light of love, you do not see a thing at all.”

Everything comes back to love.  To the center.  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And his command is that we love.  Because we can.  Because the world needs us—needs y’all—to love.  Because the work that God is calling us to do with our lives requires nothing less than all the love we can give—and then some.


[1] Jaime Clark-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 95.
[2] Clark-Soles, 95.
[3] Jaime Clark-Soles, 96.
[4] Sören Kierkegaard, The Works of Love: Some Christian Reflections in the Form of Discourses (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962 [1847]), 153ff.
[5] Kierkegaard, 158.
[6] Kierkegaard, 170.
[7] See Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).
[8] Cited in John O’Donohue, Änam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (Harper Perennial, 1998), 65. I also recommend The Collected Poems of Kathleen Raine (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2001), and Kathleen Raine, William Blake (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000).

1 comment:

donsands said...

Jesus said:

"You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” . . . . “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. (John 8)

My point here is, that love without truth is nothing. Even the world has love. And John also tells us "Love not the world."