Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Farewell Discourse III: Love"

John 15:12-17

Luke 10:25-37

      Let’s continue this morning with our Lenten sermon series from Jesus’ farewell discourse preserved for us in John’s Gospel.  In week one of this series, we dealt with the issue of servant hood.  Last Sunday, we talked about fear.  This morning, we turn our attention to servant hood’s greatest motivation, and fear’s greatest antidote.  That is love.  In order to sharpen our focus on an otherwise very broad topic, I’d like us to consider one aspect or feature of love.  So this morning’s emphasis: costly love.

          (Read John 15:12-17)

      A DC9 crashed on a runway at Philadelphia International Airport in 1985.  One of the flight attendants on board was Mary Frances Hausley.  As she stood at one of the emergency doors assisting passengers down an inflated slide to safety, she heard a woman screaming, “My baby! My baby!”  Upon hearing this cry for help, according to one of the surviving passengers, Mary Frances returned immediately into the flaming wreckage of the forward fuselage, not to be seen alive again.  As the twisted and burned hull of the plane was later searched for victims, her charred body was found draped over the child she had attempted to save.  The caption of Time Magazine’s story of the heroic gesture read: “SHE COULD HAVE JUMPED.”  Since then, we have heard story after story of folks making costly choices – even risking and sacrificing their lives -- for the sake of helping others; from New York to Las Vegas; from Houston to California; from London to Haiti.

      One of the challenges of the radical love Jesus lived and taught is that genuine love, after His example, hangs in there or gets in there when it would be so much easier to jump.  We come to name this self-sacrificial love, or unselfish love, or self-emptying love, or courageous love.  But at its core, that love to which Jesus calls His disciples of every generation is costly love; a love willing to take a risk; a love willing to – in fact - risk everything.

     Jesus presents this not as an option for a Christian, but as a mandate:  “This is my commandment, [not request, not suggestion] that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  New Testament commentator Gail O’Day calls this verse 13 of John’s chapter 15: “the most explicit and most demanding statement in the gospel of what it means to love in imitation of Jesus love.”

     Before we go any further, we should clarify what Jesus meant by laying down one’s life for “friends.”  Might it have been an option for Mary Frances Hausley to rationalize:  “I don’t know the little baby, or the baby’s family.  Sure, Jesus asks me to lay down my life for my friends.  But how about strangers?”   I am convinced that Jesus employs “friends” here in much the same way he used the word “neighbor” when talking one day to a particular lawyer.  Speaking on that occasion about the Kingdom demand of love, Jesus told the lawyer, “You shall love….your neighbor as yourself.”  When the lawyer, trying to justify himself, asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  -- Is it the guy next door, or another person in my village I’m to love like this?  Jesus replied with a parable about a good Samaritan; an individual who practiced costly love in saving the life of who? A friend?  The guy next door?  A fellow villager?  No. Not the guy next door. Not a fellow villager. Not even a stranger.  But to one who was an enemy.

    Extending this divine logic to the present passage, I tend to think Jesus’ use of the word “friend” is a term of inclusiveness, not limited by our narrow definition of friend.  The Greek word here for friend is philon, which suggests the idea of brother or sister in the broadest sense of a sibling in the human family.  So I believe when Jesus speaks of His disciples being required to lay down their lives – practicing costly love – for a friend, that means doing so for anybody who needs us, be that an unidentified victim lying naked and half-dead along the road to Jericho; or an unknown child perishing in an airplane on a runway in Philadelphia; or a businessman trapped in a burning sky-scraper in New York City; or a flood victim hanging out of a second floor window in Texas; or a person cowering on the ground trying to escape the bullets of a sniper in Las Vegas.  And of course the way Jesus lived, and the way Jesus died – and for whom Jesus lived and died – is the purest demonstration of costly, and courageous, and self-sacrificing love.  Jesus says in loving this way,He abides in us, and we abide in Him.  And in loving this way, we imitate Jesus.  We incarnate Jesus.  We show ourselves to be in the very image of Jesus.

      The late Bruce Thieleman, the distinguished preacher at 1st Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh in the 1980’s, once told a story of a church elder which showed what it means to incarnate Jesus’ commandment of costly love.  It goes like this:  A terrible ice storm had hit Pittsburgh, making travel almost impossible.  At the height of the storm, a church family called their pastor about an emergency.  Their little boy had leukemia, and had taken a turn for the worst – thorough dehydration and burning up with fever.  UPMC Children’s Hospital said to get the boy to the E.R. at once. But there was not an ambulance available, and the family didn’t own a car. 

      The pastor’s car was in the shop, so he called a church elder.  The elder immediately got in his car and began the treacherous journey.  The brakes were nearly useless.  The roads were so slick that he was unable to stop for signals and signs.  He had two minor accidents on the way to the family’s house.  When he finally reached their home, the parents brought out the little boy wrapped up in a blanket.  His mother got into the front seat and held her son while the father crawled in the back.  Ever so slowly, they drove to the hospital. They came to the bottom of a hill and as they managed to skid to a stop, the elder tried to decide whether he should try to make the grade on the other side, or whether he should go to the right and down the alley toward the hospital.  As he was thinking about this, he chanced to look to the right and saw the face of the little boy.  The youngster’s face was flushed, and his eyes were wide with fever and fear.  In an attempt to comfort the child, he reached over and tousled his hair. Then it was that the little boy said to him, “Mister, are you Jesus?”  Do you know in that moment, he could have said “Yes.”  For to that boy, Jesus’ love was present, and Jesus’ love was real.

     Jesus had said to His disciples a little earlier that evening, “Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”

      Now in connection with the love commandment, Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.  And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last….”  What does Jesus mean by “bear fruit?”  Produce works of love.  Do so freely.  Assume the cost.  Both Aristotle and Aquinas used the Latin word benevolentia from which we derive the English word benevolence –the love that, above all, wills another’s good.  The Jews call it “shalom.”

      As we examine our spiritual condition and posture during this Lenten season, do we have within us that capacity to extend costly love?   To freely bear the fruits of benevolence?  And not just to our spouses, our children, our parents, our friends – that’s the easy and low-cost part.  How about that person we work with who’s wronged us?  How about that fellow student who talks behind our backs, or trashes us online, or makes us look like a fool in front of other students? How about that next door neighbor who we wish lived about five neighborhoods away?  How about that sister or brother in our church family who disrespected our personhood with something they said or did?  How about the person we don’t know, but of whom we’re suspicious because they look different, or talk different, or have a lifestyle we don’t understand or agree with?  Do we have within us the spiritual chops to extend costly love, even to these?  It’s not easy.  In fact, there is only one source for such a capacity of spirit.  And we’re told to abide in Him, and allow Him to abide in us.  It is the One who perfected love; who pentultimately laid down His life – for His dear mother Mary; for His beloved friends Peter, James, and John; for His supporters Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.  And the One who laid down His life for Barabbas the murderer; for Mary Magdalene the harlot; for Judas Iscariot the betrayer; for Caiphas the High Priest; for Pontius Pilate the procurator, and for a billion sinners Jesus never met during the course of His earthly journey.  If the implications and demands of Jesus’ love commandment don’t have us fidgeting in our pews or behind our pulpit this morning, we may consider ourselves without a spiritual pulse. 

     Again, Jesus leaves us these parting words of His farewell discourse: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  What are we going to do in response to that…….today?