Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"The Commandment of Love"

Text: John 15:1-17

Philippians 2:1-11

 

Once upon a time, there was an elderly man who lived alone. Well, not really alone. He had a beloved dog named “Snooks.” The love between the man and his pet had deepened through the years, but both had begun to feel the pain and the burden of age.

At sixteen years of age, Snooks could hardly walk, and was covered with an irritating rash. With great sadness, the man carried the dog to his car, laid him on a blanket on the back seat, and drove to the veterinarian.

            Upon their arrival, the vet asked, “How can I help you?” The man answered, “First, I must ask you a question. Do you love animals above everything else?” “Pretty near,” the doctor replied. “I love God first, and then I am able to love and care for animals.” “Then I’m afraid I must go elsewhere,” said the man. “This dog is my best friend, and I feel I can trust him only to the care of a doctor whose first love is animals.”

            Jesus is at table with His disciples in the upper room. They are supping for the last time together before Jesus’ departure. Knowing that, Jesus had an important lesson for them, and for us. Here is what He taught, and continues to teach:

            (Read John 15:1-17)

            This teaching is about first loves, and about ultimate devotion. Jesus uses the metaphor of a vine, which would make a great deal of sense to agriculturally-savvy hearers. As branches are attached to the vine, so God grafts or attaches us to God’s self through Christ. Holy baptism is one way the church liturgically and visibly declares that very thing. Then through ongoing celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we are reminded of that perpetual grafting into God through the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. And because of this relationship between us and God through Christ, we are able to “bear fruit” for the purposes of God’s Kingdom. This morning’s lesson identifies this “fruit” as love.

            Earlier in the gospel, the evangelist John affirms that God the Father so loved the world that God gave His only Son. And the Son Jesus so loved the world that He offered up His own life on the cross at Calvary. Now Jesus speaks to His disciples about abiding in His love just as the branch abides – remains connected – to the vine. Through this connection, we remain in God’s love, and thus can be connected in love to one another. Seems like pretty good logic. Love flows from God to Jesus, then to us who in turn share this love with others. What could be easier? But then we come to verse 12 where Jesus moves beyond merely asking us to love. Now He commands, demands, requires us to love. And here we run into an apparent problem. How can love be commanded, demanded, required? Is not love a choice, an act of the will? As we look around in our Monday through Friday world, how many people do we work with or go to school with, for example, with whom we don’t like to deal, or even wish weren’t there? “Love them? You’ve got to be kidding!” As we look around in our lives of leisure and recreation, how many people are therewith whom we don’t like to socialize, play golf, go fishing, or sit next to at the baseball game? Love them? You’ve got to be kidding!” As we look around the world to troub led people in troubled areas, of how many of those people and areas do we declare, “I don’t want to be within a mile of them. Love them? You’ve got to be kidding!” And if we think love is tough, what about Jesus’ explanation of this commandment, that we are to love one another in the same way He loves us? Jesus explains: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The commandment to love one another to the extent that one is willing to give up his or her life for a friend means a willingness to experience rejection, suffering, and even death, just like Jesus. That’s a real tough commandment! Yet if many of us were in a situation where the consideration of dying for a friend arose, chances are good we’d be willing to make the sacrifice.

            So maybe the major issue is not whether we would be willing to die for friends. Perhaps the primary concern, and the force of this commandment, is whether we – like Jesus – would first be willing to make friends with people we consider unlikeable, unlovable, the problem people at work, school, recreation, social life, the world at large. How can we possibly obey this command of our Lord to consider a friend anyone else in our vast human community, then to love them with an unconditional and sacrificial love? May I suggest a few practical ways we can begin to do this.

            First and foremost, I think we need, as they say, to “get over ourselves.” So often in our human condition of self-centeredness, we tend to make ourselves the center of everything -our values, our cultural, political, religious beliefs, our social status, even our physical appearances. We then make ourselves the measuring stick of everyone and everything else. So rather than seeing others who perhaps do not share our values, beliefs, status, appearance as different, we view them as less than. The sinister nature of this is that we often make these judgments without even realizing it. Paul in his letter to the Philippians urges us to imitate Jesus Christ in His humility when he writes: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” This idea stands counter to our prevailing cultural values which, in myriad ways, encourage us to make ourselves our own objects of worship. We do so through the pursuit of our ambitions [often at any cost], attaining success [often climbing over others], and proving ourselves to be a cut above. The very nature of this positions us to look down upon others who don’t think, act, or look like us. How then can we consider them friends for whom we’d be willing to sacrifice, even to lay down our lives for their welfare?

            So secondly, we need not only recognize and respect differences. We need to be willing to engage and listen to those who embrace different values, who subscribe to different beliefs, who live in different social contexts, who look different than us. Sometimes when we dare break out of our sometimes tiny orbits of self-interest, and dare hear the voices of others – and to listen with open ear, mind and heart -we just may learn something; not only about the person we’re engaging, but about ourselves. Only then can we positively respond to what Paul says next in his letter to the Philippians: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

            Third, practice the “golden rule”: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. I don’t think there’s a legitimate religion on earth that would not assent to this rule. In spite of any and all differences there may be, this is the great equalizer. All of us desire to be treated with respect, kindness, understanding, and appreciation for who we are. As in so many things, the measure we give is the measure we get in return. So with few exceptions, when we treat others with respect, kindness, understanding, and appreciation, it will come back to us. When we get right down to it, the true expression of any friendship – old or new -is rooted in this golden rule principle. And only in living by this golden rule principle are we able to love others to the extent that we are willing to sacrifice for them at any level, even to the degree of giving up our own lives. What’s really neat about the golden rule thing is that when it lives in us, we unconsciously act in response to it; i.e. we help without even giving it a second though; not worrying about the consequences, not fearing the repercussions, doing only what we would hope and expect others would do for us. That’s what heroism looks like.

            Finally, look for the good in others, whatever differences may exist. Instead of focusing on liabilities, focus on assets. This is something which marked Jesus’ ministry day in and day out. For instance, instead of seeing Zacchaeus the tax collector for his life of greed, dishonesty, and opportunism, Jesus saw the man as a child of Abraham, one worthy of forgiveness and redemption. Instead of seeing the sinful woman about to be stoned for her life of immorality, usury, and personal degradation, Jesus saw the woman as a child of the covenant, one worthy of forgiveness and redemption. Instead of seeing the thief dying next to Him on a cross for his life of cheating and stealing, Jesus saw him as a child of God, one worthy of forgiveness, redemption, and even a place with Him in paradise. Of these three and many others, Jesus made friends; friends for whom He was willing to sacrifice everything, even His mortal life.

 

            Near the conclusion of this lesson, Jesus says: “You did not choose me but I chose you….. to go and bear fruit….. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” With reference to the story of the man who took his beloved Snooks to the vet, can God trust us enough to love and care for God’s best friends, all the people God has created? Can God count on our first love being for others? Only by remaining connected to God through Christ, as the branches remain connected to the vine, can we hope to live out such love, even among those of whom we once may have said: “Love them? You’ve got to be kidding!” Even as we receive again the blessed Sacrament this morning, may the love of God through Christ flow to us, in us, and through us.