Love Is the Last Word

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Rev. Dr. Christopher C. F. Chapman, Knollwood Baptist Church
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
May 17, 2009
John 15:9-17

“What’s Love Got to Do with It?” Well, for starters, “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.” “Love Makes the World Go Around.” And “Love Is Like Oxygen.” Further, “Love Don’t Cost a Thing.” So, “Love Me Tender.” And “Love Me Do,” “Love of my Life.” Because “L-O-V-E.” “Love Is All We Need.” You get the point. Love is perhaps the most overused word in our vocabulary and yet love is the most important thing in the world.  Thus, the answer to the question, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” is, “Everything!” Everything…

Aldous Huxley put it this way:

Of all the worn, smudged, dog’s-eared words in our vocabulary, ‘love’ is surely the grubbiest, smelliest, slimiest. Bawled from a million pulpits, lasciviously crooned through hundreds of millions of loud speakers, it has become an outrage to good taste and decent feeling, an obscenity which one hesitates to pronounce. And yet, it has to be pronounced, for, after all, Love is the last word.

Indeed, love is the last word. It has the final say. When all else has passed away, love will remain.

Consider Jesus’ words in today’s reading from John. They are part of what we call the farewell discourse, a narrative unique to John which presents Jesus’ last words spoken to his first disciples. It is significant that he chooses to talk about love, God’s love revealed in him and our calling to love as he has loved.

Jesus could have chosen to talk about a great many other things such as exactly when he would return, before or after the great tribulation; precisely how his followers should worship God, with robes and liturgies and pipe organs or electric guitars and pull-down screens and casual attire. Or perhaps he could have given us the final word of truth on an array of issues ranging from abortion, capital punishment, stem cell research and church/state ethics to race, gender, sexual orientation and the environment. But alas, no, he chooses to talk about love. Is Jesus simply not up to speed? Is he limited by his times? No. He just believes that our love for one another trumps all other issues, ALL other issues.

The message for the church is that there is nothing more important in our shared life than love, our love for God and our love for one another. Love is what attracts us to church in the first place. Love is what keeps us here, binds us to one another through many ups and downs, many joys and challenges. Love is the very first quality any church must get right to prove faithful to God and to attract new participants in our shared life.

Jesus puts it this way. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…” He is building upon the imagery of the vine which our youth explored last week. Jesus is saying that our lives are intertwined with his and God’s and the thing that holds us all together, like a vine that holds on to the small branches, is love.

Now, this may seem like the most obvious thing in the world to say – love comes first in the church. Why should we have to state the obvious? Because sometimes it is easy to lose sight of the obvious and thus allow other things to diminish or obscure our love. A retired minister in another setting once said of a dear yet challenging woman in that church, “She has a lot of fire but not much warmth.” Everyone there knew immediately what he meant by the phrase, and so do we. We know people who are very intense, who express a great deal of passion about the things they believe, but who seem to lack genuine warmth, authentic love.

It is an unfortunate mix of qualities in an individual and in a church. There are churches which have a great deal of fire but not much warmth, churches which believe many things passionately but don’t seem to share much love. Better put, all churches can be tempted to lose sight of the centrality of love, and this is not good.

For we can believe all kinds of things about God and have all the right positions on ethical issues, whatever those are, but if we don’t have love, who wants to be part of the church? We can have great ministries for all ages, the best staff, the most up-to-date programs with all the whistles and bells, but if the people of the church don’t genuinely love each other, who cares? We can have the best maintained buildings and grounds, the latest equipment and technologies, the perfect organizational structure and communications systems, but if we don’t want to be with each other, the buildings will eventually be empty. We can even claim to have a passion for missions, want to share God’s love with people around the globe, but if we do not love for the person sitting next to us, our passion will be all fire and no warmth.

All of these other things matter, just not as much as love.

Further, Knollwood is a loving community. I have experienced much love here, as has my family. I offer no thinly-veiled critique.  Listen, I’ve got nothing to lose, I am a short-timer, a lame duck; if I felt like we were unloving, I would say so! My point is every church is tempted to lose focus, to get so caught up in things we think we need to do that we forget that who we are matters more.

For no matter what we do well, and this church does many things well, the most important thing to remember is how much God loves us and how much we love God and each other in return.  There is an old story about a boy who walked past many churches in all sorts of weather to get to one particular church.  When someone finally asked him why he didn’t go a church nearer to him, why he walked all the way to that one church, he replied, “They really know how to love a fella’ over there.” That is the kind of story which speaks to the authenticity of any church, to the right any community has to claim the name of Jesus.

And yet, Jesus does not just call us to love one another and make this love the central feature of the church; he calls us to love as he has loved us. This means we act in the best interest of others, not simply have warm and fuzzy feelings for them. Much has been made of the fact that there are different Greek words for love and one which applies most often to God’s kind of love – agape. Yet the distinction is not quite so clear in the Greek New Testament. God’s love is unique but different Greek words are used at times for God’s love and followers of Jesus are called to share agape. We have a feast at Christmas which bears this name.

What is perhaps more significant is how much more often the verb form of agape is used than the noun form. In the Gospel of John the verb is used 37 times while the noun is used only 7 times.  This may seem like splitting grammatical hairs, but love is something we do for others, in terms of the grammar and syntax, and in light of Jesus’ example.

Think for a moment about how Jesus loves. He meets people wherever they are in life, seeks to understand them, call out the best in them, and then he offers help for wherever people are hurting or in need. He feeds the hungry, heals the sick, forgives those who carry heavy burdens of guilt, welcomes and accepts outcasts, offers guidance for those in search of a new direction, teaches all in need of enlightenment, delivers those who are oppressed. In short, his love finds expression in tangible acts designed to meet the deepest needs of others.

Thus, if we are to love one another as Jesus has loved us, we act in the best interest of others. We begin by meeting people where they are, seeking to understand them and call out the best in them. Then, we offer help where it is needed. I have seen all of this at Knollwood. We meet people where they are and try to understand them. We try to call out the best in people, most recently by helping folks identify their gifts and ways to use them.

And when people are hurting, we seek to offer healing and hope in the most practical ways – a call, note or personal visit; assistance with some practical task like cooking a meal or raking leaves; being present at a time of need, listening to another’s pain, lifting up a prayer of concern. In all of these ways and more, we love as Jesus has loved us, through action, through words and deeds.

Of course, if we are to love as Jesus has loved us, there is one more little detail to note; well, perhaps not so little. Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” There is nothing overly complicated here. The teaching is clear. Jesus loves his friends so much that he is willing to give his life for them. If our love for one another is to reflect his, it includes this willingness to sacrifice all on behalf of others.

It sounds almost cult-like, doesn’t it? It sounds extreme, radical, dangerous, and those who have taken Jesus seriously at this point have encountered danger. Bishop Oscar Romero stood up for the rights of the poor in El Salvador and was assassinated by a right wing group just after he finished a sermon. Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior refused to keep quiet about the sin of racism in this nation and was assassinated for his convictions. Mother Teresa was not killed for her work, she did not give her death for others, but she gave her life for the poor and the sick.

Countless numbers of soldiers have given their lives to save others. Countless numbers of the faithful in Rwanda sought to provide refuge during tribal warfare only to suffer violent death.  There are so many examples of people making incredible sacrifices, and yet they all seem so removed from our daily reality.

What does this business of laying down life have to do with us? Perhaps we might think of laying down the life we live for others and not just death, giving of ourselves completely to another, giving willingly, lovingly, sacrificially all we have – like the caregiver looking after the spouse or parent who cannot look after him/herself anymore, like the parent staying with the child with addictions or emotional illness or special needs not just through a normal childhood but all of life, like the neighbor who becomes more than a neighbor because more is needed.

We know about this kind of laying down life for others. Jesus says there is no greater love than this. This is how we are called to love.

And yet, the calling is so radical that it is easy to miss the last part of it which is significant. Jesus says that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends and in the process he calls his disciples friends. In contrast to the normal way of relating as teacher/student, messiah/servant, master/slave, Jesus says his relationship to his followers now is as friend to friend and, as a result, he will share everything. What this says about our love is that any community which claims the name of Jesus has a calling to move away from hierarchical relationships toward a way of relating where all have value, no one looks down on anyone and no one has to look up. For, if even Jesus relates to us a friend, as an equal, how can we treat anyone else any other way?

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann put it this way (The Passion for Life, p. 33).  “Congregation, then, is no longer the sum of all those who are registered as members on the church rolls. Congregation is rather a new kind of living together for human beings that affirms: that no one is alone with his or her problems, that no one has to conceal his or her disabilities, that there are not some who have the say and others who have nothing to say, that neither the old nor the little ones are isolated, that one bears the other even when it is unpleasant and there is no agreement, and that, finally, the one can also leave the other in peace when the other needs it.”

That is the nature of the church, how we relate to one another, how we love as Jesus has loved us. We regard all others as friends, partners, people we are called to love by laying down life. When we do, Jesus says we will know joy. “I have said these things (about love) to you,” he says, “so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” Anyone who has loved as Jesus loves knows what he means. Love isn’t just a command or obligation. It is the path to joy!

Paul Tillich once asked an interesting question (The New Being). “Is our lack of joy due to the fact that we are Christians, or to the fact that we are not sufficiently Christian?” When love, Jesus’ kind of love, is involved, there is always plenty of joy to go around.

Yesterday’s paper included an article written by Cathleen Falsani about the 10-year-old AIDS orphan from Malawi she and her husband have adopted. His name is Vasco and, in addition to other challenges, he has a heart problem which will require surgery. Yet Vasco is not fearful or discouraged. On the contrary, he bubbles over with joy because of his new opportunities in life and because he knows he is loved. Every little experience, for example, just the sight of a Ferris wheel for the very first time, excites him. Vasco is joyful because he knows he is loved and it is obvious that those who love him are joyful too.

That’s the way love works, especially Jesus-love, life-giving and self-sacrificing love. It is more contagious than AIDS or any other virus. It is powerful and transforming. It produces incomparable joy. It is rightfully the last word, the very best word we have, thanks be to God, amen.

This sermon is part of a new series compiled by the NC Council of Churches in conjunction with our lectionary-based worship resource Acts of Faith.  We believe that issues of peace and justice can be expressed in the worship life of congregations, and we remain committed to providing accessible and relevant resources to make this a reality.  This sermon was used with the permission of the author, and the views expressed in it are solely the author’s. Please contact us if you are interested in submitting one of your sermons for consideration.

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