A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on May 6, 2007.
Based on John 13:31-35 (5 Easter, Year C).
In her 1984 hit song Tina Turner asks the musical question, “What’s love got to do with it?” No, I won’t sing it for you – no one wants to hear their priest singing Tina Turner from the pulpit. But in light of John’s gospel the answer to the question “What’s love got to do with it” is “quite a lot.” In fact love has everything to do with it because it is love that stands at the very heart of Jesus’ message. And so in some of the last words spoken to the disciples before the crucifixion Jesus tells them, “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.”
It’s easy to speak in generalities about love. Love is nice; we like love. We like Valentine’s Day and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. Love-speak covers a multitude of sins. Whole systems of faith use the underlying premise that since God loves you anything goes. And so it’s important to dig a bit deeper. Otherwise you end up with nothing more than sentimentality, which is decidedly not at the heart of Jesus’ message.
There used to be a radio station that played nothing but love songs. 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This was their big selling point; it’s what made them stand out in the crowded FM market place. So they played nothing but songs like “What’s love got to do with it? and “I just called to say I love you” and, well, anything by Kenny G. While I guess they had enough listeners to be relatively viable, to me it sounds like the third ring of hell.
The problem is that when people think of love, it’s this type of romantic or sentimental love that comes to mind. And that’s not what Jesus is talking about when he gives the disciples this New Commandment: to love one another as I have loved you. This isn’t superficial “love song” love, but the authentic self-sacrificial agape love of Jesus Christ.
Now at a certain level this commandment wasn’t new at all. It was at the heart of the Torah — love your God with all your heart and mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself. Love wasn’t invented by Jesus; it existed from the beginning. “God is love” as we hear elsewhere in John’s gospel. What’s new is that this love derives from the incarnation, from Jesus’ entering the world in human form. So Jesus is the essence of this love; Jesus is the tangible sign of God’s love for humanity. And the newness of this commandment is that through our relationship with Jesus Christ we are drawn into this love that marks the relationship between the Father and the Son. Jesus is calling the disciples, and us, into a community based solely on this love. And that is new; that is exciting, that is the essence of what it means to live in Christian community.
But the soundtrack of our lives is so much more than sappy love songs. Love is the basis of our existence but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t pain and doubt and questions and every other emotion that you won’t find on a station that plays nothing but love songs.
People often wonder how nastiness and division and rancor and spite can take place within a church community. Being bound together by love unfortunately doesn’t mean that this other stuff can’t creep in. It happens in the worldwide church and it happens within local congregations. If the church’s witness to the world is to model love, we often don’t do a very good job of it in our dealings with one another. Just pick up a news story about the goings-on in the Anglican Communion. Or better yet, start reading some church blogs. Christians often exhibit some of the most un-Christian behavior.
But betrayal even took place at the Last Supper. The church is an exceedingly human institution striving to live into this new commandment of love. And so it’s telling that Jesus’ commandment to love one another is set against the backdrop of betrayal and crucifixion. He’s not standing on a scenic mountaintop or on the calm waters of the Sea of Galilee. He’s in the Upper Room, having just been betrayed by one of his disciples and on his way to the cross. A seemingly odd time to talk about love. But not when you consider that this love of which Jesus models and speaks is stronger than death. That it is not cheap love or sentimental love, but the true love of God. This love has no limits or boundaries; it is a love so powerful that it transcends even death. And through it the crucifixion becomes not merely a sacrifice, but an act of love.
This commandment to love one another may be the hardest commandment of all. It rolls off the lips, like the words to a love song, but in practice it takes a lot of hard work. In some ways it’s a lot easier to love our enemies because we don’t have to hang out with them. We can keep them at arm’s length and maybe pray for them occasionally. It’s a lot harder to love those to whom we are bound through community or family or work. We’re stuck with them, we see them all the time, and Jesus demands that we love them. As annoying or aggravating as they may be. I know you’ve got someone in mind as I say this. I know I do. And I bid you to reach out to that person this week and share at least a little bit of love.
Jesus offers up a vision of what it means to live by loving one another as he loves us. It is something humanity has been trying to live into for over 2,000 years. “What’s love got to do with it?” Absolutely everything.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2007