Preached by Rev. Rachel Johnson, May 10, 2015
Thank you for that lovely introduction Rev. Cheuk and for the invitation to be with you all today. I was remembering recently one of the last times I attended UBC as a UVA student. It was the final Sunday before graduation, which I guess today is as well, and you were an Associate here delivering the sermon. I remember you holding up a diploma and, referencing the stone called Ebenezer that the Hebrews had erected after God had helped them through a time of trouble, you told us the diplomas we were about to receive were our Ebenezers – hither by God’s help we had come, and God would lead us safely on. I haven’t forgotten that sermon, though I can safely say that sitting out in the pews that day it never occurred to me that my path would lead me to be preaching in this pulpit today.
I have been thinking a lot about goodbyes lately. It is natural, I suppose, as I prepare to change jobs and move from the place that has been my home for the last seven years, where I have made friends and built community. My mind keeps turning over questions of what I want to do before I leave, and, more importantly, what I want to say to the people I love and who have loved me so well. Now of course, with cellphones, gchat, skype, trains, planes, and buses, none of my goodbyes are final. I will speak with all the people I love again, probably the next day after I move. But all those thoughts were on my mind when I started reading today’s lectionary passage from the Gospel of John and realized that they are a part of Jesus’ own goodbye. Nestled in the middle of a long discourse that spans chapters 13-17, our passage today is part of Jesus’ final words to his disciples before he is arrested and crucified. The disciples didn’t know what was about to happen, but Scripture tells us that Jesus did and he knew he had to give them words to help ease their way, words that would sustain his frightened and grieving friends in the days to come, words that would communicate clearly all his hopes and expectations for how he wanted to be remembered by them: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love,” Jesus tells his friends. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love . . . this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
If you read through the entire four chapter discourse, this is what you hear Jesus saying over and over again: If you love me, keep my commandments. A new commandment I give you, love one another. Love one another as I have loved you. Over and over and over. You certainly can’t accuse Jesus of being subtle. But time was short, and the disciples didn’t have the best reputation for catching on quickly, and this was important. Even if they forgot all the rest, there was one thing, one thing Jesus wanted to make sure they got – love one another.
Our passage today comes from the section where Jesus calls himself the “true vine” and uses the metaphor of grapevines to describe God’s love. “I am the true vine,” Jesus says, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” I am grateful for this metaphor because frankly, without it I wasn’t quite certain what Jesus meant by all that abiding language in our passage when he says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” These are Jesus’ words of goodbye and he’s telling the disciples what he expects to remain after he is gone – he expects abiding love. You see, trite as it sounds, God is love, Jesus shows himself to be God’s Son by living a life of perfect love. We show ourselves to be Jesus disciples when, abiding in him as the branch abides o the vine, we bear the fruits of love. This is the one thing. This is the Gospel. “A new commandment I give to you: love one another as I have loved you.
What a great message to get to preach – and on Mother’s Day no less! All I have to do is recite a Hallmark card poem on love, read you all the children’s story of the Runaway Bunny, and then sit down. Except . . . except that Jesus doesn’t stop there. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for another.” Leave it to Jesus to not let us off easy. “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for another.” Try putting that on a greeting card and sending it with a box of chocolates. That’s the kind of saying of Jesus that makes the preacher wish the lectionary reading ended one verse earlier.
I tried to come up with a good illustration or story to ease us in to this verse. Something witty, and kind of lighthearted to make Jesus words a little more palpable, a little more relate-able. Lyrics to Top 40 hits are always running through my head and if you try hard – ok, really hard – you can usually pull out some theology. But I won’t subject you to any of the tortured hermeneutics I tried on Bruno Mars or Avicii. Countless movies very powerfully and movingly capture this theme of laying down one’s life for another. I crowd sourced this part of my sermon, asking for examples on social media and the responses came pouring in – Grand Torino, Dark Knight Batman series, the Matirx, LOST, the Lion King, Wrath of Khan, and Harry Potter. Anyone of them would make an excellent sermon illustration.
But still I struggled with what to do with this passage. The trouble is, I think Jesus means what he says – literally and unequivocally. These are the final words Jesus is saying to his disciples before he goes to his death. And despite their stumbling and fumbling, Jesus’ disciples knew that the path they had chosen could lead to their deaths as well. Earlier, when Jesus told the disciples that he was preparing to go where they could not follow, Simon Peter said “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” When Jesus told the disciples that he had to return to Judea after so angering the crowds there that they were likely to kill him, Thomas, of great doubting fame, said “Let us go also, that we may die with you.” For the disciples, to follow Jesus was to risk their lives. And lest we think we live in a time where people are no longer killed for their faith, we need only to remember Christians in the hands of ISIS, Jews in a supermarket in Paris, and three Muslim students in their apartment in Chapel Hill.
But honestly, following Jesus is not a risk for me. There is little chance of me losing my life for my faith. Now, there are vocations where people are often asked to lay down their lives for another – soldiers, police officers, firefighters, and even priests and pastors in contexts very different from my own. But not me. If I am being realistic, the chance that there would be an occasion in my job or any other part of my daily comings and goings where I will be asked to lay down my life for another is slim. So what am I supposed to do with Jesus’ words? What claims does this passage make on me? I think Jesus meant what he said, literally and unequivocally . . . and I think maybe, there is more than one way to lay down one’s life.
It’s Mother’s Day and it strikes me that the way that many of us can best understand this kind of self sacrificial love is by comparing it to the love of a parent for a child. I love my mother dearly and I have numerous stories that demonstrate just how much she loves me, up to and including how she made me this stole. She loves me so much, that I am certain that on this Mother’s Day she will forgive me for instead telling a story about my father. I was in elementary school, probably about 7-8 years old, and for some reason I can’t remember, I was having a rough day and did not want to be at school. Somehow I got the nurse to call my parents. My dad came and took me to the doctor who, after a quick exam, said there was nothing medically wrong with me. On the car ride home, I started to feel bad for the trouble I’d caused and I told my Dad I was sorry to make him leave work for nothing. That’s when my Dad told me that there was nothing he could be doing that he would not drop if I needed him. It was touching, but also, really? Nothing? Knowing how sacrosanct Saturday college football was in our house, I asked with some skepticism, you would even come get me if Clemson was playing? My father said yes, even Clemson football was not more important to him than me. That’s when I knew he meant it. Standing across from Mr. Jefferson’s university, we can question my father’s college allegiances, but greater love has no father than this, to lay down Clemson football for his daughter.
I tell that story because with the simplicity of a child it so fully captures the idea that there are things in life we love so much that by laying them down we demonstrate how much greater we love another. It’s tempting to end here, and have us all leave with the warm fuzzies in our hearts. But if I’m being honest with myself, and with you, if I did that, all I would be doing is returning this sermon to that Hallmark card and the tale of the Runaway Bunny. When I was a child, this is how I could understand love, but now I am grown and know there are greater things we can be called upon to sacrifice – yes, even greater than college football.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for another.” The love Jesus calls us to is a love that thinks of the other as much as we think of ourselves. It’s a love that sacrifices self for another, sometimes by literally laying down our lives, sometimes by laying down the things that define life for us. If we really think about it, there’s nothing new here. Jesus couldn’t have said what he wants from us any plainer than when he gave the two great commandments, love God, love your neighbor as yourself. And here’s where it gets hard, because Jesus is unequivocal. He doesn’t set boundaries on this kind of love, doesn’t say some people qualify and others don’t. I can imagine laying down my life for the people who mean more to me than life itself. Can I imagine doing it for my neighbor? Can I imagine doing it for a stranger? For my enemies? To fully love myself, I think of the things that are essential to me, that define my sense of self and my place in the world – that define my life. To love my neighbor as myself, can I imagine laying those essential elements to consider the life of another?
Following the recent riots in Baltimore, which happened a mere 20 miles from my home, I saw an image going around facebook that read, “Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it is not a problem for you personally.” Now, I don’t mean to start a conversation here about the varying complexities of privilege, but what I hear in that statement is a similar question to what I hear in the Gospel today. Can I lay down the things that define life for me, to consider the life of another? Being a white, middle class, heterosexual woman beloved by my parents is my life, it is who I know myself to be. Can I lay down my wonderful relationship with my mother to acknowledge that today is not just a day of celebration, but for many it is also a day full of grief for mothers and children lost, women who long to have children, and children of all ages who long to be loved by their mothers? Can I lay down my life that I know is valued and loved to reflect on what it is like to believe my life is worthless? Can I lay down my righteous assurance that I would never riot in the street to try to understand what it would be like to feel so hopeless, helpless, and full of rage that I thought I had nothing left to lose? Can I lay down my ability to get a civil marriage whenever and wherever I want, and consider what it must be like to have to argue before the highest court in the land for legal recognition? Can I lay down that one thing that I have poured my life in to, that was built with the strength of my back and mortar of my own blood, sweat, and tears, if doing so could show my love for another?
The night of the riots in Baltimore, CNN interviewed Pastor Dante Hickman as his church burned behind him. Earlier in the night Pastor Hickman had helped organize more than one hundred clergy in Baltimore to go out into the street and march for peace. Talking with the reporter he explained that burning along with his church were sixty units of housing for senior citizens, affordable housing units, and a transitions center that provided job training and low interest loans. The reporter asked why anyone would burn this and Pastor Hickman responded, “I think the reason someone chose to set this fire is the same reason these ministries are needed in this city. There are a lot of people out here tonight laying blame, but I’m not interested in that. When I look at this fire, I see revival. I see a church that will rebuild and will continue serving the community that so desperately needs us.” Abide in my love and you will bear the fruits of love, fruits that will last.
It was my housemate that said to me that asking what we are willing to lay down is the same as asking, what are we willing to stand up for? I think that’s true. But I also don’t think that’s all Jesus was saying here. Here’s the thing – and it is especially for the graduates out there, as well as all of us – there actually are a lot of things in this world we sacrifice our lives for. We sacrifice them for our jobs, for money, power, influence, for a sense of achievement, or a desire to feel valued, seen, wanted. This world and plenty of people in it – some of them even well meaning – have no shortage of things that they will gladly let you sacrifice yourself for, that they will tell you you have a duty to sacrifice yourself for. And over this cacophony of demands, as he prepares to lay down his own life, Jesus wants us to remember that there is just one thing, one thing worth laying our lives down for. Each and every one of you is a beloved child of God and your life is too precious, too wonderful, to live and die for anything but love. A new commandment I give you: Love one another as I have loved you. For it is only love that abides, only love that heals, only love that will redeem our world. Amen.