Rev. Beth Hoffman Faeth
May 9, 2021
Scripture: John 15:9–17
“As God has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. Live on in my love. And you will live on in my love if you keep my commandments, just as I have kept God’s commandments and abide in God’s love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from God. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that God will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
The couple looked at me as if I had just asked them to solve for x in a quadratic equation. I had seen this look before, many times, but still it’s a question I ask every couple preparing for marriage. And each time I ask it, I hope for an inspiring response. But the pained expression had become familiar.
“Why do you want to get married?” I had asked.
And just like almost every other couple before them, there was a pause, a sideways glance, a quizzical look, a furrowed brow, and then the answer I had come to expect, in a voice both incredulous and accusatory, this time from the bride:
“Because I love him,” she said. “I really, really love him. Isn’t that enough?”
Isn’t love enough? Unequivocally, I would say no. Love is not enough to sustain an enduring relationship. Love does not pay the bills; it does not prevent extramarital affairs; it does not reconcile irreconcilable differences. Love does not smooth over all the rough edges between two people, and it can not be used as a scapegoat to solve some real life problems. Love is not the be-all and end-all of a successful marriage . . . or any relationship for that matter. Those of you who have had persevered in any kind of affiliation—romantic or otherwise—know that patience, tolerance, acceptance, humor, accountability, forgiveness, kindness, and hard work are as necessary as love . . . at least the kind of love we tend to associate with romantic connection. A different kind of love, a love that leads us to new understandings, a fierce love: maybe that is enough.
As we planned and plotted this post-Easter sermon series on stewardship, I was excited to preach on the stewardship of love, until I began to put serious work into this message. These ideas of Jesus from the gospel of John are both preparation and instructions for his disciples as Jesus works to accept his imminent death—the appointment of friendship, the commandment to love one another, these are not new to us. Whether one has been associated with a church for ten days or ten decades, we Christians are good for throwing around this mandate like we have any idea of actually understanding what Jesus meant. And so many sermons have been preached on the directives of those three words: Love one another. But—honestly?—everything we have ever known or been taught about this commandment falls flat for me right now. The world continually reminds us how cruel humans are; how violence and access to guns wreak havoc on communities once considered idyllic; how people of color are at risk for their very lives over something as mundane as a burned-out taillight; how leaders called to serve instead do their very best to divide, their factions and blind followers waving flags and inciting violence; how people continue to debate that which we are called to proclaim: Black lives matter; how little people care for the land, for our water supply, for the quality of our air, for the possibility of any safe environmental future. Humans are all caught up in their right to carry weapons, their right to not wear a mask in the midst of a pandemic, their right to scream vitriol at another because of the color of skin. Toss out the words “love one another” right now, and no one, it seems, is listening. And perhaps that is because that, try as we might, we cannot get past the understanding that love is the feeling we name when we really, really like someone or something. And that shallow understanding of love has been the pinnacle upon which so many failed relationships have died.
And while our minds say, with exasperation, Of course Beth, Jesus wasn’t talking about that kind of love: the butterflies in our stomachs kind of romantic feelings that the word “love” induces, yet for all the years that I have been talking about what kind of love Jesus is suggesting, I have yet to come to any transformative conclusions, except that, even if we are willing to name it, few of us are willing to live it.
What I do know is that, in order to live the commandment, we must reframe our understanding. As one commentator wrote, “We are called to greater word care: theologians are people who watch their language in the presence of God.” We are called to be theologians now, all of us . . . and take greater consideration with those words we carelessly use. The life of faith demands an expansion of understanding and deepening the meaning of scriptural mandates. We can no longer take these words for granted. To be a steward of love means to create a whole new definition that then orchestrates and prompts our actions in our hurting community and world.
There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
This line, which can easily get lost in a sea of other significant verses about love, asks us to evaluate who and what we are willing to die for. What does love look like in the face of great risk? To love is to be for another, to act for another, even at cost to oneself. For many of us, love and friendship lie in feelings, and no one can command feeling; we do not even command our own. Love in this gospel is not a feeling, it is being for the other person and acting accordingly. Emotions are not absent, neither are they central. Love is a theological virtue—an excellence of character that God has by nature and in which we participate by grace. Such love is interested in the well-being, safe living, sacred keeping of the other, rather than the shallow feel-good sentiments of the self.
Due to antiracist work I am committed to with the Minnesota Conference of the UCC, I have become friends with two women, which has quickly become a most gorgeous blessing in my life. We have co-facilitated a book study with people all over the state and have just begun a monthly “racial healing roundtable,” providing an opportunity for folks to talk about what is happening in their communities and what an individual and collective response could look like. One of my new friends, Rebecca, is Asian American and clergy, and she lives on the Iron Range. Her experience and perspective has helped me make some necessary pivots in my thinking and responses, and our friendship is rooted in a fierce love that has been one of the greatest gifts of this unsettling time. In a conversation with both Rebecca and Jill this week, where I was bemoaning my lack of direction with this particular scripture and sermon, they both shared some important insights. Later, Rebecca sent me an article and wrote:
The idea of what it means to “lay down one’s life” out of love–not in the physical sense although sometimes that too, but (rather) I believe we are being called to lay down some of the key tenets our lives or society is built upon and let them die. Out of love, what things in our society and in myself must die if we are ever to have resurrection? It is a question we are called to wrestle with as Christians.
Thank you, Rebecca, for helping me to reframe this mandate of laying down one’s life and for reminding me that we are in a season of resurrection—we are to be ushering in new life—and the reality is we cannot have a resurrection without a death. How does Jesus’ radical understanding of love point us towards what we are willing to let die? Jesus calls for acts of love with staying power: caring that costs us something; honest conversations that lay foundations for new beginnings; commitment to the community that sets aside personal preference to see the common good. And this kind of fierce love isn’t going to make us feel all gooey inside and turn our eyes into heart shapes. This kind of love means going to places we have never been, saying things we have not yet said, moving so far out of our comfort zone we no longer recognize ourselves. What are we willing to lay down in love for the other? How about those things that keep us cozy in a web of privilege, how about our fear of drawing attention to ourselves, how about our concern over what we just may have to risk in order for some kind of revolutionary change to occur? Maybe we could lay down all those things that keep us from making any difference at all because it feels scary, unfamiliar, or makes us vulnerable. In our vulnerability, we might just find the core of this fierce love. We will never know unless we are willing to be different than we are right now. What might the world look like if we were only willing to be, to act, to do differently than we are right now?
Professor of Preaching Gennifer Benjamin Brooks says it this way:
What if laying down our life in love means setting aside all that one believes about others, [crucifying] the prejudices that prevent or stifle friendship, so as to join others in being truly the Body of Christ? What would it take to set aside even for a moment the familiar and the cherished, whether simply beliefs or practices, in order to stand in for another, especially someone different, perhaps even someone on the margins? It is a serious charge, a dangerous charge, and a life-risking endeavor. But Christ requires it of the church that is committed to bearing fruit that will last. And it is Christ who says: “I am giving you these commands so that you will love one another.”
Friends—and I call you friends with great meaning; I do not do so lightly—our cruel world is untenable. Let us do the work we need to do to bring about resurrection. Let us lay down all of our prior understandings of love and instead becomes stewards of fierce love—an action, not a word. The life we save might just be our own.
David S. Cunningham in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds.
Fred Craddock, et al., Preaching through the Christian Year C.
Gennifer Benjamin Brooks, “Commentary on John 15:9–17,” Working Preacher.