May 9, 2021
I was lucky to have fantastic roommates throughout college. For two years I lived in an apartment with Tonia and Ginger, both Virginia natives. We joked that we were a Bevy of Protestants – one Lutheran, one Episcopalian, one Methodist. They became – and have remained – the dearest of friends.
We tried to make it a policy that we would rotate having personal crises. No more than two of us at a time could be dealing with something stressful or upsetting – a huge exam or paper, relationship drama, a big concert or audition or election or some other extracurricular pressure. At least one of us needed to be calm and grounded enough at any given time to sit with the others and listen and offer support. And ice cream for real emergencies.
The only time I remember all three of us being completely overwhelmed at once was when the first Gulf war started. We watched the news and felt afraid, anxious. We had studied wars in history class. We hadn’t yet lived one that we could remember. That night we stopped to pray together – for our country, for our leaders, for all of us here and overseas who were in harm’s way. It helped not to be alone in our fear.
I recognize how precious that kind of love is – love that is unwaveringly present in times of difficulty but can also make you laugh at 2:00 in the morning with a routine that they claim could win the Miss America talent competition.
Not all relationships have that kind of mutuality. Some friendships are more imbalanced, with one person needing help or support almost all of the time without offering as much in return. Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes calls that kind of friendship a “missional friendship.” You accept that the other person is always going to need your help, and you make decisions about how much you’re able to keep giving.
Even some of our closest loving relationships can be skewed. I heard a mother this week reflect on the fact that when you do a good job of mothering, you almost never get credit for what you do. She said nobody ever recognized the years that she packed a lunch for each one of her kids to take to school. But her teenage son still remembers the one day in second grade when she forgot to include his dessert. All that time, all those lunches, all those many sacrifices. And he’s stuck on the missing dessert.
All of this is an important backdrop to hearing what Jesus has to say in today’s gospel. Let’s first understand the context for what he’s saying. This passage is part of the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John. Jesus has shared that final meal with his disciples. Judas has gone sneaking out the door. Peter is confused, as usual. Jesus has washed everyone’s feet, which only confused them more. Peter has sworn that whatever happens, Peter will lay down his life for Jesus. That’s what Peter says: “I will lay down my life for you.” Peter doesn’t yet realize that by the next morning, he will have pretended not to know Jesus – not once, not twice, but three times to save his own skin. Turns out that Jesus might have a missional friendship with us.
Jesus takes a few moments to say some parting words to the disciples. Not long before what we read today Jesus gives them his peace. He promises them the Holy Spirit will come to be with them. He reminds them (as we heard last week) that he is the vine to which they are always connected as the branches that will bear fruit.
But mostly Jesus talks about love. He talks a lot about love. He’s not maudlin or sentimental about it. He doesn’t make some kind of tearful plea. He simply reminds them about the kind of love that he has lived and shared.
The love of Jesus is an abiding love. A love where we can abide – remain – take up residence there and know that we will be held by that love. Jesus has received that kind of love from God, and so that’s the love that he in turn shares with all of us. Abide in me, he says. Stay with me. Remain in this love.
The love of Jesus is joyful: “I say these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” It doesn’t mean we won’t struggle or have hard times. But in the midst of those hard times, we rest secure that his love never abandons us.
All of that sounds great, but then Jesus gets to the harder parts. The love of Jesus is a commandment. Love one another as I have loved you. Jesus is not talking primarily about an emotion or a feeling or an attraction or sentiment. He is talking about an embodied love that attends to the needs of others. Jesus doesn’t just say to the man with leprosy “I love you.” He heals that man. He doesn’t just say to the woman at the well, “I love you.” He listens to her story. He responds to the specificities of her life and her difficulties, and he transforms her into an evangelist. Jesus doesn’t look at a hungry crowd on a hillside and say, “I love you.” He finds a way to feed them.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to tell the people you love that you love them. Most of us have someone we would give anything to be able to say those words to again. But Jesus is reminding us that love is something we are called to do in real and tangible ways – even, perhaps especially – when we are struggling to feel the warm, fuzzy feelings we’ve been taught to associate with love. There are moments in every loving relationship when the warm, fuzzy feelings aren’t there. When we feel exasperated or angry or betrayed or ignored. That’s when Jesus says: love anyway. Love one another as I have loved you.
I recently listened to a conversation between Episcopal priest and professor Barbara Brown Taylor and the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, who is the Pastor of Middle Collegiate Church in New York.[i] They talked about the many forms that love can take, some of them a flash and they’re over, while others turn into a forty-year commitment or more.
Barbara noted that we sometimes act as if there’s a requirement list for love. “It’s not love unless…” Which makes us, Jacqui observed, sometimes say, “Why bother? If I’m not going to get the A+ on love, why bother?”
They agreed that it was better to give up what they called “love accountancy” – keeping score and trying to grade the quality of love shared with someone else. At the same time, we can be accountable for what Barbara called those “long, expensive loves” – the ones that ask a lot of us and are hard – but worth it because they transform our souls.
Jesus tells us that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And not long after he utters those words, he does exactly that. He gives his life for his friends – his friends then and his friends now. He reminds us: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”
That’s the accounting that matters the most, and it does not work out as a balanced equation. Jesus gives everything for us. Jesus chooses us. Jesus loves us in a way we could never quantify.
How, then, will we love each other? Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ