May 6, 2018 – Easter 6B
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Jesus taught us to call God our Father. “Every time you pray,” he said, “pray like this: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.’” But it is more than a term of address. Jesus showed us that God cares for us the way a parent cares for his or her children. “Who among you,’ Jesus asked, “when your child asks for a fish, would give him a snake instead? Just as you, evil people, know how to give your children good gifts, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things—even the Holy Spirit—to those who ask him?” Jesus showed us that God loves us tenderly the way a mother hen cares for her baby chicks, gathering them under the shelter of her wings. And all of that is true, of course: God does love us the way that a parent loves her or his precious child. But today’s gospel lesson reminds us that the love that God has for us is much more than that.
God loves us and invites us to call him Father (or Mother), but God doesn’t love us because God is our heavenly parent. He loves us because that’s who God is, and it is the love that God has for us that makes us God’s children—not the other way around. The love God has for us is agápē—divine love, unconditional love. And, as much as you might love your children and as much as your parents might love you, the love between parent and child isn’t agápē; it’s storgē. Storgē is the love of family, the love of parent, the love of child. Agápē is something different. Although it’s possible that the love you have for your children is unconditional, I’d be surprised if you really loved them without any regard for who they are as your own children.
Unconditional love is…unconditional. It isn’t predicated on who someone is. It doesn’t presuppose a relationship. Usually, we think of unconditional love as a love that does not depend on what you do or whether you love me back. For example, even when your impudent teenager slams her bedroom door and screams out, “I hate you,” you still love her. She’s your daughter. You’re her parent. That’s nice. That’s sweet. But it isn’t agápē. Agápē isn’t the love you have for your unlovable child. It’s the unconditional love you have for a complete stranger—even when she slams the door in your face and screams, “I hate you.” That’s something else entirely.
All the way through today’s gospel lesson (and the epistle lesson, too, for that matter), the word that is translated for us as “love” is agápē. But there are some verbal tricks throughout this passage that Jesus uses in order to get us to ask ourselves whether we really know what agápē means or whether we have been taking it for granted all this time.
Jesus says, “Just as the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.” That seems straightforward enough. In the same way that God the Father has loved God the Son, so, too, has the Son loved us—with that perfect, reciprocal, unending, unsurpassable love that exists between the persons of the Holy Trinity. And, now that Jesus has loved us like that, what does he tell us to do? Abide in my love. Dwell in it. Remain in it. Endure in it. But how do we do that? How do we stay fixed in Jesus’ perfect love for us? “If you obey my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” So, let’s make sure we have this straight: Jesus has loved us with the same love that God the Father has for him, and he wants us to remain in that love by obeying his commandments just as he has obeyed the Father’s commandments. Got that so far?
And what are Jesus’ commandments? Actually, there’s just one of them: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” If it suddenly feels like the room is spinning, if you feel as though you are a cat that has been chasing its tail for the last three minutes, don’t worry. That’s perfectly normal. This is rather circular, isn’t it? But wait! Don’t give up yet. Finally, Jesus gives us a real-world context for this kind of love: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” But that isn’t the particular clarity we were looking for.
There are two traps hidden in these words: one is just below the surface, and the other takes a bit more digging to find. First, let’s examine the one that’s nearly impossible to miss. Jesus holds up for us the kind of love that he has in mind, the love that he is asking us to have for each other, and it’s going to cost us our lives? “Lay down one’s life for one’s friends?” You can’t be serious, Jesus. Agápē sounded like a beautiful thing before we knew that it was going to kill us.
Maybe the surrendering of one’s life for the sake of another is what Jesus has in mind. Maybe what it means to love each other the way that the Father has loved the Son and the Son has loved us is to sacrifice our lives for the sake of one another. But, two weeks ago, we heard remarkably similar words in the epistle lesson from 1 John 3, and they shed a different sort of light on what John thought that Jesus meant:
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (1 John 3:16-18)
Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to do the same. But what does that mean? It means devoting the resources we have without hesitation to help a brother or sister in need because, having laid down our lives for their sake, we no longer distinguish between their needs and our own. That’s how God loves us. That’s how Jesus loves us. That’s how we are supposed to love one another—by letting go of ourselves—our desires, our possessions, our lives—and giving them up for the sake of another. And if that doesn’t sound too tough—if the giving up of your food, your coat, your car, your house for the sake of those in need doesn’t seem too difficult—then wait until you get to the second trap hidden within Jesus’ words.
But to hear it, you have to think like a Greek-speaking Christian. When Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” he throws us for a loop because the words he uses just don’t add up. Jesus says, “No one has greater agápē than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s philos.” Friends have their own sort of love, which is philia. But that isn’t the word Jesus uses to describe the love that his friends have for one another. The love that binds them together isn’t based on a common interest, a bond of affection, or shared values. It isn’t the product of a relationship. They, too, are united in agápē. Even though, by definition, it doesn’t fit the nature of the relationship between us, we are called to love one another and lay down our lives for the sake of each other not because of who they are to us but because of who we are in God. That means that the food, the coat, the car, the house, the life—they are all to be given up not to the people we like or the ones with whom we share something in common but in agápē to those we know nothing about.
Do you remember the old hypothetical conundrum about being on a plane that is about to crash and only having one parachute? As the dilemma goes, you are supposed to decide whether you would keep the parachute for yourself or give it to your spouse. Or your child. Or your best friend. Or whoever else it is on the plane for whom you care deeply. But that isn’t the kind of love that Jesus has in mind when he tells us to love one another because that isn’t the kind of love that God has for us. God doesn’t love us because we belong to God as God’s children. God loves us because that’s who God is: God is love. It is God’s love for us while we were yet strangers to God that makes us God’s children. And it is that agápē that fills us and transforms us into the children of God who love the world right back in just the same way.
God loved us enough to give up his Son for us while we were still strangers to God. Will that love fill us up to the point of overflowing, or will we merely share it with those we want to love? Will that love transform us into people who love others simply for love’s sake, or will God’s unconditional love dissolve in our hands as soon as we place conditions of affection or relationship upon it? Will the unconditional love that Jesus has for us set us free to lay down our lives for the sake of a stranger, or will we live for ourselves until we meet someone whom we think deserves it? Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” And what is his commandment? That we love one another as he loves us. You are not a friend of Jesus if you do not love as he has loved you. That isn’t a challenge or a test. It’s a fact.