Sermon: The Faces Of Love
Scripture: John 15: 9-11
Date: May 14, 2017
Mother’s Day in the church can be a day full of peril for a pastor because what is a wonderful day of celebrating a very important person in our families and our lives for most of us can also a day of sorrow and regrets for others. While many of us celebrate one of the most important persons and relationships that we will ever have, that of a mother and child, there are others for whom that relationship is a difficult one for many reasons. And so a day that was begun by a couple of Methodist lay women in the church as a day to express love and appreciation for mothers becomes a day that is at best bittersweet, and sometimes very painful for some. And quite frankly for the last two Mother’s Days, since my mother passed on, I have been more in the second group than the first. So I know it is hard to find much to celebrate sometimes on Mother’s Day, when for whatever reason, your mother isn’t really a part of the day. And so in the church, we walk a tightrope strung in between those who want to celebrate their mother’s and a mother’s love and those who really want no part of the day for whatever the reason might be. And so it is a day of peril for a pastor, because no matter what side of Mother’s Day I embrace, there will be those who feel I am being insensitive towards them and their feelings on this day. And I get that and understand it more now than I ever have. And adding to the struggle this year has been ministering in the last few weeks with families whose mothers have been called home and knowing that this Mother’s Day was going to be a very different day for them. And so for the last month I have been engaged in my annual wrestling match over what to say on Mother’s Day.
As I have wrestled with this message, God kept drawing me to this passage from John 15. Now let’s think about the context for this passage. John’s memory of the Last Supper was much more extensive than that of the other gospel writers. In fact, 4 of the 21 chapters ( chapters 13-17) of John’s book were devoted to what took place and more importantly what Jesus said during the last supper. Some of Jesus’s most important teachings were reserved for that time that was just between Jesus and His apostles. And the overriding theme of the night was love. Whether it be the sacrificial love that was demonstrated by Jesus’s act of washing the disciple’s feet and ultimately His willingness to go to the cross for them and us, or the love of a parent in the preparation of a heavenly home for each of His children and the promise that He would come and get us and take us home, as well as His heartfelt prayer in which He tells the Father that through it all He had not lost any of those the Father had given over to Him. And then there was even the love that accompanies the betrayal of Judas. Now that my sound strange but it is often the ones that we love and who love us the most that can truly betray us. Betrayal is often a by product of love. And so Jesus tells the Disciples whom He loves, that because of His love for them, He is going to die. He is going to leave them. Go and prepare a place for them in the Father’s House, and then He’ll come back for them. But the Disciples struggle to understand that kind of love. To them it sounded like he was abandoning them. In fact, as Jesus looks at them, He must have seen the looks of bewilderment and misunderstanding and even sorrow on their faces. They just didn’t understand this love. They didn’t see it as he’d did. He talked about loving everyone but how could they love the one who was going to betray Him and them? How could they love those who were going to be responsible for His death? And perhaps, the most hurtful, how could they love Him when He was abandoning them? After all, they had given up their lives to follow Him. They too had become enemies in the eyes of the Jews and Romans because they followed Him. They were having a hard time feeling the love. Even when He was washing their feet. How could this be love? And so, in essence, Jesus pauses in the midst of it all and says let me remind you what love truly is. And I think that’s what Mother’s Day is truly about. It’s a chance for us to pause in the midst of our busy life and take a close look at the true face of God’s love. And the thing is, that sometimes we are like the Disciples and we struggle to recognize it.
So the first thing that Jesus says is: My love for you is not defined by the world. I love you the way God loves me. Now here’s the problem that I think Jesus was addressing with that statement. Remember now that when Jesus said this, He was just addressing the Disciples at the Last Supper. And Jesus had just presented them with three faces of love, what God’s love looked like, but they did not really recognize as love. The first was seen in His act of washing their feet. Now stay with me here because with the benefit of hindsight we say, of course that was Jesus demonstrating His love for them. But I think that initially the disciples did not see it that way. They did not understand that this menial task of serving was motivated by love. If there had been a servant there to wash their feet, it would have never occurred to them that he or she did that out of love. It was their job. You see, I think the key to understanding the nature of love as God’s love and not the world’s love is illustrated by Jesus’s interaction with Peter here. Remember when Jesus came last to Peter to wash his feet, Peter balked and said “you will never wash my feet.” Now at first we think this was just a spur of the moment reaction from Peter. But the truth is Peter had been thinking about it as he watched Jesus wash the feet of the others. And Peter didn’t see this as a loving act as much as it was a demeaning one. But the kind of love that Jesus was showing was a love where we do sometimes demean ourselves, swallow our pride, empty ourselves for others. And so Jesus responds, “if you don’t let me wash your feet, you don’t really have any part in anything I am doing.” You see, I think Peter’s problem was that his understanding of serving was that he served others because He loved Christ. And that’s what Christ expected him to do. That’s often the motivation behind our service, isn’t it? But, you see Jesus serves because He loves Peter. And so by denying Him the chance to serve him, Peter is in essence denying Him the chance to love him. Because He loves Peter the way God loves Him. No contingencies. He loves us without condition. Selfless. Even when we are being unloveable. Peter’s concept of love was more in the line of the Golden Rule. We love in proportion to how much others love us. But God’s love for us is not dependent on being loved in return. Because He loves us not because of what we do, but simply who we are. We are His children. Often times He loves us in spite of what we do. And that’s how Jesus expects us to love one another, because that’s how He loves us. It is a hard thing to do, but it is what Christ does. Christ empties himself in order to love us, just as God emptied Himself when He sent Jesus to earth. It’s the way He loves us, and if we want to have a place with Him, it’s the way we must love others, even if the world has branded the persons whom we serve as unloveable. In fact, I would say that many of the people that we are called to love through our service, are people who are not easy to love. But we love them, as God loves us, even when we are being unloveable. They become the faces of our love.
And then the second face of love that the Disciples do not recognize is the face of Judas. What a hard face that is to see in connection with love. But think about it, Jesus knew that Judas was the one that was going to betray Him. And yet He continued to love him. How hard that must have been. When they gathered for this last Supper, Jesus had begun by expressing His continuing love for Judas by inviting him to sit at one of the two places of honor at the meal, which were on His right and His left. And He calls him a friend which was a loving designation that Jesus had just shared with His disciples. “You are not just my Disciples but you have become my friends.” He said. So it’s no wonder that the Disciples wrestled with that. How could He love Judas the betrayer in the same way He loved them. But He calls Judas friend even though Judas is about to betray Him and he will “lift up his heel to me.” Which loosely translated means Judas is going to kick him when he’s down. This is more than loving his enemy – this is loving one who turned love into betrayal. Because the reality is that it is not usually our enemies who are in a place to really betray us. Betrayal is often a byproduct of love. But Jesus still loves Judas, and us, even when we betray Him. Because God’s love transcends all worldly intrigues, and betrayals and disappointments and failures. When we love as the world loves, we are quick to withdraw our love when the tough times come or let it transform into bitterness and pain. How quick we are to withhold our love, not just from our enemies, but also from our friends. As we have talked about for the last few weeks part of the Disciples struggle in understanding the resurrection was in understanding how Jesus could still love them even though they had betrayed and denied and abandoned Him. But you see on the cross, Jesus took all of that on Himself. All our betrayals. All our denials. All our abandonment. All our sin and sin at it’s core is the rejection of God. And yet God continued to love Jesus through all of that. I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me.
And so God loves those the world deems unloveable. And God loves even those who betray Him.
And then the final face of love is that God loves those who are feeling lost and abandoned. The Disciples must have been wondering how Jesus could truly love them when He was, by His own admission, getting ready to leave them behind. And in spite of His words about coming back some day, and sending another in His place, they couldn’t help but feeling abandoned. Lost. Thomas had protested, “Lord we don’t have any idea how to get to where you are going, so how can we possibly find you again?” It’s a question born of utter despair. I don’t know that there is anything more devastating in this world than feeling abandoned by those we love. If Jesus truly loves us, the Disciples must have been thinking that night, He wouldn’t abandon us. He wouldn’t leave us. That’s not what love looks like. Or so they thought. In essence, this last supper was an effort to prepare them for all that was going to happen in the days ahead. When He would be ripped from their midst, killed, and sealed in a tomb. When He spoke of laying down His life for His friends, that was just further proof to them that He was abandoning them. How could this be love? But for Jesus it was the face of love. I love you the way God loves me, so abide in that love, Jesus said. I love the way that Eugene Peterson translates the word abide that John uses here. Jesus says: “Make yourself at home in my love.” Disciples dwell, abide, are at home in the love of God always. And those who abide in Christ’s love will never be abandoned – never truly be lost. I love you like God loves Me, He said. And even when the Father seemed so distant to Him, in the kiss of Judas, and the sting of the Roman whip on his flesh and those excruciating hours on the cross, God was always there. Living in Him. Abiding in Him. And He in God. So that even when, in this world, we become the betrayers and the unloveables, and the abandoned, the lost, God’s love remains our home. No matter what, we can dwell in God’s love. Paul describes God’s love in his letter to the church at Corinth when he writes: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (Now don’t miss this.) There is nothing that we can do, nothing that can happen to us, that will separate us from His love. And to the Romans he picks up on this idea of separation, abandonment, when he writes:
Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love. Does it mean He no longer loves us if we have trouble or tragedy, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? No, despite all these things, (worldly things), overwhelming victory is ours through Christ who loves us (through it all). And Paul who certainly knew how it felt to be abandoned, and rejected and lost concludes, I am convinced, that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Because He loves us like He loves Christ, His Son. And so we abide in that love.
And I am convinced that God kept pulling me to this passage as I was preparing for this message, with all of the emotions of Mother’s Day stirring inside, to say to me, that that’s the kind of love we celebrate on Mother’s Day. A love that we abide in no matter what. That ideally mothers and children are to love each other the way that God loves Jesus and Jesus loves us. But that ultimately we can abide in that love, no matter what may happen to us, and in us, and through us, in this worldly life. That love that is of this world may let us down, but love that is of God never will. And that the struggles that we sometimes have on days such as this is because we are imperfect vessels trying to hold onto that perfect love. When in truth it’s our imperfections that cause us to hold on to perfect love rather than let it pour out into the world through us. We must love others as Jesus loves us. It is not a suggestion, or a request. It is a commandment. In fact, the greatest commandment. And through it all it is the love we celebrate and all of those, family and friends and even strangers, who give face to it today and everyday. And if we do that then our joy will be complete, Jesus says. Because God loves Jesus, and Jesus loves us the way that God loves Him, and we can abide in that love, and that no matter what may come in this life, all can be, will be, well. Paul tells the Romans that “God makes all things good for those who love Him because we are more than conquerors through Christ Jesus who loves us.” What a promise that is for this day and every day. I am so blessed that I had a mother who gave face to that kind of love, and many of you can say the same today, but the greatest blessing of all is the love of God that we can see all around us, in many different faces, every day, every moment, no matter what or who the world sends our way. That through it all, through all the circumstances of our lives, good and bad, because of God’s love, because we can abide in His love, ultimately all will be well with our soul.
We’re going to sing about that kind of love, but before we do, I just want you to know that this altar is a place of celebration, The place where we can always come and experience God’s love. It is the place we can come to empty our lives of the pain and disappointments and imperfect love that the world gives, so that Jesus can pour his love into us. So you come and let Jesus pour Himself, His love, into you.