Grace Presbyterian Church
May 9, 2021, Easter 6B (recorded)
More Than a Feeling
Time to check out the pop charts [note: imagine these being sung]:
“All you need is love…all you need is love…”
“Do ya loooove me (do ya love me)…now that I can dance?”
“What’s love got to do, got to do with it?”
“Black is the color of my true love’s hair…”
“I can’t help falling in love with you…”
“Crazy little thing called love…”
“I love a rainy night, love a rainy night…”
“Love…love will keep us together…”
“What the world needs now is love, sweet love”
I am honestly convinced that if some alien from another planet dropped in on earth and tried to figure out just exactly what “love” is based on the songs human beings sing about it, that poor alien would probably return to its home planet in a dazed and confused stupor. That alien might conclude that “It hurts to be in love…” or maybe even that “Love is a battlefield,” or perhaps even that “Love stinks.” At the very minimum that alien would probably still be singing one more title, “I want to know what love is…”
One might suggest that hanging around the church might offer the alien some better examples, but even then confusion might still be pervasive. Is it “Jesus loves me!” or “Jesus loves the little children”? (Considering that the “me” in that first song is usually presumed to be a child, the alien might wonder why we have to say it twice.) “Love divine, all loves excelling” might be helpful, at least. Then there’s “Come down, O Love divine” and “I love to tell the story” and “Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love” and “Jesus, lover of my soul” and many, many more. I don’t know how much help our alien subject would get from these titles, but hopefully the hymns themselves would give this intrepid researcher something to work with.
Still, though, the alien might be best served by hearing a song (or at least a title) in which the word “love” doesn’t even appear: “More than a feeling…”
Let’s be fair, the word “love” does get used in ways that don’t always make clear just what we’re talking or singing about. And for those of us who would follow after Jesus, it can be a bit of a search process to get a grasp on the whole idea. We have of course 1 Corinthians 13 that treats the whole idea of love pretty extensively, but with more description than definition -love does this, love doesn’t do that. There is also the beginning portion of Hebrews 13, which gives the command “Let mutual love continue” and then gives several examples of what that looks like. (It is this passage that today’s second hymn takes as its source.) No doubt you could come up with numerous other readings from scripture that speak to the topic of love.
And then there’s today’s gospel reading, what many scholars consider the high point of John’s gospel. It is a chunk taken out of what is commonly known as Jesus’s “farewell discourse” among biblical scholars and is also a continuation of last week’s reading about abiding and bearing fruit. For a passage that seems to be mostly the middle of something at first glance, there’s a lot going on in these nine verses, and some of those things being said challenge quite severely our often-sentimental concepts and definitions of the word “love” and the way we toss it around rather casually.
Take, say, verse 12: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” When you live in a world in which love is most often spoken about or portrayed in songs or movies or such as a mushy, indefinable feeling that apparently strikes unbidden and can seemingly disappear as fast as it appeared, the idea of love as a commandment can be pretty hard to stomach. I can’t help who I love, we might think. And this isn’t even the first time this word – “commandment” – has appeared in this passage, and that earlier appearance in verse 10 might help us understand things a little better:
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.
Much like last week’s passage about abiding and bearing fruit, this commandment about love turns out to be tied up in a promise. See how it’s set up: if you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love. Will – not “can” or “might” or “ought to.” Will. In the keeping of the commandments of Jesus, the disciples are abiding in his love. The love is in the doing.
In a way this brings us back to those passages like 1 Corinthians 13 and Hebrews 13. The love is in the doing; the patience and kindness and lack of arrogance or boastfulness of 1 Corinthians, showing hospitality and remembering the imprisoned and not falling in love with money of Hebrews. For that matter, perhaps the most basic lesson in how love looks might be found in Matthew 25:31-46, with all of its talk of what we do or don’t do for “the least of these.” Our feelings on the matter don’t really matter.
Actually, let me take that back: if our feelings on the matter prevent us from doing those things that make for love, then those feelings do matter. But feelings aren’t love, not this love that Jesus is talking about and commanding here.
If we aren’t scared enough of this whole business of love that Jesus talks about, verse 13 ought to accomplish that with its talk of laying down one’s life for one’s friends. Of course, Jesus was soon, in a modern metaphor, to put his money where his mouth was. Except of course that in that case, the “friends” for whom Jesus would do that wasn’t a group limited to those disciples listening at this moment.
There’s also this business of servants and friends. A servant, or slave, in the Roman Empire was not a “friend” to anyone except another servant or slave. There might be some necessary level of professional respect in some situations, but “friend”? Never. For Jesus to invoke the word “friends” here is an elevation or maybe a confirmation of just what Jesus has invested in the sometimes-unclear followers who had travelled with him and worked with him across these years. It was also a foreshadowing of what was to come for them, though they probably didn’t really grasp this at the time.
If we had forgotten about the first part of this chapter, we get our reminder in verse 16: “And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…”. This business of abiding in Jesus’s love and loving one another all is bound up in that bearing fruit instruction from last week. Maybe one might even say that this abiding in Jesus’s love and loving one another the way Jesus loved his disciples is actually what that “bearing fruit” business looks like in practice. And again, the love is in the doing. To cop last week’s sermon title, it’s what we do.
I’m not here to ban silly love songs or any of that, but we best realize that the love that Jesus speaks of here is of a completely different order and kind. It is commanded of us and demanding of us. And at the very minimum it is much, much more than a feeling.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #754, Help Us Accept Each Other; #—, Live in Love for One Another