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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sermon from April 21, 2011 + Maundy Thursday, (A)

“Love Unafraid”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Why are we so reluctant to believe that Jesus meant what he said tonight? Our response to Jesus in our lives of faith, and our life as the Church, seems to indicate we have serious reservations about his final command to us. After all, the command of Jesus this night, the command, mandate, which gives the day its name “Maundy Thursday,” the command simply to love as he loved, is the central ethic of the New Testament. It’s the shape and direction of the new life in Christ the Church proclaims throughout the New Testament.

And yet the Church too often acts as if it’s reluctant to love. As if it’s afraid to love. And not just “the Church,” as if only collectively is the body of Christ at fault. We ourselves too often show the same reluctance, the same fear in our lives. We love to fight. We love to be right. We love to be self-righteous, to feel good about ourselves. We often love trying to control others and their thinking and their actions. We love to judge others – or if we don’t, then it’s hard to explain why we do it so often. We act in self-interested ways all the time, and far too often to the detriment of others.

It seems unavoidable for us to conclude that we don’t want to love. Or we’re afraid to love. And here are what I think are the reasons why.

First, it seems too simple.

Jesus couldn’t be clearer: “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is the sign of discipleship Jesus has given. The only one.

And Jesus says other things, like, the whole law and prophets is summed up in complete love of God and sacrificial love of neighbor. And Paul says to owe no one anything but to love them, that all God’s law is fulfilled in that way. Again and again in Scripture this love is said to be the sign of the kingdom of God, the sign of God’s presence, the fulfilling of God’s will.

Yet we persist in thinking, “it can’t be that simple.” We’re people who are suspicious of faith that seems too easy, of answers that aren’t complex. “Real life is more complicated,” we say. “He can’t have meant it to be that simple an answer.”

What we likely are sensing, however, what’s leading to our attitude, is that it may be simple, but it isn’t at all easy. So to avoid dealing with how hard it would be to live Jesus’ love we point to fake loves and say, “see – that’s not what Jesus really needs.”

We’ll point to people – even Christians – who talk about love as if it’s just some wishy-washy way of living. I’m OK, you’re OK, no harm, no foul. Everybody’s always happy all the time. Love that risks nothing because it means nothing. It’s just something to put on a bumper sticker.

Or we’ll point to people – especially Christians – who talk about love and then act in hateful ways in the name of love. Sort of the “this will hurt me more than it hurts you” kind of hypocrisy and deceit. Love that acts like hate is easy to condemn.

Of course, these fake loves have nothing to do with what Jesus is talking about. We’re putting them up because they’re easily knocked down, and we can go on with our lives unaffected. If we can mock them, or challenge their hypocrisy, we then avoid facing the simple, clear, and difficult command of Jesus.

Because it turns out we’re reluctant to love, we’re even afraid of love, because it’s so hard. Human love is notoriously conditional. We love those who give us joy and pleasure, those who love us in return, those who are good to us. Anything else, we hesitate.

To love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, even when we don’t understand God – that’s hard. Even when we disagree with God’s apparent inaction – that’s hard. Even when we can’t hear God or we wonder where God is – that’s hard.

To love the other, the neighbor, the friend, the spouse, the enemy, even when they are unlovable – that’s hard. Even when they hate us, or mistreat us. Or threaten us. That’s hard. When they are too close to us, or on the other side of the world where we don’t have to see them or think about them – that’s hard.

So we pretend that Jesus isn’t as clear as he seems, that the New Testament doesn’t really mean this.

But a second reason for our reluctance and fear is that to love as Jesus loved means being vulnerable.

Vulnerable literally means “able to be wounded.” And we fear that as much as anything. If you’re vulnerable to another, they can hurt you. And Jesus says we’re to remain open to that hurt?

As long as people treat us well, that’s not a problem. But Jesus seems to expect they won’t – he even said that the greatest love we could have is to die for another. Who wants to do that?

And even if we do allow ourselves to be vulnerable, once we’re wounded, we’re less inclined to be vulnerable to that person – or any person – again. Vulnerability, once betrayed, is really hard to bring back.

And if two people – in a marriage, in a friendship, in a family – fear trusting the other, fear being vulnerable, they will never grow in love together. Someone needs to take the first step of vulnerability and risk being hurt for love to grow and live. And the same is true for any human relationship.

But we not only fear being vulnerable. We despise it. We’ve bought into our culture that says it’s a sign of weakness, and we hate being seen as weak. So we won’t risk being wrong, or offering love to someone who doesn’t want it, or someone who doesn’t deserve it. We won’t risk being open to the other and open to being wounded because we don’t want others to see us as weak.

Someone once said that nothing distorts the human heart like fear. In our self-protection, we miss the center of Jesus’ call and at the same time we damage our hearts. In our hatred of being seen as weak, and our fear of being hurt, we miss the depth of love that only living like Jesus can show us.

But tonight all we have is the Son of God living this love and calling us to follow.

Jesus came to the world, God-with-us, to bring God’s love concretely to us. And he came to love us even if we killed him. What other option did he have? Come here and beat us into being loving people? Use divine power to force us to love? Kill anyone who didn’t follow?

Put yourself into Jesus’ mind and heart tonight. Knowing that love was the only way to bring us back to God and make us what we were meant to be, what other way could he think of than to live this love to the death?

Jesus came to show us the true nature of God’s love. That love is not something that uses power or tries to control. It’s something that transforms in serving, in giving of itself. How else could he do this but by offering himself to us?

It’s simple, as simple and clear as can be. And it’s vulnerable – Jesus was willing to die to show this to us.

Think of the wonder of it all: God’s solution to the problem that all of us were and are at war with God and each other, going our own way, rejecting God’s way of life and love, was to lose the war. To come and show us that the true power of love is that it absorbs hatred and violence and returns only love.

And when humanity did its worst to the Son of God – killed him – what we will discover later this week is that he came back to life. That love can’t even be defeated by the worst hate can do.

Paul understood this, and died for it. So did many of the disciples. Mary Magdalene understood this and lived it. So have countless disciples over two thousand years, our witnesses, those who taught us the faith.

This is the gift of washing that we have this night, if only we understand. This is the gift of the meal of his body and blood that we have this night, if only we understand. That Jesus’ love is enough even to absorb all we have done and return love to us. And to truly wash and feed us in that love, changing us from within as we discover that there is no bottom to the depths of God’s love and its power to transform us.

If even death cannot stop this love, then this could save the world. That’s God’s plan.

And that, finally, is our only hope.

In the first letter of Peter the author writes that there is no fear in love, but that perfect love casts out all fear. We’ve seen that perfect love. It’s in the face of our Lord at our feet, washing them. In the face of our Lord on a cross, dying for his love of us, feeding us with his life in this meal. It’s in the face of the risen Jesus, still loving us after our betrayal and rejection.

It’s in the love that God has for you and me that absorbs all our brokenness and sin and radiates grace and love back to us. This perfect love can and will end our fear of love and our reluctance to love.

As we now wash each other’s feet at his command, and eat and drink of his meal of grace, may our Lord Jesus fill us with the strength and courage we need to begin to take seriously his command to love, that others will know we are his disciples, and even more importantly, will come to know God’s astonishing love themselves.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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