A sermon text, based on John 14.15-21, video-recorded and shared with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 6th Sunday of Easter, May 17, 2020.
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul,
what wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to lay aside His crown for my soul, for my soul,
to lay aside His crown for my soul!
Throughout these Great Fifty Days from Easter Day to the coming Day of Pentecost, this year, on May 31, repeatedly, I have encouraged us to contemplate at length and at depth the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus. So majestic, too monumental is this our fundamental Christian truth for our reflection to be relegated only to Easter Day.
Today, I say to you that Easter means that God, who is Love, loves us. God, who is Love, is in love with us. God, who is Love is our Eternal Lover.
So, today, I began with the words of that folk hymn; a song of praise for the love of God who forsook heaven’s bliss, who took our flesh, who partook of our life, and who died for our sake to save us from sin and death.
However, today, I focus on the message at the heart of these words. The message echoed in Jesus’ command, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The message that love is active.
We humans oft speak of love as emotion. An attraction to or an affection for another person, creature, or thing. It’s not that love as feeling isn’t active. I feel love for you; therefore, I do kind deeds for you. However, if, when I don’t feel love for you, I may be less apt to do something, anything for you. Therefore, love as feeling is limited. Always.
Concerning limitations, the English vocabulary is vast…
I digress. My beloved grandmother, Audia Hoard Roberts once asked my brother Wayne and me, “Why is English, among modern languages, one of the most efficient?” As I recall, at the time, my brother was seven and I was five. We didn’t know. Noting our silence, she said, in so many words, as best as I can recall, “Because English has one of the largest vocabularies. Therefore, the more words you know, the more nuanced can be your understanding of the ideas of others and your articulation of your viewpoints.”
Again, the English vocabulary is vast, but there is only one word for love. Love. And I can use that one word variously without clarifying (or having any clarity about!) what I mean.
I love Pontheolla.
I love Spartanburg, South Carolina.
I love Clevedale.
I love St. Matthew’s.
I love Rob Brown.
I love you!
Now, you could, perhaps you should ask me, “Paul, what do you mean? What do you love about your wife, our city, your home, our parish community, our rector, us? You can’t possibly mean the same thing about each?” And you would be very right!
Ancient Greek identifies four forms of love. The words, rooted in historical understandings and cultural associations, when spoken, bear instantly recognized meanings. The familial kinship of storgé. The friendship of philia. The romantic desire of eros (a word, by the way, which is not found in the Bible!). The selfless sacrifice of agapé.
It is agapé of which Jesus speaks: “If you love me, you will (do something) keep my commandments.” Again, hear the echo of the song: “What wondrous love is this that (did something) caused the Lord of bliss to (do something) lay aside his crown for my soul.”
Jesus commands that we love as he loves. Actively and self-sacrificially. For love is active. Love is the action.
Putting this another way: Jesus is not saying that if we love him, then we will keep his commandments as proof of our love. No! Our keeping his commandments – his ethical teaching and his way of life – is no sign of our love. It is our love.
Putting this still another way, love is so closely identified with what it does that to possess (to be possessed by!) this love is to be love! To become love!
Easter, then, means nothing less, nothing else than our being and becoming like Jesus, being and becoming incarnations of his love in this world. Today.
How does this happen? I dare never make a universal declaration, applicable to all people for all times. However, I do know that for me to be and become love – in other words, to live the resurrected-from-death life that Easter proclaims – has meant my going and staying on a journey, the like of which is implicit in the words: What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to lay aside his crown.
As God left heaven’s bliss to take our flesh and share our life, this journey has involved my continually leaving where I am, what I know, who I am to go to an unknown place, into an unfamiliar space and there to behold a new face.
I’ve never been able to outrun myself so to be someone else. Given the dysfunction of my formative family years (that’s a longer story!), I tend toward pessimism. I tend to trust little. At the slightest hint of disappointment or hurt, I tend to guard my heart; imagining the way things should be and with an elephantine memory of offenses.
Yet when I answer Jesus’ call, “Follow me,” which he declares unto me every day and every moment of the day, I venture to a different and new place. I become a different and new person…
Free to face the world as it is.
Free to live.
Free to be and to become love.
Free to give and to forgive.
Therefore, I can sing, what wondrous love of God is this, not only O my soul, but also what wondrous love is this of and in my soul!
Endnote: What wondrous love is this, Christian folk hymn (ca. 1835)