There are four periods within our three year lectionary cycle that I find difficult to preach each week. This is three of them. Every year, for the last three Sunday’s of the Easter Season, our Gospel focuses on Christ’s final words or discourse to the disciples. While the final discourse is quite lengthy, the topic is focused. It’s all about love. More particularly, it is all about being loved by Jesus and about us abiding in his love.
This week I have had to ask myself, why is it I find it so difficult to preach on love or abiding in the love of Christ? After all, as Christians, aren’t we all about love. In the 60’s and 70’s did we not sing loudly and proudly that “they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love.” And shouldn’t this topic be easy to address because as a society we seem to be all about love.
We certainly use the word quite a bit.
Perhaps this is part of the problem and why I struggle with this series of Gospel texts, because I find it so difficult to talk about a topic of which so many already have pre-conceived notions of what this should be about, should sound like, and or even look like. I also struggle because of how we understand what love is, it’s not the same as the love Christ talks about in his final words to the disciples.
As I mentioned last week, the word love is used to translate three different words from Greek; philos, eros and agape’. When we use the word love, more often than not the type of love we are referring to is the Greek word eros, erotic love, the love that is shared between two lovers. Only recently, with the rise of bromances have we expanded our common usage of love to include what the Greeks would refer to as philos or friendship. However, when Jesus speaks of love, especially in this context, he is using agape’ which in the past had been translated as charity or one’s concern or desire to care for others. So when Christ calls us to abide in his love, he is calling us to live, or surrender ourselves into his care and concern for us.
A second issue I have when preaching on this text, is that we read it out of context. Every year, we read this discourse towards the latter half of the Easter season. When read in this liturgical context it reads as if it were a post-resurrection discussion. In fact, the more appropriate liturgical context is Maundy Thursday. Our Gospel lessens for these past three weeks are meant to be part of a package in which Jesus first washes the feet of his disciples, then explains how he wants them to lead the movement into the future and finally, he lives fully into his words by allowing himself to be sacrificed on the cross.
How different these words sound when we realize they are being spoken by a condemned man. How deep the spiritual surrender is when we realize how far he is willing to go to fully abide in the love or the will of the Father.
As we bring all these pieces of context together, suddenly abide in me as I in you and to love one another as I have loved you loses the warm connotations we have long associated with it. Suddenly the warm hugs and sunshine these words once evoked give way to concepts we don’t often like to talk about. Concepts like spiritual surrender, obedience, and God’s will and self-sacrifice.
Spiritual surrender, obedience and God’s will are concepts we as a Christian people have a hard time discussing or perhaps even take seriously because they are contrary to the message of the consumer driven world in which we live. We live in a world where we are told, if you want it, you deserve it. More is better. It is a word in which we are told the self is primary over everything else, and if we can afford it, wholeness and happiness can be bought for a price. And again, yes, we deserve it, even if we cannot afford it.
Sadly, what they don’t tell us is that we will never have enough and there is always something newer, better and greatly improved. If you don’t believe me, simply walk into any Verizon store and see all the wonderful new toys we just have to have to feel complete.
Trust me, as one who now carries the Iphone6, I live this reality too. I also know it from another one of my many vices. One of the games I keep on my Ipad is Vegas Casino, a series of slot machines. (Trust me it is a great game to waste time with.) Now, I am not much of a gambler. On the handful of occasions we have visited the Turning Stone, the most I am willing to risk, or as I like to call it, donate, is $20. However, with fake money at stake one would think I would be willing to risk it all. Over time I have amassed quite a sizeable pot of money, but it seems no matter how much I have, the amount I wish to keep in reserve keeps going up and up and up. I find it interesting, even with fake money, I never really feel secure, or that I have enough to risk it all.
I have begun to look at this game as a metaphor for our relationship with Christ. We talk about loving Christ, being willing to surrender ourselves to the will of God, but we aren’t willing to take the big risk with our lives as is often required for us to grow deeper in faith, even though we know, like my toy casino, there is no risk to spending it all. The challenge we often face is trusting in what awaits us on the other side of that risk. Like the disciples, who were present at the last supper, they knew Christ’s relationship with the Temple and Roman authorities was tense at best, they knew execution was a very real possibility at any time. What they did not trust in was that the resurrection would take place and new life would shoot forth from the tomb. Just like you and me, they too were not ready to surrender fully to the Christ with all the uncertainty they faced.
Perhaps this is why those who have designed the lectionary have us read Maundy Thursday’s discourse out of context. Because unlike the disciples, we live on the other side of the resurrection, we have seen the fullness of Christ’s surrender to the will of the father and we know God is trustworthy. And so I ask again, what keeps holding us back from risking it all in order to live or abide in the love/the charity/the concern of Christ, so we can love as Christ loves us.