Love as Complete Gift

Love as Complete Gift

Homily for Easter 5

May 15, 2022

Love as Complete Gift

Homily for Sunday, May 15, 2022
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
John 13:31–35

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

I almost don’t want to tell what this morning’s homily is about, because when I say “holiness,” I don’t want the word to conjure up images of thin ascetics, or heroic acts of self-sacrifice, or those who are overly intense and who are unable to talk about, say, how well the Celtics are doing or how miserably the Red Sox are doing(!).  So when I say that this morning’s homily is about holiness, I’m trusting you to hear me out that living a holy life is something we might actually want to live.

But I don’t want to begin with holiness; rather, I want to begin with the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column.  Each week in the Sunday Times the “Modern Love” column offers readers’ stories about “love.”  Here a young woman muses about the perils and possibilities of meeting men on a dating app; there another tells of the slow, gradual dissolution of her marriage.  Here one tells of how a friend of many years suddenly and improbably becomes a husband; there another tells of a “kinder, gentler, nobody-moves-out” divorce.  Here one mourns the death of a cherished partner of many years; there another tells of her surprise at finding love late in life.  To read the “Modern Love” column is to understand that love is something for which we all have the capacity, that love can be at once wonderful yet challenging, that there are different kinds of love and different ways to love, that love can arise in surprising places, that enduring love requires creativity and hard work, and that sometimes no matter our efforts love does not last.  The Times’ “Modern Love” column offers a glimpse of how we humans seek, live and experience “love.”

To read today’s Gospel is to glimpse something of how Jesus seeks, lives and experiences love.  While much of the “love” as described in the “Modern Love” column yet holds true for Jesus and Jesus’s love—such as we all have the capacity to receive Jesus’ love, like other love Jesus’ love can be at once wonderful and challenging, and like other love Jesus’ love can arise in surprising places—yet Jesus’ love as described in John’s Gospel differs from the love described in the Times, because Jesus’ love includes all the “love” as it is described in the Times plus.  Let me explain.

While we could say much about the love of which Jesus speaks in John’s Gospel…

  • how this love is universal—“for God so loved the world” (3:16)—yet at the same time intimate—“He calls his…sheep by name” (10:3)
  • how this love is from the beginning—“you [Father] loved me before the foundation of the world” (17:24)—yet at the same time continues “to the end”—“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1)
  • how this love is both in God—“The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands” (3:35)—yet at the same time extends to people—“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” (15:9)

…while we could say much about the love of which Jesus speaks in John’s Gospel, perhaps what is most important about the love of which Jesus speaks is that this love is complete gift.  “Love” in John’s Gospel is not something we can generate or do of our own volition, but is complete gift.  In his first epistle John makes this gift and its giver clear: “Love is from God,” he writes (4:17); and “in this is love, not that we loved… but that God loved us” (4:10).

When we hear in today’s Gospel Jesus’ commandment to “love one another… as I have loved you,” it is important to remember that the love with which we are to love one another is complete gift.  For to remember that this love is a gift and not something we ourselves generate will help to keep our love from degenerating into a matter of effort and trying harder, or into a matter of emotion and feeling harder, or into (God forbid) a matter of social norms and trying “to be ‘nice’” harder.  To remember that love is a gift calls us to live lives open to receive God’s gift, to live lives in which there is space within to receive God’s continually outpoured love.

About this “space within…”  According to rabbinic theology, God’s creation of the world was not so much an act of abundance—God did not create so that there might be a heaven and an earth and things filling the heavens and the earth—rather (according to the rabbis) God created in order to open up space.  God created the world to create space where God and God’s people could commune in unbroken love.  When sin entered the world, sin began to crowd and clutter this space God had created for love.  So each year on the Day of Atonement the high priest entered the Holy of Holies to offer sacrifices that re-created the world, that re-opened this space, that drove out the occlusions of sin that in the past year had come to clutter the loving divine-human relationship, sacrifices that once again made possible unceasing, unbroken love between God and God’s people.  Each year on the Day of Atonement the high priest in the Holy of Holies offered sacrifices that made the people…holy.

Holiness is the “plus” of the love that Jesus commands his disciples to have for one another.  According to John Jesus is the high priest on the Day of Atonement, Jesus’ death is the sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world.  To be “holy” means to live our lives recognizing the divine space God has created, to live lives sensitive to this space, and to allow God regularly to renew and unclutter this space so that we might more freely receive God’s continually outpoured love for us.

Because love is not something we can manufacture of our own accord but is entirely gift, and because holiness likewise is something we cannot generate on our own but is entirely gift, we the Baptized come here week by week to receive—not to do but to receive—the Eucharist, the first grace of which is “the forgiveness of our sins” (BCP, p 859).  Through our weekly Eucharist—without our doing—we are once again cleansed, purified and made whole.  And if—having heard in the Gospel our Lord’s command to “love one another as I have loved you,” and if having just been told that love is not something we can do on our own, and if having heard how important holiness is and that it, too, is nothing we can attain on our own—[if] we wish for something we can do, what we can do is… well, let me show you.

In the Book of Common Prayer pages 316–317 is a little-known but profound document called, “An Exhortation.”  I will let you read the entirety of it on your own; right now I call our attention only to the paragraph at the top of page 317.  If we wish for something we can do

Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed.  And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven.  And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food.

That—an examination of our lives and conduct wherein we may perceive how we have offended—that is what we can do if we would be cleansed to “love one another” as he loved us.  That—asking for forgiveness and making restitution for injuries done by us to others—that is what we can do if we would love in such a way that we are part of God’s ongoing atonement.  That—being ready to forgive those who have offended us, in order that we ourselves may be forgiven—that is how we can love not merely as the world loves but as Jesus loves, so that we might indeed “love one another as I have loved you.”

May God give us the grace to live, to love, like that.  Which is, I dare say, “holiness” and is deeply—deeply!—satisfying to our souls.

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