Two Love Stories

Jn. 15:9-17
Easter 6

On this Sunday before Memorial Day, which honors those who have fought and died in wars, our lectionary Gospel passage is about LOVE. The word in the Greek text is agape. This kind of love is self-giving, sacrificial. It includes trust and faithfulness. Agape love is different from romantic love, eros (from which we get the term “erotic”) or philos, brotherly love. Many of you, of course, already know this.

I am going to tell you two love stories. The first story is very personal. Its purpose is to lead us into understanding what love — agape — is. Since all agape is personal and not dispassionate or disconnected, therefore it is appropriate to tell a personal story.

For fifty years I never liked my brother. I also didn’t dislike him. My brother is six years older than I. That means that when I was in seventh grade, he was in college. When I graduated from high school, he was two years into his career. My brother, who is highly motivated and gregarious, simply was not around. He was always off doing something important with his friends, business or own family. Once, when I was six years old, my fraternal aunt said, “Don’t you just love your brother?” “Not particularly,” I replied. She was aghast and seized that instance as a teachable moment, where upon I learned that one always says that he/she loves his/her sibling. But I didn’t.

It was not until I was past fifty that I began to understand and to know my brother. Through shared experiences in our separate families, through loses, deaths and tragedies we reached out and came to know each other. We shared responsibilities and obligations, feelings and expectations. Through the experiences of reflection, memory, loss, sacrifice and responsibilities we each found some dignity and were able to feed on our common life together. We found a sense of joy in our mutual life and with each other. My brother and I passed from being helpers to one another, to friends, to having a filial or brotherly relationship and finally to a self-giving love for each other. We have found this love through the sacrifices of our past experiences and attitudes. Both of us have been churchgoers. We have prayed for one another. Now when we talk on the phone, as we did a week ago Saturday, we sign off with, “I love you.” In Greek, the term is agape.

The second love story is from The Gospel of John. It is similar to the first story and yet different. Like Truth, Light, and Spirit, Love is a major idea and theme in John. The term, agape, appears more frequently in John’s gospel than in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In our passage for today Jesus starts with the familial (paternal) relationship. Jesus is held in God?s love, and He asks that we be held or remain (abide) in Jesus’ love. Now think for a moment what it is to be held in paternal love. For fifty years I have seen pictures of father’s holding their sons. WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the wars in the Balkans, Palestinians and Jews. How many times have we seen on CNN or in the paper the picture of an Iraqi father holding his son? If the son is dead, the anguish on the father’s face is unbearable. The father’s love has been rent and laid bare. There is a total out pouring of the father’s identity. Paternal love can be profound.

Jesus lived in that kind of love. For Jesus to abide in His father’s love He has to keep God’s commandments. He has to do the will of the father. On the one hand, this involves discipline and self-giving. (Jesus is, of course, foreshadowing His crucifixion.) On the other hand, to abide in the love of God, and hence to abide in the love of Jesus is exhilarating. There is a sense of joy. This joy is more than satisfaction. It is an exaltation. æ

In today’s story Jesus goes on to speak not only of His obedience but also of the obedience required of the disciples in order to participate in His agape love. Jesus’ love is totally outgiving, so much so that it requires sacrifice on His part and may also on the part of His followers. Hence there is a shared experience and shared obligation. Jesus is moving in the story from the relationship between father and son, to the relationship between the Son and His followers, who up to this time have been helpers, or servants. Through following Jesus as helpers they have become friends. So the movement is from paternal to filial and from servant to friend. To participate in the agape of Jesus and to be able to share that agape, that love, requires (as we have noted) both personal sacrifice and work (discipline). Now for the Greeks and the Stoic philosophers friendship, philos, is right at the top of the heap. æBut for the Christian, love is greater. Love for the Christian seizes one; it makes a claim upon you. It comes from Jesus. It is not manufactured; rather it is received. One gets agape love through experience and through participation in the love of Jesus. Therefore one can live in love. One can work in it. Because the love of Jesus makes a claim upon a person and comes through experience and participation, hence the obligations of that love can be articulated as a commandment. The disciples, Christians, you and I are to live in the experience of love. We are in a sense to do love. We are to love one another.

Now I realize that this explanation of a simple story in which Jesus stops and tells His disciples to love one another seems rather complex and abstract. But the reason why I told the story of how I fell in love with my brother is to emphasize that dynamic, self-giving, Christian love grows out of experience, reflection, responsibility, sacrifice and reflection. It doesn’t just pop up. If you and I are to love someone, to love our neighbor or our enemy, we have to have a relationship or an experience of that person. We have to take responsibility and even make a sacrifice. We have to seek to treat that person as a father would a son, a son a helper, a friend and a real person. To love someone in the abstract is certainly a good thing. To love someone dispassionately may also be a good thing. But it is not the kind of love that is the true giving of oneself — and that is the kind of love which Jesus gives us and to which Jesus calls us. I’ll let you extrapolate for yourself how this might play out on the broader and more social scale in political decisions, foreign policy or financial considerations. It certainly does not argue for greed, exploitation and oppression.

My brother and I were blessed. After fifty years through experience, reflection, sacrifice, applied intention and prayer we moved from friendship and filial love to an outgoing relationship of self-giving love: agape love. The same process takes place here on a Sunday morning. In this service you and I reflect upon a common experience and a common life together. We are intentional and focused (disciplined). In the Eucharist we experience Christ’s sacrifice and we reflect upon it. We live in His love; “He dwells in us and we in Him.” In the Eucharist the communion meal is an agape meal in which love is embodied, or to use an old phrase “made manifest.” There is a common joy to live in the love of Christ, which is why we call the meal a “Eucharist,” a word which means “thanksgiving.”

How blessed you and I are to be able to participate in the love of Christ! How blessed we are to be possessed by that love and to feel called to share it with each other and with the world! You and I may not like or even approve of someone or of the world. But out of His love Jesus calls and moves us to enter into relationships and into experiences which are self-giving. In the on-going stories of our individual and collective lives you and I are called to lives of agape, of love. May it not take you fifty years to discover that kind of relationship with others. Amen.