This sermon was given by Harvard senior Greg Johnston on the sixth Sunday of Easter at the Episcopal Chaplaincy's service. The readings for the day can be found here.
When Luther asked if I wanted to preach, a few weeks ago, I said...
“Yeah, absolutely! I would love to!” When I looked at the lectionary
readings for today a few days later, my first thoughts were, “Oh...”
These readings are not easy to draw meaning out of. We start with
what's basically a travelogue for Paul and Luke, listing some cities in
Macedonia that we've never heard of. Then there's the beginnings of a
story about a woman named Lydia, but it ends without much detail. Next
we have a passage from the Book of Revelation, which is never exactly
easy to follow. What is this city, the new Jerusalem? Is it heaven? Is
it the church? I'll be honest with you: I've read through two
commentaries on Revelation this week while doing research for a paper,
and I still couldn't tell you. The Gospel for today comes from Jesus'
farewell message to his disciples, about two-thirds of the way through
the Gospel of John. This, too, seems scattered: an injunction to keep
Jesus' word, a heads-up to watch for the Holy Spirit, and a premature
So. Where can we start?
St. Augustine, in his book De Doctrina Christiana,
writes this: “If it seems to you that you have understood the divine
scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this
understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor,
then you have not understood them.” In other words: if your
interpretation doesn't lead you to love, it's probably wrong. We're
lucky, because this works both ways. If you're looking for an
interpretation and ask how a text teaches us to love God and our
neighbors, you'll probably be on the right track.
And we finally get lucky in the next lines of the Gospel, in the
second-to-last verse of this passage. “If you loved me,” Jesus says,
“you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is
greater than I” (John 14:28). Now in a way, this verse seems strange.
When we love people, the very last thing that we want to do is give them
up. Imagine your boyfriend or girlfriend, husband or wife, mother,
father, sister, brother, best friend, or mentor saying to you, “I'm
going away.” Then, “Why are you sad? If you loved me, you would rejoice
that I am going.” What does this mean? In most of our relationships, the
very last thing we want is to lose the one we love.
I think what's going on here is that there are two kinds of love in question.
We can call the first “possessive love.” In this sense, when we love
someone, we want them for ourselves. I love you, and therefore I want to
spend time with you. Now, don't get me wrong; this is a wonderful
thing. It's a healthy thing. It's an important thing. It wouldn't be
right if we didn't respond with sadness when we heard that the one we
loved was going away. And here we have the disciples, who have spent the
last years with Jesus walking around Judea and the Galilee, healing the
sick, feeding the poor, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of
God, and—we have to remember, because this is the Gospel of John—going
to weddings where Jesus turns water into really good wine. They're having a great time!
And so when Jesus says, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am
going to the Father,” I suspect the disciples are just as perplexed as
And I think that maybe, it's because Jesus is talking about a second
kind of love, which we could call “self-sacrificing love.” When we love
someone in this way, we want the best for them, even if we have to give
something up. Because I love you, I want the best for you, even if it
means I won't spend time with you. This is the love that I would guess
many of our parents feel when we go off to college, and that many of our
friends will feel when we graduate and go our separate ways. This is
the kind of love that St. Paul says (in 1 Cor. 13) is patient and kind,
that is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, that bears all
things, hopes all things, and endures all things—even the departure of
our loved ones. This is the love of which St. John says in his First
Letter, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and
sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
This is love: that God loved us, that God wanted the best for us, so
much that he gave himself up to suffer and die for us.
And so Jesus says to the disciples: you've seen me performing signs
and miracles, healing the sick, feeding the poor, proclaiming the good
news, and drinking really good wine, but the Father is greater than I, and I get to go home to him. If you loved me, you would rejoice, because you would want what was best for me.
And this is the same love that we see, though it's sometimes hidden, throughout the readings for today.
It's the love that drives Paul to Macedonia, when in a dream he sees “a
man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, 'Come over to Macedonia
and help us'” (Acts 16:9). It's the same love that drives Paul across
the Mediterranean and ultimately to his death, in the hope of spreading
the good news he has received.
It's the love that leads God to create for us a heavenly city, a new
heaven and a new earth to replace those that we have broken, a city
with water “bright as crystal” (Rev. 22:1), with gates that will “never
be shut by day,” and in which “there will be no night” (Rev. 21:22), a
city that is always open to us. And all this when it would have been so
much easy to destroy it all and go back to the drawing board.
And it's the love that God promises to show us when we love God,
when Jesus says that “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father
will love them, and we will come to them and make our home in them”
The collect for today begins, “O God, you have prepared for
those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding.” This
sounds great. So what do we do? How do we love God? How do we reflect
God's love in our own lives, fulfilling the Great Commandment to “love
the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with
all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as
yourself” (Luke 10:27)? How do we love God?
Perhaps the better question is this: How have we been loving God?
We have been loving God when we have visited Ronald and Duncan and
Daniel at MCI Norfolk with the rest of our teams from the Harvard
Interfaith Prison Education program, helping the three of them work
toward their degrees through BU while incarcerated. We've given up a
Saturday or Sunday every month, putting off a little leisure time to
support new friends.
We have been loving God by walking seven miles this morning to raise
money for Project Bread, to help feed thousands of people across
Massachusetts who are in need. Now, waking up at eight in the morning
isn't much of a sacrifice unless you're a college student, but sometimes
that's all it takes.
And we have been loving God by giving up a few hours on this beautiful
afternoon to gather together and share in God's word, the sacrament of
the Eucharist, and—well, this isn't much of a sacrifice—to share a free
dinner in excellent company.
Next year, as many of you know, I'll be working as a Micah
Fellow, filling the same role Tiffany has with our chaplaincy here with
another group to-be-determined. This work, wherever it ends up taking
place and whatever form it ends up taking, will be work for social
justice. Micah Fellows like Tiffany organize prison-mentoring programs,
help run food pantries, advocate for a response to climate change, and
work on so many more projects with real impact. But as Christians, I
think, we work for something more than social justice alone: we work for
social love. Pope Pius XI, in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno,
suggests that love should be the soul of justice. Love animates and
fills justice in the same way that the soul animates and fills the body.
Without love and care for the other, justice is empty. It's not just
about changing laws. Building community, in other words, can't be
detached from effecting social change.
And yet unfortunately, I'll be parting from that community after a
year, just as I'm parting from this community now. In a month, I'll be
leaving Harvard, leaving this chaplaincy community and the Morning
Prayers community at Memorial Church, leaving my house and many of my
friends, my familiar routines and locations and coffee-shops and
libraries. As we part, I hope that God gives me the grace to want what
is best for these places and people, rather than wanting to keep them
for myself. And I hope that God gives them the grace to do the same.
But the beauty of the season of Easter, the beauty of the
resurrection story, the good news of Christian belief, the message
written in every spring flower we can see out these windows, is that
this parting is not final.
The bare trees of winter are not bare forever.
The stone will not cover the tomb forever.
I will see all of you again.
I will see all of my favorite places again.
I will read those books and drink those cups of coffee and, God willing, see those friends again.
And when I do, we all will have grown and changed; not in spite of
but because of our separation. We will have been transformed, as St.
Paul puts it, “from glory into glory” (2 Cor. 3:18 KJV). We will
continue to increase in our love for God and for our neighbor, growing
into a life that, to paraphrase the collect, “exceeds all that we could
“If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to
the Father, because the Father is greater than I.” Amen.