Tuesday, May 7, 2013

ECH Senior Sermon: "If you loved me . . ."

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 goodbye.
    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 we are.

      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” (John 14:23).

    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 have desired.”

“If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to
the Father, because the Father is greater than I.” Amen.

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