May 2, 2021 / 5th Sunday of Easter/ Richard Holmer
First Reading Acts 8:26-40 / Second Reading 1 John 4:7-21 / Gospel John 15:1-8
Love and Consequences
In today’s reading from the First Letter of John, the word “love” appears 28 times. Do you think John is trying to tell us something?? If John had submitted these verses to my high school English teacher, she might have written on his paper: “A bit repetitive. Try using some other words.” However, the repetition is deliberate. John is emphasizing a truth that is at the foundation of Christian theology: Love is the greatest thing, the most essential thing, what people want and need above all else. Human beings need to be loved – and we need to love. God created us in love and created us for love. Without love, life lacks meaning and value and purpose.
I came across an anonymous quote that paints a bleak picture: “A life without love is like a sunless garden where all the flowers are dead.” (Definitely not a place we’d choose to live!)
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John reminds us that love begins in God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are eternally bound together in constant love. John puts it simply and succinctly: God is love. God is the ultimate source, the giver of the gracious gift of love. There is no love apart from God. How do we know God is love? Answer: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” God wants not only that we should know about his love, but that we should experience and share that love.
Love has come to us in person, in Jesus. We understand what love is because we see it and experience it in Jesus: in his mercy and forgiveness; in his kindness and generosity; in his patience and understanding; in his humility and vulnerability; in his concern for each and every one; in the way Jesus makes life more abundant – whether healing, or feeding 5,000, or making more wine so the wedding celebration can continue. In Jesus we recognize how love has power to make all things new – to make human beings new. Love is what flows from the vine to the branches, bringing fullness of life.
At the same time, however, as much as we all want and need love, part of us is also afraid of being loved. Why? Because being loved has consequences. God’s love for us comes without conditions – but not without consequences.
To be loved is to be changed. God loves us just the way we are. And God loves us too much to allow us to stay just the way we are. The love of God claims us – so our lives are not strictly our own. God’s love forgives us, freeing us from the burden of guilt and regret – and also setting us free from all our excuses going forward. The love of God makes our broken and scattered lives whole. What’s more, God’s love invites and enables us to love others. John writes: “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” And “we love because God first loved us.”
We want to love – yet at the same time we are afraid to love, because we have learned that loving can be risky and costly. Loving requires us to become vulnerable, it exposes our hearts to the possibility of rejection and manipulation.
The story of Jesus reveals our human ambivalence when it comes to being loved. Many responded to the love of Jesus enthusiastically: they were blessed. Others responded with suspicion, resentment and fear. They asked: Why are you loving those unrighteous, undeserving people? What’s your agenda, Jesus? What will your love expect and require of us? The love of Jesus caused them to be angry and resentful. It made them afraid. Their fears led to his crucifixion. God sent his love into this world in Jesus – and the result was that we killed him.
The love made manifest in Jesus is so potent, so radical, so transforming that it scared some people. The truth about love is that it changes things, it changes people – and change can be intimidating. Scripture reminds us that, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31) This is true in terms of our ultimate accountability to our Creator. Yet it is also true because the loving hands of God challenge us, change us, and commission us. God is not content with our status quo.
Love has direct consequences – as John describes: “… those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen . . . those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” Thomas Merton expands on this consequence: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business, and, in fact, it is nobody’s business.”
In our hearts, then, there is a struggle between love and fear. We long to be loved, and we want to show love to others. Yet we also shrink back from the changes and responsibilities that love entails. We must pay close attention to what John says in regard to our love and fear. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear . . .” The opposite of love is not hatred, but fear. Our fears smother our capacity for love. John adds this: “whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” I believe that observation applies to all of us. We have not reached perfection when it comes to love. We still wrestle with our fears.
Honesty compels us to admit that we love, not as we ought but as we are able. How then are we to grow in love? We must keep in mind that love does not originate in us. Self-giving, life-giving love – which in the original Greek of the New Testament is AGAPE – is not something that you and I can generate or sustain. “Love is from God,” says John. On our own, love is like a battery that runs down. Jesus offers this gracious promise: “As you abide in me, I will abide in you.” Jesus is the Living Vine, the vital source of love. You and I are branches. Apart from Christ we cannot bear fruit, we cannot sustain love.
We need to keep in touch, stay connected to the One who is the source of life and love. God’s love isn’t an idea or a concept. Love is a passion, embodied in a person. Love came in all its fullness in Jesus. He is God’s loving Word made flesh. That same loving word of grace takes flesh in us as we abide in Christ. It’s not that we are obligated to love – rather it’s that we are able to love, empowered to love because love has come to us, because God’s love continues to flow to us through Christ: from the living vine to the branches.
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The altar and the pulpit at the church where I grew up had beautiful carvings of grape vines. Of course the connection of grapes to the wine of communion is apparent. In addition, the vine imagery visualizes our relationship to Christ. We are branches on his eternal vine – and Holy Communion is the blessed means by which we stay connected. Communion is nothing less than abiding in Christ – and Christ in us. It’s how his love flows to us.
Love truly is the greatest, most essential, most holy blessing of all. Love comes to us from God, and it flows through us as gracious fruit in the world. It is not my love or your love – it is the wonder of Christ in us that empowers us to love as he loves us. Because Christ lives in us, his love will ultimately be perfected in us.
Thanks be to God.