Sunday, May 13, 2012

"Love: Part 2" - Sunday Sermon, May 13, 2012

Chaplain Mel Baars
May 13, 2012
John 15:9-17

“Love: Part 2”

Throughout the week, as I have been emailing some of my minister friends at home who were also preparing for sermons this Sunday, a few of them have mentioned just how “over” love they are. I admit, when I looked up our gospel for this morning and realized it was just about the same tune as last week, I agreed with them. Love just keeps coming up, and I am running out of things to say about it. And, as one person mentioned to me during the week, “Love is hard really to imagine when each day because, for one reason or another, I’m just trying not to hate.” This is true, especially here, where there is very little space or opportunity to get back to neutral. In some cases, love may begin with a subtle change of heart. In the absence of negative emotion, space is made for something more, something even hopeful which might eventually turn into love. It’s all about the baby steps.

But, whether we like it or not, we find ourselves in the same exact spot we left off last week, hearing again about Jesus’ command to love as he has loved us. This is his final discourse, his Last Supper, with the disciples. Now, though, they are not only his followers, but they are also called his friends-- no longer servants but friends. It is an important title, worthy of our attention. I should have looked ahead and realized that these two weeks are really the same passage, just broken in half. Don’t ask me why. If I had been paying better attention I could have easily entitled these sermons, Love: Part 1 and Part 2.

If we took anything away from Part 1 last week, hopefully you at least remember the vine and the branches, God is the source of life without which we wither and die; love is only possible through God. God supplies love, enabling us to love in response. There is an ancient hymn, possibly as old as some of the first Christian gatherings, which is typically sung in Catholic churches either on Maundy Thursday, during the foot washing, or in preparation for Communion, which says, Ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est. Where there is love, there is God. Without God there is no love, no true love. This was LOVE: Part 1.

So, now, Love: Part 2. In many ways, Part 2 is all about friendship, a word often misunderstood and even more often overused. I am one to talk, since I have just surpassed 1700 friends on my facebook page. The word friend is derived from the Greek word phileo, meaning “to love.” A friend is literally one who loves. It is an active, present tense verb. Around the time that our gospel was being written, the ideal of friendship played a prominent role in society. Aristotle once said, “It is true the virtuous man’s conduct is often guided by the interests of his friends and of his country, and that he will if necessary lay down his life in their behalf.”[1] We heard echoes of this same calling in our gospel when Jesus said, “No one has greater love then this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

The idea of laying down one’s life for one’s friends seems a little dramatic in our contemporary culture. I can honestly say that I don’t even remember half of my facebook friends. I don’t even write all of them on their birthdays, so I can guarantee that I am not prepared to die for them. In Greek and Roman times, friendship was an ideal often espoused philosophically as well as theologically. This is not to say that people back then were better, more dedicated friends, it’s just that they used this language to articulate the extent upon which a true friend would sacrifice himself for the sake of another. Being a friend was something that was aspired to. It was a distinction that held special honor. Friendship spoke to both the calms and storms of life. It indicated longevity and commitment. Friendship was based on the good of the other person, rather than personal need or gain. It did not aim to possess or control. Therefore, true friendship was and, continues to be, very rare.

The first time I was asked, as a chaplain, to do a funeral for a fallen soldier, I had about sixteen hours to prepare. I had nothing but a blank page and a general’s aid who was calling me on the half hour to see if he could get an updated order of service. I wanted to tell him that he would get the information a lot faster if he would stop calling me. I didn’t know any of the circumstances of his death, just that he had died in Afghanistan and had a wife and three little girls all under five. But, in a way, I didn’t need to know the details. Whatever he was doing when he died, whatever happened, love was surely a part of it.

As one writer puts it, “Soldiers in battle fight for their friends. They make friendships more intense, more intimate than any they have ever known before. And when Jesus says ‘Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends,’ soldiers know exactly what he’s talking about. You don’t hurl yourself into the shelling and rifle fire of no man’s land because you believe in freedom, justice or the flag; you do it because you see your friend has been hit, and you can’t bear for him to die because he’s dearer to you than your own life.”[2]

While I have never been in a fire fight, never had to walk through the rubble of a mortar attack where a team member has been lost, never been a breath away of someone who was hit by a round or shrapnel, being here has made Jesus’ words a lot more real. They are no longer some abstract thought or distant possibility that will likely never come to pass. But, these words are now about faces and names, about Libby or Paula or Kathy, about Doug or Greg or Kyle. None of us know if or when we will ever be faced with the choice, but we know this, true friendship changes everything, even one’s need for self preservation.

In his novel, A Soldier’s Return, Melvyn Bragg tells a story of battle buddies serving in the British Army during the Second World War. Sam and Ian are their names. Like most battle buddies, Sam and Ian, meet somewhere along the road to war. Though their friendship has been short in number of days, it is matured by the intensity of their shared experience. Thousands of miles from home, fighting the Japanese in “the Far East,” they clung to one another. They depended on one another for just about everything from personal protection to keeping each other afloat during the long, interminable slog of war. In that space, there was really nothing else to hold on to but friendship.

Sadly, as we know too well, many who go to war don’t always return home-- alive. This was the case for Ian. In the book, Sam recalls the setting of Ian’s death-- it was a fine day, in a safe clearing.  Soldiers from different companies were enjoying a moment of rest after a few fierce days of fighting. Some were lounging, while others cleaning their weapons. It was a long needed break. Sam was right there next to Ian, enjoying a cigarette, no more than three feet away from him.

Sam describes, “I can see it now. Ian was cleaning a grenade... he pulled the pin before removing the fuse... he had a count of five before it blew up. That look. Sam could not, would not want to forget that look. For both had known, instantaneously, that there was nowhere to throw the grenade without killing some of the others. There was nowhere at all to throw it. Ian’s look had been of wonder and then... Ian had smiled, gently, sweetly… He had tried to say something before he violently twisted himself over and flattened himself on to the grenade, taking the full weight of the blast into his own body”[3] To lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Love is always a sacrifice. Ask any spouse who has given up his or her dreams to do what was best for the family as a whole. Ask any mother or father who has been up all hours of the night nursing a sick child. Ask any good leader who has given up the last seat on the bird home so that his soldiers might get to see their families while he stays back and misses out on spending the time with his. Being a friend, being “one who loves,” always comes with a cost.

We hear a lot of talk about the ultimate sacrifice, particularly when someone dies in combat. This language has always bothered me a little bit though, and I haven’t figured out why until now.  When Ian wrapped his body around that grenade... it wasn’t philosophical; it wasn’t patriotism; it wasn’t even about doing the right thing or even following Jesus. In those five seconds, there was no time to figure any of that out. Instead, it was simply out of love. 

Perhaps Jesus’ command to love as he loved is the most radical idea we find in our whole gospel because it seems to claim that the same love that Jesus had for the whole world which landed him on the cross is also possible within each of us. On some days, it’s hard to imagine. But, with Love: Part 1 in mind, we realize that this kind of love is possible because of the love, without condition, which God has so freely shared with us and continues to share even now.

A few years ago, long before Lance Armstrong’s yellow LIVE STRONG bracelets were popular, another bracelet hit the church youth circuit. On each bracelet was four letters: WWJD. This stood for What Would Jesus Do? For the high school aged kids in the Bible belt where I am from, I am pretty sure the bracelet was supposed to be a subtle reminder of Christian ethics and morality. In other words, don’t have sex; don’t drink; don’t do drugs.

Reflecting on this passage, on this Easter season as a whole, I wonder why we need to ask What Would Jesus Do. After all, we already know the answer, and I don’t think it is about sex or drugs. Loving as we have been loved, true love, is much harder than abstaining from any of those. Instead of the question, maybe what we need is a prayer, that we actually strive to do what Jesus has done and is still doing in the world, that we would go out and bear the fruit of love, the fruit of the Spirit, the fruit that will endure unto the very end. Amen.

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics IX.8 (1169a18-25) quoting from Gail O’Day, “I Have Called You Friends.” Center for Christian Ethics: Baylor University, 2008, p 21.
[2] Sam Wells, Sacrificing War. A sermon preached at Duke Chapel on April 13, 2008
[3] Melvyn Bragg. A Soldier’s Return. Arcade: 2003, pp 114-117

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