Easter 6, Year B
Donna Joy

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. John 15:12-13, 17

As baptized Christians, each of us is called to live out this command.Some people seem called to go so far as to sacrifice their lives (people like Martin Luther King, Jr.), others are called to sacrifice in less dramatic ways, within the context of their day-to-day lives, but through our Baptism, each of us is called.

Prompted by the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s death I’ve been reading and re-reading various pieces about his life, his vision, his courage, and – of course - his sacrifice. One of the interesting things I discovered was the final sermon he preached in an Episcopal church, just days before he was assassinated. He preached this sermon at Washington’s National Cathedral on the last Sunday before the beginning of Holy Week. As the church was preparing to focus on Jesus’ journey toward and death on the cross, King was preaching his last sermon before laying down his life so that others may have a hope for freedom: a freedom many had never known.

In this final sermon he talked about the importance of staying awake: awake to the mandate of the Gospel, and living faithfully according to the Gospel message of love within the context of one’s own time. In order to make this point, he talked about Washington Irving’s little story: Rip Van Winkle. He said that the main thing we usually remember about that story is that Rip Van Winkle slept for 20 years, but there is another point in that little story that is often completely overlooked; that is, the sign in the end, from which Rip went up in the mountain for his long sleep.

When Rip went up the mountain, the sign had a picture of King George the 3rd of England. When he came down twenty years later the sign had a picture of George Washington, the 1st president of the U.S. When Rip Van Winkle looked up at the picture of George Washington he was completely lost, because he had no idea who he was. For Martin Luther King this revealed that the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that he slept 20 years, but that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountain a revolution was taking place that at points would change the course of history – and Rip had completely missed it.

The point King was making, of course, is that they were living in the midst of a revolution, as he preached that morning just days before his death. He was urging those who were listening to be fully awake, so that they may participate in this important revolution in order to make the world a better, more just, place, where freedom may be found. And one of the great liabilities of life according to King is that all too many people find themselves living in the midst of tremendous social change, and because we’re not fully awake we find it difficult to develop the new attitudes, new mental responses, that the new situation demands.

We are currently experiencing radical social challenges: hunger and poverty continue to be rampant in developing countries, and are on the rise in developed countries such as the one in which we live. While technology is connecting people all over the world, it is driving a wedge between individual relationships – couples, parents/children, friends – physically - sitting in restaurants together, yet separated by the screens in front of them; staring at the screens rather than each other. New age religions continue to shape its adherents into believing that they are the center of the universe; that their wants, needs, desires must be considered first before all others. Racism, born out of colonialism, continues to be a serious problem.

And, then, on Sunday we come to worship together and we wake up. In part to the challenges of our time, but perhaps even more importantly to the heart of what our response is called to be.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

I think it is important to reflect on this passage within the context of our current social realities and challenges, because if we – as a people of faith – were truly living according to this command, these challenges could and would be significantly transformed. Imagine what is possible if every Christian in every work place, every community, every family, every church was to live faithfully according to this command. Because this extraordinary brand of love is required to permeate every thread that is woven into the fabric of our being: not just something that we hear on Sunday morning and put on the shelf until we return the following week. This extraordinary brand of love is expected to inform our politics, our relationships, each of the decisions (large and small) that we make.

Imagine, as voters, if every follower of Jesus were to support politicians who have a commitment to redistributing government funds for the well-being of those who live in hunger and poverty… imagine what could be possible. I’m amazed at how often I find myself in conversation with people who determine where they will place their vote, exclusively dependent on which choice will enrich their own personal lives, with very little consideration given to the common good.

Interestingly, later on in Martin Luther King, Jr’s final sermon he says, “We must all learn to live together as brothers (and sisters) or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.” So, where hunger, poverty, racism, individualism exists, we all perish as fools.

As followers of Jesus, the only way to respond to the injustices of this world is to love as Jesus loves; lay down our popularity/security/safety/comforts for others; and this is hard. The culture in which we live tends to view ‘love’ purely as an emotion – a warm and fuzzy feeling that comes over us when we’re smitten with a deep affection. Although this is not always the case, I think it is safe to say that often enough divorce occurs when that warm and fuzzy feeling diminishes and the hard work of loving as Jesus loves us is required. This kind of love that Jesus is talking about is much more than a whimsical warm and fuzzy feeling; he understood that this kind of love is a decision – an enduring decision to love others no matter what.

John’s gospel was written in the midst of extremely challenging times. Written close to a full century after Jesus’ death and resurrection, it is – in part – responding to the deep and painful fracture that occurred throughout that first century between the church and synagogue – that is, those who had chosen to follow Jesus and those who had not. This split was big and painful and very, very deep. At the same time, they were facing the ongoing tensions that came with the Roman rule. There were also fractures and tensions within their own fragile communities.

This is the context against which we need to read today’s passage. Not as a general exhortation to be nice to each other, but as the confused, pain filled words of a community trying to come to terms with internal and external struggles. There was tension, division and conflict with some in one camp, others in another camp, and many caught wavering somewhere in between. We know from much of Paul’s writing that tempers were often short, people were easily offended, and misunderstandings seemed to be rampant. It is from this context that the writer of John’s gospel recalls what Jesus is reported to have said as he was on his way to lay down his life for his friends – another time of confusion and uncertainty and misunderstanding.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

In other words: You’ll recover your balance – you’ll make it through tumultuous times – if you model your life on Jesus. Stay with Jesus, and keep his commandments because this is what empowers you to love others. Henri Nouwen refers to this as ‘the first love.’ That is, we love others, because Jesus has loved us. If we allow it to be so, our love for others is a natural consequence of Jesus’ primary love for us. It is important, once again, to remember that these words are attributed to Jesus as he is on his way to the cross – as he is on his way to lay down his life for his friends – that is, for you, for me; a gift that is accessible to the whole of humanity. And indeed, there is no greater love than this.

The command to love is given by one who has himself done everything that love can do. When a parent loves a child, that parent creates the context in which the child is free to return that love. When a ruler really does love his or her subjects, and when this becomes clear by generous and warm-hearted actions, he or she creates a context in which the subjects can and will love them in return. So, to love as Jesus commands us to love is to return his love by loving others. Today as we gather here, we are, in a sense, woken up: woken up to the strife, the distractions, the trials of our time; and at the same time woken up to the way in which we are called to respond to such challenges: to make sacrifices for one another – to love one another as we have been loved. As we wake up to all this today, perhaps we are called to take some personal inventory.

How might we be called to make sacrifices in order to love as Jesus loves? Let us shape our politics according to the politics of Jesus; that is, to love others as we have been loved. I think we see much of this in and through the ministries here at St. Peter’s: the Christmas gift tree; St. Matthew’s-Maryland Community Ministry; San Pancho Baby Clothes Project (newborn clothes for infants in Mexico); North Point Douglas Women’s Centre; Habitat for Humanity (providing lunch for builders); sponsoring a refugee family; supporting the Grow Hope Project; the casserole program; pastoral visitors; worship services in seniors’ facilities; KIDS Inc; creation care…

Fortunately, increasingly, ministries of this kind are based on the formation of relationships – relationships among equals - rather than simply based on the charity model. Each of these organizations require individuals who answer this call to love as we’ve been loved; to lay down our lives so that others may live. As individuals, there are many which in which we may lay down our lives in order to share Christ’s love in tangible ways.

I know some people who lay down their lives – their energy, their time – in order to welcome new Canadians in practical ways – helping them become more proficient in English by becoming their friends and spending time with them. Others have become trained to work with the truth and reconciliation commission, working towards healing with people whose lives have been so deeply affected by the residential school experience. Others who lay down their lives so that others may live more freely by confronting gossip, and other behavior that potentially compromises the worth and freedom of people whose reputations may be at risk.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. was about to lay down his life so that others may live – as he was about to love others as Jesus has loved him – he urged an episcopal congregation in the US to wake up to what was happening around them, and to wake up to the Good News of hope. Today, I believe, he urges us to do the same.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

Amen. May it be so.