May 9, 2021
Love One Another
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Click here to watch a recording of the 11am service on May 9, 2021.
“Love One Another”
A Sermon Preached by Frank Mansell III
John Knox Presbyterian Church – Indianapolis, Indiana
May 9, 2021
John 15: 9-17
What does it mean to us to love one another? For some of us, when we hear the word “love,” we think of romance, partner-for-life kind of love. For others of us, we may think of love of a family member. For still others of us, we may think of the bonds of friendship, or we may think of the care of our neighbors or those less fortunate than us. Love can certainly take on a multitude of meanings.
Today is Mother’s Day, and we often associate love with this day. We give thanks for the nurture and care that our biological mothers gave us as infants, children, youth, and adults. We remember the guidance and love that women provided as mother-figures to us, serving as mentors in our lives of faith. We recall the sacrifices in love that were made on our behalf so we might have opportunities that would not have been possible otherwise. On this Mother’s Day, the act of love is indeed very prevalent in our hearts and minds.
As I’ve been packing up my office over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reminded of the many ways God has loved me through so many in my life of faith. Cards and letters that I’ve saved which were sent at a particularly low moment in my life. The pictures and post-it notes drawn by Erin and Heather when they were younger, showing their love through the eyes of a child that never goes away. Awards and diplomas from past generations of my family, reminding me of God’s love through my family. Pictures of weddings, mission trips, special celebrations, and more from our eighteen years of ministry together. Even though these items are being packed away in boxes for the time being, when I unpack them in North Carolina they will bring back the overwhelming gratitude I have of how we have loved one another as disciples of Jesus Christ.
This is at the heart of what Jesus is saying today in our passage from the Gospel of John. A form of the word “love” is used eight times in these nine verses. And Jesus repeats the phrase “love one another” within six verses of each other. There is no doubt what the central theme of his speech is: love one another as I have loved you. Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus uses other imagery to make clear how God has loved us. He lays down his life for us, as a shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Our life of faith is rooted in the vine of God’s goodness – Jesus Christ – and we are loved by him in order to bear fruit for his kingdom. We know how Jesus loves each of us.
But how do we love one another as he has loved us? It is one thing to say that; it is quite another thing to do it. It is one thing to read that; it is quite another thing to believe it. It is one thing to try that; it is quite another thing to live it each and every day. How do we love one another as Christ has loved us?
Maybe one place to start is to realize that the first step taken in this relationship was by God, not by us. There is a great deal of emphasis in fundamentalist, evangelical circles of faith to “choose Jesus,” to “be converted,” to “find your Savior,” almost like he was lost or something. For many Christians, there is a conversion moment in one’s life when that individual chooses to follow Jesus. I’m not saying that is wrong, because for all of us we need to acknowledge when we purposefully and acutely discovered God was with us in Jesus Christ. But I do believe this line of thought deceives the believer into thinking he or she is choosing God’s love for them. The truth is that choice was already made by God, and that choice is Jesus Christ.
One commentator describes it in the following way: In John 15, we find an interesting statement by Jesus to his followers, “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit . . .” (15:16). Most of us think of our religion as something that we have chosen. No, Jesus reminds his disciples that discipleship is his idea, not their idea. He reached out to them and declared them to be his followers before they reached out to him.
Our faith in God rests upon the choices of God, rather than upon our efforts. We love because God first loved us. We, who were once enemies of God, have been called friends by Christ (15:15). Why is this text, spoken by Jesus before his crucifixion, found here in Eastertide? I think it may be because it is a good reminder that our God is a living God. Our God is not an abstract idea, a detached notion, or a set of beliefs. Our God is a living God who reaches, intrudes, comes to us, and chooses us (William Willimon, “God’s Choices,” Pulpit Resource, April-May-June 2006, 38-39).
In other words, we are not given a choice about which God will be our God, or whether we will be loved by that God. That choice has already been made – Jesus says so today: “You did not choose me but I chose you.” It is not up to us to make the shrewd choice regarding our salvation, or to make all the conditions perfect for God to look favorably upon us. We are not in control when it comes to God’s love – it has already been decided, transacted, commissioned, and the deal has been closed. God has chosen us out of the goodness of God’s heart, to love us, to save us, to redeem us through Jesus our Lord. “You did not choose me but I chose you.”
What might that feel like for us? For any of us who have known our families, our parents, our siblings – they are a part of our lives which we did not choose. For any of us who have had children, they are a part of our lives which we did not choose. For any of us who have been married, even though we may have chosen who we fell in love with, we still did not know fully our spouse until we started living together. How do we respond to those people in our lives for whom we did not have a choice?
William Willimon says the following: Nobody knows what he or she is getting into as a husband or wife, a parent or child. [Even though we prepare for these people in certain ways] the trick is to prepare for a lifetime of commitment to someone who is always changing. How can you prepare for how annoying another person can be when he or she is so close to you so early each morning? How can you prepare for all the ways a child will challenge you, disappoint you, worst of all, come to look just like you only to desert you for college?
You can’t. And because you can’t, what you need is some means of being part of an adventure, which you can’t control, the end result of which you do not fully understand. Morally, we move into the future on the basis of the commitments that we made without knowing what we were getting into.
What you need . . . is some means of turning your fate into your destiny. As Christians, our faith provides us the means to live together as parents, children, husbands, wives – [as children of God]. You didn’t choose Jesus to be your Savior. He came to us, not the other way around. John’s Gospel makes this explicit: Jesus says to his disciples, “You did not choose me. I chose you so that you might bear fruit” (15:16). Because God has chosen us and continues to feed us and to care for us, we are enabled to be free from our modern obsessions with safety and control in order to risk being faithful, even to those whom we didn’t choose (ibid).
When I accepted the call to be your pastor eighteen years ago, it was a decision that was based on a lot of trust and faith. Before we said “yes,” the only interactions we had with people from the congregation were the ten members of the Pastor Nominating Committee. I had spoken with a few people who were your references, but other than that, it was a lot of faith and trust in God that this was where we were being called to serve. It may have felt like we were choosing each other for this new partnership in ministry, but I have to believe that God was the one who chose our family and yours to share in this incredible journey.
And look where that choice by God took us! New ventures in outreach and ministry, a recommitment to our community by building this sanctuary, nurturing children and youth into discipleship as young adults, growing deeper in our bonds of community through shared grief and loss, expanding how we reach our world through technology. Would any of us have thought those things would happen when a 31-year-old pastor began his ministry with you? I doubt it. But what I hope we’ve all learned is how by trusting in God’s grace, we have learned in a greater way how to love one another as God has first loved us in Jesus Christ.
In our passage today, Jesus says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you my friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (15:13-15). It’s an interesting shift by Jesus – no longer is he talking as the rabbi with his followers, but as a friend who loves them and cares for them.
David Cunningham writes: How is this theological account of love related to friendship? According to Aristotle, one of the best ways to habituate oneself in a particular virtue is to emulate those who already embody it. This is most likely to be successful when we have become friends with those whose lives we seek to emulate. We are known by the company we keep; in fact, we are very likely to become the company we keep (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, © 2008: 500).
In confirmation class, I used to tell the students that I was called to be their pastor, not their friend. That statement was meant to help keep clear what my role was as the pastor of this church, so that I could fulfill my calling in as full a way as possible. That notion of pastoral call was also passed on to me by generations who came before me, so that there were clear boundaries between parishioner and pastor, all, I believe, with good intentions.
The truth is, as we have heard from Jesus today, that we are and always will be friends as sisters and brothers in Christ. We cannot look at eighteen years as if they did not happen, nor how that time changed and influenced us as we sought to emulate in one another those qualities that mean the most to us. This morning we will take the formal action in the congregational meeting to dissolve the pastoral call between myself and John Knox, and in doing so we are affirming the Covenant of Closure which I and the Session agreed to on March 22. In my leaving, I agree to not participate in any part of the congregation’s life for the foreseeable future, and to set clear boundaries so that the interim and then next installed pastor are able to fully serve you in that capacity. This is what I would expect of anyone I was following as pastor, and so I unequivocally will do the same in my departure.
But I will always be your friend in Christ, and this Covenant of Closure makes clear we are not expected to forfeit those bonds. Just as Jesus declared his love for his disciples as his friends, so I declare my love for you as my friends in Christ. My prayer is that as we each move forward in faith, we will realize how God has indelibly marked us both through our lives of discipleship, and in our service others will experience the love of God in the same way we have known our love for one another.
Thanks be to God. Amen.