Sermon: The Call to Build a History of Love

[Jesus said:] As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “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. 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 friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

John 15:9-17

My sermon from the 6th Sunday of Easter (May 5, 2024) on John 15:9-17.


So on Thursday afternoon, right after school, the kids and I stood around a little hole in our backyard. We were in one of our flower beds, right next to two large oak trees covered in yellow pollen. The four of us were being a bit quiet while looking down on the grave for the goldfish we just buried. Over the weekend, the youngest went with a neighbor to a local carnival and when she came back a few hours later, she proudly let us all know she had “won” a goldfish. I didn’t expect this new friend to last a single night in a home with two cats and a dog. But come the next morning, I realized we had a new thing to add to our daily routine. This change, though, didn’t last long. And after marking the spot  with a few sticks we found on the ground, I figured it would be appropriate for me to say a few words. That moment, though, was harder than I expected because I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to share something profound since my kids were standing right there but what came out of my mouth instead was a garbled mess. 

Now today’s reading from the gospel according to John can, in its own way, sound like a garbled mess too. Unlike the other stories about Jesus with a beginning, middle, and end – this reading comes in the middle of a really long speech. It can be difficult to recognize what was happening when Jesus said these words. And so that’s why I often encourage us to always put God’s word back into scripture itself. Whenever we find ourselves in chapter 14, 15, 16, or 17 of John, we need to remember Jesus and his friends were in the middle of John’s version of the Last Supper. Jesus had gathered the disciples together in Jerusalem for a meal during the festival of Passover. The city, at that time, was overflowing with visitors which created a vibrant, energetic, and tension-filled atmosphere that wasn’t helped by all the Roman soldiers policing the city. Jesus, along with his followers, had developed a reputation as a bit of a rabble rouser which is why those in authority kept their eyes on this preacher from Galilee. Those around Jesus, though, were hopeful; expecting Jesus to do something at that moment to make God’s kingdom real in their world. These people were filled with anticipation but Jesus knew the Cross was almost here. Jesus’ words and actions throughout these chapters are more than universal teachings meant to turn us into good people. He wanted those who were about to see the end of his story realize their future had only just begun. 

So Jesus, knowing what the disciples would soon experience, chose to stretch a metaphor that – on the surface – sounded as if he was going on and on and on. Dr. Karoline Lewis, in a commentary on this passage, reminded me that Jesus’ longwindedness often has a point and we notice that when we pay attention to the subtle shifts in his language. So to see that a bit clearly, we need to remember the metaphor we heard Jesus use last week. He had invited those who followed him to see themselves as branches that extended outwards from the vine of Jesus himself. We are not to primarily see ourselves as individuals moving about in the world. We are, instead, always connected to the source of who we are. Jesus, while speaking to those who were going to see the life of their teacher cut off from them in a fit of terror and violence, told them to abide in him. These disciples were to hold onto him, no matter what, because he would always have a hold on them too. This holding onto Jesus would be difficult but could be done by living into the fullness of his story. But Jesus shifts that metaphor ever so slightly by telling us to not only abide in him but also in his love. Jesus, I think, recognized that just sticking by him wasn’t always enough. What we would also need was a memory or an experience knowing what it’s like to be loved by God. When our world comes undone; when we no longer have any tears left to shed; what can hold us through is the promise this isn’t what this life will only be about. Imaging what that future might be like isn’t always easy. And so what we often need is a kind of history showing how today isn’t the limit of what tomorrow might be. 

And so with that kind of love in mind, Jesus pushed our understanding of love away from being merely a feeling, emotion, or a kind of fantasy that only exists in Hallmark movies. Love can, and should, create a history where we discover how our hope is always real. It’s the same kind of love Jesus himself showed his friends when, before he even spoke these words, he embodied by getting up and washing everyone’s feet. Jesus, even when he knew that the Cross was near, kept creating a history of love, support, and care for those who didn’t always understand him; for those who didn’t always believe in him; for those who would deny him and even for those who would betray him. Jesus gave up the privilege we’d expect the son of God to claim as his own so that fishermen, tax collectors, men, women, the young, the old, the rich, the poor, the healthy, and those in need could discover how much God valued them. That history of love wasn’t, though, something only Jesus could do. He also called all of us to create our own history of love with one another – as a response to the love he always shares. It’s a history of love that carries us through the loss, grief, and hardships that come. It’s a history of love that sustains us when we do the opposite of what that love should look like. It’s this history of love that reveals what can be even when we are worn down by what we’re going through, what the world is going through, or even by our own intrusive thoughts and feelings. When we create a history of love, we’re not only going to be nice, kind, and never get into conflict with one another. Instead, the love we give is a love that chooses to be present with and for each other even in times of crises and suffering. We, with the gifts God gives us, can – and do – make choices of what this history of love will look like through the voices we listen to, the words we post and share, and the ways we decide that some are worthy of love and some aren’t. Even when the time we have with one another is short, we can work to build a history of love that transforms, expands, and even changes what our lives, our relationships, and our world might be. When I was standing over that hole in the ground trying to say something about a goldfish I had no real history with, I realized I had forgotten my responsibility to pay attention to building that history of love. It might seem small or silly or a bit odd to care too much about a goldfish I didn’t even plan for in the first place – yet even our smallest moments can be an opportunity to build that history with everything around us. I can’t change what this last week was like – but I can choose to make this week, the next week, and every week after that to one where I build a history of love – one that reflects the love that Jesus continues to build with all of us everyday.