John 10:11-18, I John 3:16-19
April 29, 2012
Renown theologian and author, Karl Barth, was asked toward the end of his life to sum up his theology. Surely, the person who posed that question was expecting a sophisticated answer from such a prolific and highly regarded scholar. Surprisingly, Barth responded with the text of a simple Sunday School song: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
The Apostle John seemed to come to the same conclusion when he penned both the Gospel of John and the epistle, I John. Scholars believe he was probably in his 80’s or 90’s at the time of writing. As an eyewitness to the public ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, John possessed a unique vantage point on the story. He had watched the Spirit drench the frightened disciples–including himself!–at Pentecost. He had witnessed the travails of the Church throughout its nascent years. He had struggled alongside communities of faith as they faced competing theological claims and addressed wayward disciples. He watched a Church tested by fire rise to new heights and descend into petty distractions and disputes.
As he distilled and expressed his theology in writing, the Apostle John drew upon decades of experience. For him, the clarion call of the Gospel was to love. That call was rooted in the penetrating love of God, made visible to humanity in the life and ministry of Jesus, God’s begotten Son.
Is it rather “old school” to be talking about love? Don’t we talk about that a lot, anyhow, here at Peace Community Church? Indeed, we do. Yet, talking about love never loses either its importance or its power.
The day that talking about love in the Church becomes unnecessary is the day that the Church of Jesus Christ, worldwide, is known—really, truly known—for its love. It’s not known for its triumphalism, parochialism, or nationalism. It’s not known for its xenophobia or homophobia. It’s not known for its classism or exclusivism. It’s not known for its patriarchy or paternalism. It’s just plain known by its LOVE–pure and simple, profound and deep. Love.
In both the stories of the Good Shepherd in John 10 and the instructions about love recorded in I John 3, we see the Apostle describe both the nature and embodiment of “real love.” In the Gospel reading, John offers the followers of Jesus a quick and simple test for distinguishing the huckster from the Good Shepherd, the charlatan from the genuine leader. His test is this: What kind of lover is that person? Is he or she deeply committed and personally invested, discerning yet generous of heart? Or is that person primarily focused on self-aggrandizement and self-interest, ready to abandon ship at the first sign of trouble? The lessons about love that appear in these two passages mirror sharpening insights in my own life, so I’m going to weave the two together.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned rather forcefully since our daughter Sarah’s death in November is this: love makes a difference, but it doesn’t always change the outcome of a situation. Contemplative writer and theologian, Thomas Merton, often speaks of “disinterested love.” This is not love without depth. Instead, it is love without an agenda–even a good agenda. It is love only for love’s sake.
As I lavished my love on Sarah last year, I had the best of agendas–Mom Agenda Extraordinaire. I wanted her to get better than she had ever been in her whole life. I wanted her to grapple with the darkness in ways she had not been able to do for so many years while stretched so thin by academic demands. I could go on and on about love’s agenda last year.
Jesus’ friend, Mary, anointed him with costly ointment shortly before he died. Her act of love was precious. His act of receiving that love was precious. Their profound understanding of each other’s need in a time of great crisis was precious. But Jesus was still arrested and crucified a few days later. Mary still faced the brutal execution of her beloved friend and every one of her feelings about that loss.
Did love make a difference? It made a difference to Jesus, and it made a difference to Mary, but it didn’t make a difference in how the story unfolded. At least, not that time. Sometimes it will, and sometimes it won’t, and we are not in control of those equations.
Love can be a pricey gift, like the love of a Shepherd who risks his own life for his sheep. If we are serious about learning to love with the love of God, and not with our own frail echoes of that love, this is a really important lesson to learn, and a difficult one, at that.
Secondly, love is relational. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep by name, and they recognize his voice. The apostle suggests that the sheep will not follow the voice of an imposter. When compassion lives in us, we cannot love from a distance. Love comes up close. Love seeks to know the Other, deeply in fact. Love tries to understand what they need, how they see, why they laugh and why they cry. The Shepherd is aware of the weaknesses and frailties of the sheep and seeks to protect them as much as possible.
We can love from a geographical distance, but we cannot love from an emotional distance. When the neighbor becomes Other to us, we cannot love. I think one of the reasons Sarah walked so faithfully with others in their darkness is that she knew her own darkness so well. Love accompanies and goes the distance. Again, this is often not easy.
Finally, love is open and inclusive. Jesus tells his disciples that he must gather in “other sheep who are not of this fold.” In a first century context, this would reflect to his Jewish-born followers the in-gathering of the Gentiles. Two thousand years later, who are these other sheep Jesus continues to gather? I believe that this promise goes far beyond the separations between Jew and Gentile prevalent in first century Palestine.
Shall people of diverse religious faiths throughout the world persist in harming one another in the name of their own particular deity? Do not our deities then become tribal gods over whom we fight? We have to pose serious questions about religious violence and interfaith relationships in our own day and time. The Good Shepherd does not just tend to his own flock of sheep and ignore or condemn all the other sheep. Instead, the shepherd continues to widen the circle, drawing others into the sheepfold.
Love is a noun, but it is also a verb. I recently read a quote from Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, NJ. It was on a poster shared via Facebook. The mayor says this: “Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people. Before you tell me how much you love your God, show me how much you love all His children. Before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.”