Acts 11:19-30; Psalm 33:1-8, 18-22; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:9-17
Greg has on more than one occasion wondered if he might begin a sermon with a line from a movie he’s seen, and I’ve seen, and I suspect many of you have seen, more times than we can count. And I’m so sorry, Greg, but I’ve just got to use that line today and begin my sermon by saying that this morning’s readings are all about wuv, twue wuv.
Do you know that line? It’s from the movie The Princess Bride, spoken by a linguistically challenged pwiest presiding over the marriage of Princess Buttercup to the evil Prince Humperdinck. But she’s really in love with Wesley, a pirate who used to be the stable boy on her family’s farm, and the whole movie is about their belief that true love conquers all. Atop the Cliffs of Insanity, against the terrors of the Fire Swamp, even in the Pit of Despair, true love endures, giving Wesley and Buttercup each the strength to risk everything for a happy ending.
It’s a love story. But it’s not, the narrator assures us, a kissing story. Wesley and Buttercup aren’t the only ones who find strength in love and friendship. Two others join Wesley in his quest to be reunited with Buttercup, and they, too, are willing to risk their lives, all because of true love. They are perhaps the unlikeliest of friends – a princess, a pirate, a dim-witted but gentle giant, and a single-minded sword-happy Spaniard – but friends they become as they work side by side, their assorted skills intertwined, and in the end, true love does indeed conquer all.
Jesus said to his disciples, Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God….God is love. In our epistle and gospel readings today, taken together, the word “love” appears 36 times. This morning’s readings are all about love, true love, the kind worth risking everything for, the kind that conquers all. The kind that God has for us, revealed, the first letter of John says, in this way: God sent God’s Only Son into the world that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent Jesus Christ to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins…. Now that’s a love story.
But Jesus wasn’t the only one who found strength in love. He picked up a few friends along the way, an unlikely bunch: fishermen, tax collectors, a few Pharisees, women, outsiders. And they would pick up a few more unlikely folks, women and men, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slaves and free, and one of those, the writer of first John, would look back at the whole story and say, Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another….After all, the commandment we have from Jesus is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also, or their love is not true. Social activist Dorothy Day, whom many believed was as unlikely a saint as they come, put it bluntly, “We only really love God as much as we love the person we love least.” It seems our love of God is measured by our love of others. Will they know we are Christians by our love?
The Greek language used in Jesus’ day had three distinct words for “love,” each with a different nuance, but all meaning “love.” Today, in our language, we have the reverse – one word, “love,” with a thousand different meanings, so that it is often difficult to know exactly what we mean when we say we love someone or something, or if we really mean it at all. We know how we feel when we love and when we are loved, and how we feel when we are not. We speak of love beginning, and of love ending. We love cake more than ice cream, gardening more than eating vegetables, we love this person more than that person. At times we think we must earn love, and at times we think we must prove it. We place limits and measures on love, else why would the word “unlovable” exist?
And so we hear those who love God must also love their brothers and sisters and those thousand meanings swirl inside us. Well how much love is proof? Exactly which and how many brothers and sisters are proof? Is this like cake-love, or gardening-love, or, probably, person-love, but is it like this-person-love or that-person-love? Can I say, “ I love you” if I don’t feel it?
To tweak an observation from that single-minded sword-happy Spaniard, “Jesus, you keep using that word, love. I do not think it means what we think it means.” Not even the Greek words completely capture what love is, true love, the kind with which God loves us, because this love is not a thing or a feeling or a moment or a thought or a word but, rather, a motion, an action. Love is the source and sustenance and shape of life, always moving outward toward the other, toward the beloved. This love was revealed in Jesus, it was the shape of his life, always moving outward toward the other, no matter how likeable they were.
Love is not about how we feel. The cross was not exactly warm and fuzzy. Love is not about how we measure up. We only love because God loved us first – do you see, there's that motion? Love is not about how much we like our brothers and sisters. We’re not perfect, either, and yet we are beloved of God. Love is about how we live.
We live, Jesus said in the verses just before where we picked up today, we live as branches, and he is the vine, and God is the gardener who planted the vine. Love is the source and sustenance and shape of life, moving from the root through the vine to the branches so that they may bear fruit in a world that is starving for love. I am the vine, you are the branches, Jesus said. Abide in me.
Of course, the branches on a vine do not grow in the same way as branches on a tree, distinct from one another. Branches on a vine grow long and winding, and they twist around one another and by tendrils cling to one another so that it is difficult to tell where one branch ends and another begins. And they are all nourished and sustained from the same vine, planted by the same gardener. Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also because it is the same love. The branch in which love stops moving will wither and die. But the branch that abides in the vine, the branch through which love, true love, moves will live and will bear fruit.
And here, Jesus went on to say, is how you abide in me, here is how you let love shape your life: you love one another as I have loved you. You become part of one another’s lives, and find the unlikeliest of friends. You seek and serve me in those whom you would least like to love. You care for those who are hungry, hurting, grieving, or alone. You forgive. You lay down your life, and take up mine, and live my love story. Atop a cross, against the terrors of death, even in the pit of a tomb, true love endures, and there is a happily ever after.
That we could love as Jesus loves seems impossible, inconceivable. Who is less like us than he is, perfectly human, perfectly God, perfectly Love? Rem we are branches on his vine – we are not asked to find this love within ourselves but, rather, to abide in Jesus, to let the love of God move through us, to let it sustain and shape our lives to make them fruitful. Not perfect, God knows we’re not like that, not yet – we’re still growing, you see. But there is fruit where love is moving.
Love is moving down on the coast, where the unlikeliest of companions from all over the world come together at Camp Coast Care to work; where “liberal” and “conservative” are meaningless words because we are all branches; where entire congregations have laid down the lives they once knew and are taking up a new life and ministry directed outward in their devastated communities.
Love is moving throughout this diocese, where congregations are increasing their budgets for outreach; where campers come together and form lifelong friendships; where a new church has been planted for the first time in 30 years.
Love is moving right here, where we welcome the community in our new building; where those who are sick or hurting are prayed for by name each day; where young and old, women and men, rich and poor, black and white, come together to worship, sometimes the unlikeliest of friends, but branches intertwined.
Beloved, friends, we are one in the Spirit, one in the Lord, one in the vine. Let us love one another, because love is from God. Let us walk with each other, let us walk hand in hand. Let us work with each other, let us work side by side. And they will know we are Christians by our love, true love. Amen.