Thursday, April 2, 2015

What is Love? A Maundy Thursday Sermon

Listen to these lyrics of popular songs,
“All you need is love”
“What the World needs now is Love sweet love”
 “Love is the answer”

If popular songs are any indication of a culture’s belief and values, we are a culture convinced of Love’s preeminence. Love is the most transcendent experience a human being can have. Of all things in this world love seems nearest to divine. Indeed scripture itself teaches us, “God is Love” and today in our gospel lesson Jesus tells us, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” But here is a question: What is love?

In our culture, love is at risk of becoming a sentimental platitude without any real depth. Love is often so closely associated with feeling and emotion as to be almost narcissistic, as if the main reason we should love other people is the enjoyment it gives us.

Part of the problem is that our English word can be rather broadly interpreted. One uses the same word to say, “I love my mother, I love my wife, or I love peanut butter chocolate Easter eggs, but each of these uses actually express something quite different. 

Greek has four different words for what we call love. The first is Storge which is affection or fondness through familiarity. We sometimes use the word “like” in these instances, but when the feelings are stronger we say love. The second is Philia as Philadelphia “the city brotherly love.” This is the love of friendship. The third is Eros which is romantic love, the love of husband and wife. Finally there is agape which is sometimes translated as charity. This is the generous, unconditional, self-sacrificial, love that God has for us.

This is also the word Jesus uses when he commands us to love one another. This kind of love is more than sentiment—although it can certainly have feelings of tenderness and warmth associated with it—more than anything this love is an action. This is why Jesus can command it of us.

The command to love one another is in itself not a new one. The Old Testament law commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Here, however, Jesus makes the command more specific. He adds, “As I have loved you.” 

He is our pattern and example and we are called to be imitators of him. He demonstrates for us the true meaning of love. Jesus does more than merely utter platitudes. He shows in a concrete way through his actions what true love is. As the letter of 1 John says, ‘let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.’ This is precisely what Jesus did in tying a towel around his waste and stooping to wash the feet of his disciples.

This is the action not of a master, but of a slave. Christ is here performing the most menial task. He is not afraid to take the despised position because Love is humble. It does not seek its own good but the good of the other. Just this Sunday we read from Paul’s letter to the Philippians where we are instructed to have the mind of Christ, who although he was in the form of God, emptied himself and took the form of a servant. What more fitting illustration of the self-sacrificial love of Christ can there be than this?

He rose from the table and set aside his cloak and took up a towel, just as he had set aside the power and splendor of his divinity to clothe himself in our human nature. As the Early church father Severian wrote,

“He who wraps the heavens in clouds wrapped round himself a towel; he who pours the water into the rivers and pools tipped some water into a basin. And he before whom every knee bends in heaven and on earth and under the earth, knelt to wash the feet of his disciples.”

It is this kind of humility, sacrifice, and selflessness that characterized the whole of Jesus’ life and finds its consummation in his suffering and death. His whole life is like broken bread and wine poured out for the life of the world and the glory of his father.

Jesus knew that his hour was coming. Our text says, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ This could mean simply that Jesus kept on loving his disciples until the end of his life, but we know that his love for us endured beyond the hour of his death and that neither death nor life can separate us from his love.

 It can also mean that he loved them to the uttermost, or that he loved them with every drop of his being. Jesus himself said, ‘Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’

This is the kind of love that Jesus calls us to have. Christ calls us to do more than fulfill the law in loving our neighbor as ourselves; he challenges us to go deeper, to love God and our neighbor more than our own life. Can you imagine what a community of people who loved like that can accomplish? This is the kind of love—the radical self-giving—that will make the world stand up and take notice. Such love is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit. Brothers and Sisters, let us love one another as he has loved us.

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