This Lent, through the leadership of the Adult Christian Education Committee, we are doing a community book read. We sold out of the pile of books Heather has obtained each of the past few weeks, but we’ve got more! I think Professor Norman Wirtzba’s book has a word for us. In the introduction he writes: “Christianity matters because it reveals the deep mysteries of God and the meaning of all life. It shows us what life is for and when it is at its best. And what is this ultimate revelation? The answer is surprisingly and profoundly simple: Christianity reveals the life of God and therefore also the meaning of life as a way of love.”1
Everyone is in favor of love. Great. But it is a word thrown about so much it barely means anything anymore. I love that movie! I LOVE that restaurant. We mean we appreciate an attribute of something else – the movie stirred up emotion, the restaurant’s atmosphere or salmon filled us. Media and television and movies are soaked with love stories, too often about warm fuzzy feelings or misplaced sexual expression. But these simple words, spoken and backed up, change the world. I bet many of us remember the first time we expressed our love to the person we would one day marry, or the first time it was really said to us. The vulnerability that is required to tell someone you love them is both thrilling and terrifying. We say it to our kids as we kiss them on the head and say good night. We know love as a verb expressed in time, driving to practices, helping with homework, accompanying to doctor’s appointments, sitting by the fire – sticking by each other, wherever we are needed to be.
Two of today’s texts help us dig in more. In John, Jesus and his disciples are at the last supper – chapters 13-17 are his farewell discourse. “This is my commandment,” he begins with a loaded word, commandment, ten commandments, the law upon which all else is founded. My commandment is that “you love one another as I have loved you.” Not to love others as we love Jesus. Jesus is telling them to love each other as much as Jesus has loved each of them. Being invested, caring for, committed to the person to your left and to your right, as Jesus has loved you. I’ll take a moment to let that sink in. That’s a deep investment. No one has greater love than this, Jesus says, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Those of you who have served in the military have a little better sense than the rest of us of a commitment to each other, at the risk of one’s own life. Jesus doesn’t call them servants any longer – at the last supper he is inviting them into his own work – friends. Partners. Co-laborers in the vineyard. In John, Lamar Williamson writes, “Jesus focuses not on the sin of those for whom he died but on the quality of his love for them. It is not the love of a superior for an inferior, but of an individual for his friends.”2 So that the love God has shared with us in Jesus might move us toward each other in deep and shared sacrifice.
The heart of Christian love – as these texts and much of Scripture tells us – is only slightly about how we feel. Love is great when it makes us feel good; to a certain extent we need that. But that is too much on the surface. It is a matter of will, of deciding to love. The letter of I John is likely written around the year 100; we don’t exactly know who has written the letter or to whom. But it is to a church trying to be faithful, disagreeing somewhat, as best we can tell, with some issues Christological – who do we understand Jesus to be – and ethical – how are we to live?3 The message you have heard from the beginning, is that we should love one another. Without Christ’s love – and even with it, it seems – we wrestle, like Cain did with his brother, in how to be in relationship to those around us. We get caught up in petty jealousies. We compare. Our homes, our jobs, our kids. I have had many conversations about this budget gap and our financial situation as we move forward, great conversations. We’ve made good progress but we’ve also got some work to do. But some of them have started with what other people give or don’t give. Are our older members still giving? Have the new members stepped up? It’s important to context, and we’re crunching numbers and doing our best – the Session has been working really hard. But love, at its heart – and this is much bigger than giving to the church, though that is certainly included – cannot be concerned with anyone else’s motivations. All who hate, resent, are angry, compare with a brother and sister are murderers, our author says.
Here’s how we know, the author of first John tells us. Sounds like he’s read John’s gospel. We know love this way – that Jesus laid down his life for us. EVERY BIT OF OUR LOVE IS ROOTED IN CHRIST’S LOVE FOR US. In that same way, we are called to pour ourselves out for each other. Moving toward others, and it doesn’t work unless it costs us something. That is what Christian love is – rooted in Jesus’ love, we move toward all people, in grace, in joy, in compassion, knowing we are called to give and to sacrifice and to pour ourselves out for others, day after day after day, in the manner of Christ. How does God’s love abide, the text asks, in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help?
I was sent an article a few weeks ago in the Los Angeles Times about a gentleman named Mohamed Bzeek. He spends long days and sleepless nights caring for a bedridden 6-year-old foster girl with a rare brain defect. She’s blind and deaf. Her arms and legs are paralyzed. Of the 35,000 children monitored by the county’s Department of Children and Family Services, there are about 600 children at any given time who fall under the care of the department’s Medical Case Management Services, which serves those with the most severe medical needs. “If anyone ever calls us and says, ‘This kid needs to go home on hospice,’ there’s only one name we think of,” said Melissa Testerman, an intake coordinator who finds placements for sick children. “He’s the only one that would take a child who would possibly not make it.” There may be more, but, as of their report, they could not find another foster parent in the country known to take in children everyone knows are going to die.
Bzeek came to this country from Libya as a college student. Years later, through a friend, he met Dawn, who would become his wife. Before they met, she had opened her home as an emergency shelter for foster children who needed immediate placement or who were placed in protective custody. The first child died in their care in 1991. By the mid-1990s, the Bzeeks decided to specifically care for terminally ill children who had do-not-resuscitate orders because no one else would take them in. Their only biological son, Adam, was born in 1997 — with brittle bone disease and dwarfism. Now 19, Adam weighs about 65 pounds and has big brown eyes and a shy grin. Around 2000, Dawn began having seizures herself, that slowed weakened. She died in 2013. Yet night after night, and day after day, and hospital visit and doctor’s office phone call and nurse’s visit, he shows a love that is patient and that is kind, that pours one’s self out for another, again and again and again.4
“Church,” Wirzba claims, “is the name Christians give to the communal bodies that practice and promote the exercise of love…Obviously, churches can fail terribly at this effort. But when they are functioning as they should, people discover that they are always loved, that they are responsible for each other, and that they are called to model to each other and to everyone the divine power that transforms fearful, bored, and lonely souls into people who nurture, protect, and celebrate the gifts of God. Christian community is the merciful and indispensable classroom in which people face their confusion about love, repent of their unloving ways, and switch from strategies of self-protection and self-enhancement to projects that seek the well-being of others.”
Here in a few moments we’ll gather at this table – the perfect way to begin this Lenten journey of preparation. As Jesus sat around this table, he invited us to think about how much he loves us still, and how it is that love that calls us to move toward all with a love that, rooted in God’s own love, is thick with sacrifice, that pours one’s self out, that relentlessly gives. If the way of love is truly the way of Jesus, then we have hard work ahead of us as we practice together. I wonder what that might look like for you this Lent? Who else might we be together? “I am giving you these commands,” Jesus said, “so that you may love one another.”
May it be so. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Norman Wirtzba, “Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity,” (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), p 1-2.
2. Lamar Williamson, Preaching the Gospel of John, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p 200.
3. Warren Carter, in the introduction to I John in The Discipleship Study Bible (Louisville, Westminster/John Knox, 2008), p 2084.
4. “‘I know they are going to die.’ This foster father takes in only terminally ill children.” Los Angeles Times, 2/8/17.