Jesus said, “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.” In the name of +Jesus. Amen.
Advertising has a way of telling us what we need. I saw a jewelry commercial on TV. The marketing slogan was, “All you need is love.” Instead of seeing people, I saw a sparkly diamond heart pendant lying effortlessly in a black velvet box. According to this commercial, love comes in the form of diamonds. Now the sparkle might bring joy in the moment, but earthly treasures rarely fulfill all we need. Love is something more.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus talks a lot about love. He’s not talking about sentimental or romantic love. Not the kind of love Hallmark makes cards for. He’s not talking about love of family or spouse or children.
He’s talking about agape. The Greek word “agape” translates as the highest form of “charitable love.” Giving love to a person, even when that person can’t pay you back. Laying down your life for that person. Like grace, agape is a gift of love given freely, regardless of whether it is deserved or earned. Agape doesn’t come wrapped in a lovely black velvet box. It is shared in community, given to all. Agape takes courage and requires risk.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching us how to live, and he gives us a valuable road map for our travels. “Abide in my love. Keep those commandments close to your heart that I have given you.” Clearly, Jesus knew that this life would be difficult. Surely we would try to create our own rules and regulations for God’s will. By giving us the commandment to love, Jesus is helping us find the boundary. This is the line…you all love one another.
When we love as Jesus commands, we come to know the joy. The complete joy of Christ, which lives and dwells and abides in the grace and love of God. A love that willingly lays down one’s life for one’s friends.
And we are all invited into friendship through Christ, because we abide in his love and dwell in God’s heart. We are friends of Christ not because of what we do, but because of what God is doing. Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” He gave us the model for agape in our world today. Love, no matter the cost. Love each other, no matter what.
In today’s first reading, Peter shows what agape looks like. Love, no matter the cost. The Holy Spirit fell upon the ears of ALL who heard the word. Jewish listeners in ancient times would assume that ALL only meant Jewish believers. But the Holy Spirit fell upon EVEN the Gentiles. Not just Israel, not only the Jewish believers. God was blessing all the people. He commanded that the Gentiles be baptized, and they were.
Peter’s act of agape, of courageously loving as Jesus commands, took the Gentiles from the outskirts of society and brought them into full inclusion within the Messianic community. In other words, Peter made it clear that Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. A shift in perspective, a move from excluding others to including them. Agape. He could’ve been killed that very moment for this kind of act.
And even today, we can look on the outskirts of society and see the line between those who are included and those who are excluded. Jesus shifts our perspective, wiping away exclusion and including all of us in God’s abiding love and friendship.
Jesus breaks down the power structure of master and servant, and identifies us as friends. In this way, he is sharing the ministry of God with us. We know everything Jesus heard from God the Father. We are included, not excluded, chosen and appointed to bear fruit that will last and will be sustained and nourished. We are commanded to be fruitful by loving one another.
Agape is a challenge to each of us to give and receive: find a way to love and be loved with compassion. Give, receive and respond….to serve others from that place of love. The commandment we receive from Jesus is given out of that same love, not as a punishment. There is no upward mobility in God’s Kingdom, no fast track up the corporate ladder. This is what Jesus tells us when we become friends. We won’t “get ahead”. The real fruit we can share is when we abide together, serving and loving and giving and sharing. When we live in the world and love like this, we experience the joy, the complete joy of Christ.
What does agape look like today, right here in Phoenixville? The complete joy of Christ? It looks like people. People who take the time to care about someone they may not even know. Agape in action looks like a different crew of volunteers each week in our church kitchen, filling backpacks of weekend food for children and their families.
Agape in action looks like youth serving others on a mission trip. Risking to move out of their comfort zone to help someone they didn’t even know needed them. In both of these cases, agape is both given and received.
Yesterday at our synod assembly, we elected the first African American female bishop of the ELCA, Rev. Patricia Davenport. As we went from 100 candidates for Bishop to just one, agape was felt in the gracious words and support. Each candidate had to risk and be vulnerable as they opened their minds to the possibility that God might be calling them into a high level of responsibility.
But I saw agape most clearly in a speech. Our own Pastor Tom Kochenderfer was being honored for 50 years of ordained ministry. I haven’t done anything for 50 years yet. His speech was beautiful, sharing stories of his years of service to Christ at Mediator Lutheran in North Philly, Tabernacle Lutheran in West Philly, and finally, the place I met him, St. Andrew’s Lutheran in Audubon.
At the end, he reminded us that we still have work to do, that we are marching to Zion together. And the people cheered and stood up and raised the roof in applause. And I was so proud, for I know the work of ordained ministry is hard, and I know how hard Pastor Kochenderfer works for the Kingdom, even in retirement.
As he was receiving his framed award from the Secretary of the ELCA and our Bishop, agape happened. Out of complete joy and charitable love, the assembly of over 600 people began singing “We’re Marching to Zion”, a response of love in thanksgiving to 50 years of sharing Jesus and his love.
In that moment, I could visibly see Jesus the vine and the whole assembly as the branches. Reaching out to share the compassionate love we have received. Celebrating each other, reminding each other that we’re in this ministry together.
Jesus knows that loving one another brings about his joy. His complete joy. When our hearts and minds love like agape, we will find Jesus everywhere. But we won’t find his complete joy wrapped in a pretty black velvet box, or on a fancy framed award. We find it in a man, lifted off a tree and raised from the dead to new, everlasting life. A new vine with new branches. A hope in resurrection not only for Christ Jesus, but for all of us, his friends.
Love like this, the love that gives everything – that is all we need.