Sunday, May 09, 2021

Easter VI

 John 15

9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.

My late mentor, the Rev. Doug Paterson, once said that anyone who says they don’t believe in original sin has never met a toddler.

He was kidding, of course, but it does underline the extent to which a toddler will always be at the centre of everything—for good or for ill. Loudest, most destructive, most adorable, and always demanding the most attention. But then they grow out of it—well, some grow out of it.

Think of it as part of the rule of 80-20. The kids may make up 20 percent of the family, but they get 80 percent of the attention. And why stop at the kids? In any human activity, there are basically 20 percent that get 80 percent of the attention. 20 percent of drivers cause 80 percent of accidents. 20 percent of industry creates 80 percent of the pollution. 20 percent of workers tend to do 80 percent of the work. Even preachers fall into this: 80 percent of our sermons tend to come from no more than 20 percent of the Bible.

How did this come to be? Back in olden times, preachers preached passages of particular prominence, along with lots of alliteration. They would gravitate to their favourite passages, and return to them with surprizing regularity. To remedy this, some wise people invented the common lectionary, meaning more of the Bible shared over a three-year cycle. Your favourite passage would then appear only once every three years, by which time you might have something new to say.

Yet still, the three-year cycle of readings represents little more that 20 percent of the overall Bible. Thus, 80 percent of sermons tend to come from no more than 20 percent. Still, the idea was sound. And of course, I would take this a step further to suggest that within a particular passage there is always a verse or two that gets all the attention—akin to the rule of 80-20. Share ten verses, preach on two, and the rule returns.

How does that work? Well, imagine that like toddlers, there are verses that demand your attention. The most famous example, perhaps, is John 3.16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

But some have argued that the verse that follows says much the same thing, but with a slightly different focus:

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

In verse 17, John clarifies God’s intention—not to condemn but to save—and therefore explodes any suggestion that God is simply waiting for us to fail. It speaks to the believer’s fear, and sends grace instead.

I share all of this because our passage from John 15 has the exact same issue: a single verse among many grabs our attention and tends to be the one we lean toward. (For our online worshippers, go back and reread the passage and guess which one I’m referring to).

I’m referring to verse 13 (“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”) Amid all the loving, the mutuality, the desire to remain in his love, we get a single verse that takes us straight out of the passage and on to the cross. In the most technical sense, this is called intertextuality: one verse suggests another, or another story, or another theme. And since there is no bigger theme that Christ’s passion, you can see how verse 13 tends to draw our attention away.

This verse is about love. And it does fit with the theme of ‘abide in my love.’ In some ways, it’s a request before Calvary to remain in his love come-what-may. Because truly, there is no greater love than laying down your life for others. But this need not lead us away from the real lesson of the passage, found just a verse earlier: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”

If you participated in the Maundy Thursday service, you will recall that this verse is at the heart of the service. Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum, the word that gives us “mandate” in English. In this sense, the command to love one another is our mandate, or our mission—however you want to call it. There, amid all the final instructions that Jesus shares before his passion, only one rises to the level of a mandate: love each other.

In our online “static” service, Heather has played “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” a classic contemporary hymn that really states the obvious. Since our mandate is to love each other, and abide in the love found in Jesus, and since God is love, it seems rather obvious that they’ll know we are Christians by our love. Or is it?

Well, if you’ve been in church for longer than 10 minutes you’ll know that it’s not always the case. Like the twelve, people in church bicker (but not at Central, of course). Like the twelve, people in church seek pride of place (but not at Central, of course). And like the twelve, people in church are given to doubt, and even disbelief (but not at Central, of course). And even pastors have been known to sprinkle a little sugar on their message to make it go down better (but not at Central, of course).

Like any mandate, the command to love each other is aspirational. We work toward a mandate, and sometimes we achieve it, even if only for a time. But it’s still our mandate, and it’s still the reason we exist. We abide in Christ’s love, we love each other, and we show the world the power of love. We can do no other. And whatever happens, and however the world responsed, we begin and end with love—we never condemn, we only seek to save through the love, the same love we have received.

May God help us to remain among the 20 percent that are doing 80 percent of the loving in this town, and fulfil our mandate, in Jesus’ name. Amen.


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