09 February 2009

Sermon.8.Feb.2009: Three Little Words

Below is the sermon from yesterday.  I finished the sermon on Thursday but when I went to proof it on Friday I realized the sermon had to be re-worked.  So here it is.  

I have placed a few editorial notes in the text to help make sense of a few references.

Three Little Words
text: “Simon, son of Jonas, thou lovest me?” (John 21: KJV)
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

I am sure that you have either sung or heard And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love. The 1966 hymn certainly points to the great hope that if followers of Christ would simply love then we could change the world. That was certainly the understanding a few years ago when biblical scholars gathered in Toronto to participate in a conference discussing violence in our world. As the scholars finished their presentation the panelists invited questions from those in attendance. One attendee stood up and rather cynically asked how could the church make any impact in this world when the world seems so averse to our message. For a few moments the panelists shuffled, politely looked back and forth relinquishing time for someone to answer when suddenly one of the scholars spoke up: We shock the world out of its numbness with our love.

We shock the world with our love, they’ll know we are Christians by our love, three little words, eight little letters: I LOVE YOU. The concept sounds so easy, the word rests so well on our tongue, yet we all know how difficult and hard it is to truly love. And we also know how cynical the world is to our ability and capacity to love. Folk can easily turn to historical examples of horrendous act committed in the name of Christianity from the Crusades, the Inquisition, the burning of heretics, the Salem witch hunts, the bombing of abortion clinics and shooting of doctors. And we even know our own cynicism to the tired old language of love. Instead of living in a life where the non-violent love of Jesus prevails we choose to fall back on the phrase “here in the real world, might makes right.”

However, we have to be able to look all of the cynicism showered upon us, admit the truth in it, but then be able to move on and say nevertheless. Nevertheless look at how transformative, creative, and life-giving Christian love has been in this world: a source for non-violence, a source for change, the major impetus for the abolition of slavery, equality of genders and sexual orientations, the environmental movement, peace, and education to name & etc. We will not be able to shock anyone with our love if we cannot reach beyond the nevertheless. The three little words we say to the world and the three little words God says to us have some bite to them, let us not tame and tamper it.

Before the gospel of John concluded the author had several major messes to clean up: Jesus’ death, doubting Thomas, and Peter’s denial of Jesus. The first mess John cleaned up the testimony of Jesus’ resurrection, he is not dead but alive. The second mess John cleaned up by including the exchange between Thomas, the twin, and the Resurrected Jesus, go ahead and touch my wounds. Finally, John cleaned up the Peter’s denial of Jesus with an intimate, hurtful, and love-filled conversation between the Resurrected Jesus and Peter, Peter, son of John, do you love me?

We like for our stories to conclude, we like neat and packaged endings. We do not like unfinished or unresolved stories. Therefore, we may be drawn to the pleasant job the gospel writer performed by tidying up the stories in the fashion the author did. Yet we all know that Jesus’ love for us and our love of God is not clean but is very messy. In fact anytime Jesus starts loving us and we start loving Jesus that love makes a mess of everything.

16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms. {the opening of A Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.}

Love made a real mess of things in our nation: why couldn’t we just leave good enough alone? Love will not let us leave “just good enough” alone!

The Resurrected Jesus appeared in John’s gospel to clean up some of the messes created before and by his death. Although all of the appearances took place only in the span of two chapters did you notice how long Jesus waited to talk to Peter? After Jesus appeared to Mary, after Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wounds, after Jesus had breakfast with the disciples then and only then did he talk with Peter. Oh we could fill the rest of this hour with our wondering questions: was Jesus avoiding Peter, was Peter avoiding Jesus, was Jesus mad at Peter, was Peter ashamed, & so on & so on… For reasons we will never fully know on this side of the Jordan Jesus and Peter waited to talk.

During Jesus final appearance before his ascension Jesus talked directly to Peter after breakfast. The text records no small talk, no pleasantries, not even embraces, Jesus cuts to the chase and asks Peter: Do you love me more than these (the disciples)?

Jesus asked Peter a thick question. Jesus looked at Peter and asked do you agape me? Peter responded Yes Lord you know that I phileo you. Jesus asked not only a thick question but an unfair one: Peter do you agape me? Do you love me in the same way that I love you? Peter responds, no I love you like a brother, a close friend, an intimate.

Jesus had spent his life perfecting the art of love, so much so that he elevated and broadened the definition of love. Tucked on the shelf, hiding behind a page, nestled deep in the paragraphs of ancient Greek was a term for love that was seldom used: agape. The early Christians snatched this word from the lexicon of the day and poured meaning into it, transforming it into the word we now use to describe God’s love for creation. This love is more than love of friends, more than the erotic love two lovers experience, this is love, a Love Supreme.

We do not have the sudleties in English to connote differing meanings for love; we employ the word love for a broad range of emotions, experiences, and adoration. We love potato chips, football teams, automobiles, towns, and books. You name it and someone loves it: pickles, beans for breakfast, meatloaf there are actual people who love them, no foolin’. {I have a strong dislike of pickles and meatloaf. Believe it or not, folk in New England eat baked beans for breakfast.} While we could easily say we admire, lust, like or adore an object or person we don’t, instead we use the word love as our verb of choice.

Despite our ubiquitous usage of love, it still packs a wallop of emotion and meaning. When the word is used in an intimate context with someone we care for deeply the three little words can scare the shell right off an egg. Can you recall how nervous you were the first time you uttered those words to you or first heard them directed to you? My palms get sweaty just recalling those moments. There was a great fear that your love may not be reciprocated! Jesus asked Peter do you agape me? Peter replied Lord, I phileo you. Jesus’ love was not reciprocated. At this point I think it is fair to say that Jesus made a wrong assumption about love.

Have you ever listened to John Coltrane play the saxophone? Sometimes I will sit in my chair and listen to the progression of notes and say he is just playing scales. Have you ever watched Bob Ross on PBS paint a picture? I watch him and say he is just slapping paint on a canvas. Have you ever read a Nikki Giovanni poem? I read them and say she is just placing common words in a neat order. Or have you ever felt the rush of air after an Anika Sorenstam swing? I said she is just swinging her club really fast. True but then I tried to replicate all of the events and failed miserably. Sure I can play a scale, paint a picture, write a poem, and swing a golf club but I cannot do them like a professional. Jesus capacity and ability to love was of a professional grade. He asked Peter do you agape me? Peter said I phileo you?

Peter has yet to fully realize what agape love is. But he is about to. Jesus asks a third and hurtful time: Peter do you love (phileo) me and Peter responds Lord you know everything you know that I phileo you. Agape love would not let Peter go, Agape love stayed with Peter.

The gospel of John ends by seeking to clean up the mess of the disciples but the end actually created more of a mess. Imagine that your best friends and family whom you love deeply abandoned and denied even knowing you in your greatest hour of need. How would you react? How would feel? Our feelings and reactions spelled out in narrative prose is how the gospel of John should end. Perhaps that is how phileo love would have the gospel end. But the gospel is good news and the good news aint just phileo love it is agape love. An expected ending would have Jesus saying to Peter I forgive you but I wont forget. Praise God the story does not end that way.

My hunch is that Jesus realized Peter did not understand what he was asking him? Do you agape me? Yes Lord you know that I phileo you. Jesus, therefore, changed the direction of the conversation: do you phileo me, yes Lord I phileo you. If you are like me your mind was caught in the couple of editorial sentences that foretold Jesus’ death. But if you would block those out what two words emerge? Jesus’ imperative, Jesus’ challenge, Jesus’ invitation: Follow me.

Sometime in the 1980s Dr. Gardner Taylor, now pastor emeritus of Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, NY, was the visiting professor of preaching at CRDS. One of his students at the time is a friend of mine. MY friend reported that Dr. Taylor gave the class two instructions for learning how to preach: first, read the NY Times, particularly the Arts section, for sentence structure and the possibilities of language; two, watch me and do what I do. I’m sure somewhere in Dr. Taylor’s subconscious the 21st chapter of John was percolating as he gave those instructions. Our sentence structure of foundation of agape love is the Bible. Our Love Supreme to imitate is Jesus the Christ.

You and I cannot naturally agape love one another. This was Jesus’ assumption with Peter. Perhaps in the moment Jesus forgot the countless hours his heart was forged, shaped, and carved with agape love. Perhaps he forgot the moments of doubt, temptation, and ridicule he suffered. Perhaps God’s resurrection of him filled him so with agape love all he could think of nothing else… Jesus’ conversation with Peter reminded him, however, of the agape journey. Once Jesus recalls this he invites Peter, likewise you and I too, on the agape journey to learn how to love like he loves.

After Peter and the gang learned how to agape the world has never been the same; after being touched by agape love we are never the same.

Agape love is not tame, safe, or comprehensible. Agape is sloppy. It makes a mess of everything. Agape is so powerful that once we come in contact with it we are never the same, we cannot even go on living as we did previously, in fact we have to be born-anew because of the path agape love calls us on.

Sisters and Brothers the Kingdom of God does not need any part-time lovers. The kingdom needs some sloppy agape lovers. {I pronounced sloppy to rhyme with agape, credit goes to Dr. Werner Lemke - emertius OT prof at CRDS} The world needs some sloppy agape lovers who say the world is not just good enough. We need to hear Jesus say we are not just good enough that God is calling us, drawing us nearer, nearer to a deeper love, a Love Supreme.

We describe our time together as worship, some have described it as a school of charity – a way to learn how to agape love. A way to learn to hear God say to us those three little words, a way for us to say to God those three little words and a way for us to say to creation those three little words. Three little words, eight little letters: I LOVE YOU.


Loving God,
maker of heaven and of earth
invite us and show us the way to agape love
love not as the world love but as
you agape.

1 comment:

Kristi said...

I am speaking at a women's retreat on the topic of "Perfecting the Art of Love". You have shared some beautiful thoughts here on the subject.