A sermon preached on April 27, 2008 based upon John 14:15 – 21, entitled, “The Only Commandment.”
Last week I began with a little story told for the purpose of getting at what it means to say we “know” someone. This week, I begin with another little story for the purpose of getting at the meaning of another commonly used word.
Imagine if you will, a father and a son. We’ll call them Ralph and Ralph, Jr. Ever since his son was a baby, Ralph would tell his son, “I love you, Ralphie.” He usually said it every day; some days he said it several times. He would often elaborate on these words, saying things like, “Ralphie, you mean everything to me… Ralphie, I’d do anything for you.” Some times Ralph would have tears in his eyes when he said these things to his son, indicating how strongly he was feeling.
There was a problem, however, and that was that more often than not Ralph failed to come through for his son. For instance, he would forget when Ralphie had a concert at school, or a baseball game. Ralphie would look for his Dad out in the bleachers, but he wouldn’t be there, and generally the reason was that Ralph has chosen to go to the local bar instead. Ralphie often went without things he needed growing up: clothes for school, even food sometimes, because his Dad had spent all the family’s money on stuff he had wanted: a brand new car for instance that he wouldn’t let Ralphie ride in because he might get it dirty.
Sometimes, when his Dad had been drinking, Ralphie would get called ugly names by his Dad, beaten by his Dad, because something Ralphie did wouldn’t suit his Dad. And throughout his growing up, in those instances where Ralphie needed a firm hand to guide him into the right choices and discipline him when his choices weren’t good ones, his Dad was no where to be found.
But Ralphie did get to hear his Dad tell him how much he loved him.
Now imagine another father and son. We’ll call them Hank and Henry. Hank was always there for Henry. He showed up to all his concerts and games, he spent endless hours with Henry doing things with him, teaching him all kinds of stuff. He read to him at night when he was falling asleep. Whenever his Dad had punished him, Henry would eventually realize he had deserved it. After the punishment was over, his father would let it go, and they would move on. As Henry grew, Hank would give him opportunities to experience independence and take on new responsibilities.
When Henry was a young man, somebody asked him if his Dad had ever told him he loved him. Henry realized that no, he had never actually heard his father say the words, “I love you.” It would have been nice, he supposed, but he knew it just wasn’t his father’s way. And Henry realized that he knew without a doubt that his father did, in fact, love him, that it was in relationship with his father that Henry had learned what love is.
Ralphie, on the other hand, found himself greatly confused about love as he grew up. Love, it often seemed to him, was nothing more than a feeling that made a person get misty-eyed and say the words, “I love you.”
Jesus says at the outset of this morning’s Gospel reading, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” At first glance, it sounds like there must be a list of rules you have to follow — these “commandments” Jesus is referring to. But if you search John’s Gospel all you find is this: Jesus tells his disciples that they should wash each other’s feet. And on two occasions he says to his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you.” That’s it. Love one another. That’s Jesus’s commandments.
Jesus, as we’ve said many times before, is all about love.
And yet there is a problem with the word “love” that our example of the two father and sons gets at. We use the word “love” in so many different and confusing ways. (O J Simpson, for instance, once said that if he really had killed Nicole, it would have been because he “loved” her so deeply.)
It’s remarkable though how easily Jesus cuts through all of the confusion about love with the way he expresses his commandment, which he here refers to as a “new” commandment: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
You will notice there is a slight but significant difference here from what we are a bit more familiar with, which is the “golden rule.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
There’s a problem with the golden rule. It tells us that the way we treat our neighbor should be like the way we treat ourselves. But what if we’re not especially good at loving ourselves?
Take Ralphie, for instance. Ralphie is a bit deficient in regard to loving himself, to say the least. More often than not he treats himself the way he has learned from his Dad: Kicking the crap out of himself. When he needs to focus himself, pay attention to what he’s doing and make good choices, he feels this overriding desire to turn on the t.v. like the way his Dad would go to the bar.
Ralphie doesn’t know how to love himself. So how is Ralphie going to love somebody else?
And since none of us had perfect parents, and since we didn’t grow up in a perfect world,
but instead were raised by parents tainted with sin (as are we all) and in a world tainted with sin, it is a given that none of us grow up with a truly healthy capacity to love ourselves.
It’s something we have to learn, which is a big part of what this journey known as the spiritual life is all about.
So here is a new way to think about prayer. It being re-parented, or at least going beyond the parenting of our parents. It’s spending time with God so that we can be loved in the manner we need. This will mean different things at different times. Sometimes it will mean just letting ourselves be held safely in the arms of God, letting ourselves be cherished by God. It means when we’re frazzled letting God lead us beside the still waters to restore our soul.
Other times prayer may mean hearing the voice of God saying to ourselves, “My child, you’ve got things you need to face up to in yourself and in this world I care so deeply about, things that need your focused attention. It’s time for you to take more responsibility.”
Sometimes prayer is comfort for the afflicted, and sometimes it’s affliction for the comfortable. But through it all, Jesus is our reference point. “The way I have loved you,” he says, “that is how you should love one another, as well as yourself.”
Life is pretty confusing sometimes, isn’t it? Pretty overwhelming. Sometimes we wish Jesus had given us a clear list of rules that would cover every contingency, so we’d know exactly what to do in every instance. This is precisely what people are always doing with religion — exchanging faith with a list of rules that we wish Jesus had given us, and then by some sleight of hand, convincing ourselves that these rules have come to us straight from God.
But the only commandment Jesus gave was “Love one another, as I have loved you.” And just to make it clear that this love wasn’t some airy-fairy sort of thing, he added that one particular about washing each other’s feet, so that we would understand love involves getting ourselves dirty.
Jesus didn’t give us a list of rules, but fear not! he says, “I am not leaving you orphaned,” I’m going to send you another Advocate to be with you forever.” What he calls the “Spirit of Truth.”
Where will we find this Spirit of Truth? Lo and behold, Jesus says, “he abides with you, and he will be in (or among) you.” In the confusion of life, this is pretty reassuring. The Spirit of Truth is within us, and among us. The parenting continues.
During that last night Jesus was with his disciples, he said, “It is good for you that I go away.” Certainly, this made no sense to them. But in order for them to grow up, they needed to strike out on their own, trusting the Spirit of Truth that Jesus had given them.