What the world needs now (A sermon from John 14:15-21 and Acts 17:22-31)

It’s a refrain we all know: “What the world needs now / Is love sweet love / It’s the only thing / there’s just too little of.” It’s not the only thing there is too little of, but it’s the most important thing there is too little of. I think all of us would agree that we could stand for some more love – of the kind that is healthy, honest, redemptive, restorative, and transformative.

In John 13 Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

In his book, If the Church were Christian, Philip Gulley tells about accepting a call to be the pastor of a Quaker meeting in Indianapolis when he was beginning his ministry. The small congregation was deeply loving and compassionate, primarily due to Lyman and Harriet Combs, who had helped to start the congregation years before. Both were retired from their secular vocations when Gulley came as pastor.

Lyman volunteered almost daily at a homeless shelter, and Harriet made it her practice to be available to anyone in need. She babysat, transported people to appointments, tended the sick, visited the lonely, and did so with such transparent joy and good humor that to be in her presence was a healing and redemptive experience. And over the years the fellowship took on their demeanor. The church was incredibly generous and because of its close proximity to several resources for the homeless, was often visited by mentally ill persons, all of whom were warmly welcomed and made to feel at home in their church.

As gracious as the people were it frustrated Gulley that for the most part they seemed to be indifferent when it came to reaching more people in their community. On one occasion, frustrated that they weren’t gaining new people, Gulley asked Harriet why that was. She said, “Well, I guess that was never our goal. Gulley responded, “Then why are we here?” Harriet smiled and said, “To love.” That’s why we are here: To love.

Other things are important. I don’t think we should downplay the importance or need to incorporate new people into the life of our congregation. But it is true that everything else takes a back seat to the primary objective, which is: To love.

And that’s because love is the essence and core of who God is and what God is about. “So,” says John, “we have known and believe [that is, we trust in and are committed to] the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 3:16-17).To abide in love is to abide in God, because love is the essence of who God is. Wherever love is God is, and that’s true whether people realize it or not. When a person expresses love to someone else, even though that person may not consciously connect the love he or she feels and expresses with God, nevertheless, it is God within them who is loving through them. Healthy religion will always help us connect love with God. Richard Rohr likes to say that transformative religion is about falling in love with God. There have been times in dialogue with others I have asked: Is the God you believe in a God you can love with all your heart? If not, then maybe it’s time reimagine God.

In our Gospel text Jesus tells them that when he leaves the Father will send the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth whose primary work is to convince us that we belong and that we are loved with an eternal love. In the passage Jesus says, “On that day [any day really, any day God’s love is revealed to us] you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Then he says, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” What this text is saying is that “We all belong. We all belong to God and to one another. And the Spirit of Truth will help us to see this, to know this, to claim this, and to experience this oneness and belonging.”

Maybe the greatest need for some folks who have been hurt and broken by life is to know first of all that they are loved. Michael Yaconelli shares a story about a lady we will call Margaret who lived with the memory of one soul scaring day in the one room schoolhouse she attended as a child. From the first day Margaret came to class, she and Ms. Garner, didn’t get along. Her teacher was unusually bitter and harsh towards her and the animosity between them grew until one day it spilled over into an experience that altered Margaret’s life from then on. Ms. Garner spurned Margaret for being late for class one morning and Margaret made some spiteful comment.  The teacher made Margaret come to the front and face the class as she told the class what a bad girl Margaret was. “So we must teach her a lesson,” said Ms. Garner.  She said to the class: “I want each of you to come to the front of the room, take a piece of chalk, and write something bad about Margaret on the blackboard. Maybe this will help Margaret become a better person.” 

Margaret stood frozen and one by one, the students came to the blackboard and wrote things like, “Margaret is stupid,” “Margaret is ugly,” “Margaret is selfish,” and on and on it went.  Twenty-five sentences that became indelibly written on Margaret’s soul. Forty years later, slumped in the chair in the psychologist’s office, Margaret is still living in the shadow of that nightmarish experience. With the help of a caring psychologist, a loving church family, and a growing relationship with God, Margaret is healing and is ready to move on. Her psychologist is also her spiritual director and is helping Margaret find resources in her faith. She tells Margaret that it is necessary to go back and relive this tragic experience one more time. She trusts her counselor, so she does; she can hardly bear it. Then her counselor tells Margaret to imagine another person in the room. He’s walking to the blackboard and he erases everyone of those ugly sentences the students wrote. She says to Margaret, “Now, he’s turning and looking at you. See his eyes. Look at his eyes.  They are full of compassion. It is Jesus. And now he is writing on the blackboard, new sentences—“Margaret is loved”; “Margaret is beautiful”; “Margaret is kind”; “Margaret is a child of God.”

You know sisters and brothers, maybe the greatest thing we can do for someone else is help that person discover how loved and valued he or she really is. And we do that, not be preaching at them, but by showing them through our words and deeds, through our caring and helping, through our encouragement and support that they are loved. We love them and thus reflect God’s love. This is why the passage that I quoted earlier in First John concludes by saying, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars.” Why is that so? Because we all belong. We are one family and one people in God. And if we are not loving others then we are not loving God. We may claim to love God. We may be very religious. We may participate in numerous religious activities. But if we are not loving others we are not loving God no matter how religious we appear to be.

This passage begins with Jesus saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (10:15) The passage ends with Jesus saying, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (10:21). Jesus clearly equates the experience of divine love with keeping his commandments. And what are his commandments? The premier commandment which is the foundational commandment, the well-spring from which all other commandments arise is the new commandment he gives to his followers: That we love one another as Jesus has loved us (13:34). All Jesus’ other commandments are expressions of this one essential and central commandment.

In John 13 Jesus picks up a water bowl and towel and washes the feet of the disciples, then he commands “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:15). He commands them and us to serve one another in simplicity and humility. This command to serve in humility is simply an expression of the foundational command to love others the way Christ has loved us. We experience divine love – the love of God and Jesus, by loving others the way God loves us.

There are no exclusions or exceptions in terms of who we are to love. We don’t get to pick and choose. We don’t get to carefully define our group and the people we will love. We don’t get to condemn or exclude or marginalize the folks who don’t see life or God the way we do. In fact, since we all belong we should be looking for some common ground where we can work together to effect positive change.

In Acts 17 Paul speaks to the philosophers in Athens of the God they worship in ignorance. Paul found among their objects of veneration an alter with the inscription: “To an unknown god.” Paul starts here and then proclaims to them the Christ, who Paul believed and we believe is the definitive expression and revelation of who God is like. Even though they had not heard of Jesus, Paul calls them “God’s offspring” and  proclaims that the God of Jesus is the Spirit who pervades and sustains our lives. He says that “in him [the God we all belong to] we live and move and have our existence.” In other words, to use the language of John’s Gospel, we are in God and God is in us, even though we may not consciously be aware of it like the philosophers in Athens.

This is why we must love one another no matter what. Because we are one family, one people; we all belong to one another. We are all God’s offspring. We are all God’s daughters and sons. We all are alive due to our connection to God – physically as well as spiritually. We are physically alive because God is in us and we are in God. The divine Spirit gives us life and breath; the Divine Spirit animates and gives life to the human spirit. This truth is conveyed in the creation story where God breathes into the human creature and the human creature becomes a living being created in the image of God. We live in God and God lives in us. The challenge we face is to live out this reality in ways where we experience and express our oneness and belonging to one another and to God.

What if we allowed these truths to inform the way we treat one another? What if we actually allowed them to guide our civic policies and responsibilities? What if we took seriously Jesus’ commandments to love others in the way we form immigration policy or our tax system. What if we allowed them to guide the way we operate our criminal justice system? What if they informed the way we go about caring for and empowering the disadvantaged and the most vulnerable in our society? What if we allowed these commandments to sustain all our relationships and guide the way we treat one another – at home, at work, in the church, and in all the groups and organizations we are part of.

We don’t like thinking about this because it’s so challenging? Loving others is hard work. Think of how Jesus loved and responded to the ones who orchestrated his death. He bore their hatred and animosity without returning it. Forgiving those who have offended or hurt us is also at the heart of diving love, and that can be a real struggle and challenge.

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche’ communities, wrote about being in Rwanda shortly after the horrendous genocide  there. A young woman came up to him and told him that seventy-five members of her family had been assassinated. I can’t imagine or don’t want to imagine what that would be like? I’m not sure I could ever recover from something like that. She said, “I have so much anger and hate within me and I don’t know what to do with it. Everybody is talking about reconciliation, but nobody has asked any forgiveness. I just don’t know what to do with the hate that is within me.” Now the very fact that she is able to recognize this and acknowledge her struggle says quite a bit about this young woman doesn’t it?

What do you say to a young girl who finds herself all alone because all her family has been killed? Her problem, wrote Vanier, was the guilt she felt because she didn’t know how to forgive. So she was caught up in a world of hate and depression.

Vanier said to her: “Do you know that the first step towards forgiveness is ‘no vengeance’? He asked her: “Do you want to kill those who killed members of your family?” She responded: “No, there is too much death.” Vanier said, “Well, that is the first step in the process of forgiveness.” I can’t imagine having to struggle with the demons this young lady had to contend with. But she decided “no vengeance” and she took the first step toward forgiveness and finding peace. Even though she had experienced such hate and terror, she decided to love. And I would bet that to the degree she is able to love, she will have some peace of mind and heart.
Are we willing to take that first step? Are we ready to acknowledge that while we are special to God we are “no more special to God” than anyone else. We are all God’s offspring. We all live and move and have our existence in God. If we are to actually live as one family, someone has to say, “I forgive.” No more hate. No more killing. No more vengeance. Let’s learn to live in peace.”

What the world needs now is for you and me, and everyone else to love one another the way God loves each of us. And by following Jesus we learn how to do that. This is why we invite people to be disciples of Jesus. It’s not because there is no other way one can know God or they are going to hell if they don’t. It’s because we have come to know God’s love through our relationship with and discipleship to the Christ. It’s because we have learned from Jesus and continue to learn from the living Christ how to love one another with the love of God.

Our good God, may we learn from Jesus and from one another how to allow your love to flow through us – what we might be healed and changed by your love and that your love flowing through us might heal and change others. Amen.


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