It has been said that each preacher has only one sermon and that that sermon is adapted to fit various situations. I believe this to be true, and for me, that one sermon and that I constantly preach is the sermon about the unconditional love of God for everyone, without exception. Almost every sermon I have preached in the last 15 years has been about this radical concept of love that Jesus taught us and commanded us to follow.
In today’s Gospel lesson from St. John, we hear the famous line, “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” After “judge not lest ye be judged,” this is probably the most often quoted line of Scripture, but the least practiced and understood.
Loving one another is not a suggestion but, as I previously said, a command of Jesus, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” We will be known by how we love each other, including those we disagree with.
Now, let me pause here for a minute for a point of clarification. The command is to love. Jesus says nothing about liking people. There is a difference between loving someone and liking them, and yes, you can love someone without liking them. We can also love someone without agreeing with their choices, not that anyone is looking for our permission or our approval.
Love is an interesting word. In English, we have one word for the concept or emotion of love. For example, saying I love my spouse is the same word we use when we say I love hamburgers. It’s the same word but a different emotion, well, at least I hope it.
As we know, the Gospels have come to us from Greek, so we have translated what we read from the original Greek language. In Greek, there are seven different words for love. There is a word to describe romantic, passionate love. A word for intimate, friendship love. A word for playful, flirtatious love. Unconditional family love. Self-love, love built on commitment, and finally Agape, or the all-inclusive love.
It is this Agape or all-inclusive love that we turn our attention to today. Agape love is generally an empathetic love toward Humanity itself and is sometimes connected to altruism since it involves caring for and loving others without expecting anything in return. Another way of putting it is this love sort of pay-it-forward love—people helping others selflessly—is the foundation of great societies and communities.
This Agape love is the love that causes us to be concerned for what happens next door but also for what happens across the world. This is the love that moves us to action when we see the devastation from a storm, extreme poverty, or children being held in cages. This is the love that makes our hearts hurt when we see the faces of people fleeing their home to find a better life and risking it all to see that it happens. This is the love that does not allow us to build walls but to build bridges. This is the love that causes us to not only give a handout but a hand up. This is the love that commands us to love others without condition because this is the love that God has shared with us. This is the love that requires forgiveness for past wrongs and hurts again because that is the love that God has shared with all of us.
One of the many blessings I have had in ministry was responding after a disaster. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana, I was sent to Baton Rouge to set up a logistics operation for the hundreds of thousands of pounds of relief aid that would be pouring into the state. The kindness and generosity shown were amazing.
The one incident that stands out for me to this day was the story of a small Roman Catholic Church in Baton Rouge that ministered to refugees from Vietnam. This church had nothing, no resources or staff, and they were not supported by the government or by the Red Cross. In fact, the Red Cross refused to certify them as a shelter, even though they were sheltering more than 100 people because they did not meet their narrowly defined criteria. But this little church opened its doors to the hundreds of Vietnamese people who had been displaced in New Orleans.
I was working out of the Catholic Charities Office, so we went to see what assistance we might offer them. I was reminded that they were used to housing refugees, and so this was just an extension of what they have always done, but it was more than that. They opened their doors, they opened their wallets, and they opened their hearts because it is what we do as Christians. They saw people in need, they knew they could help, and the love of God helped them do it. Truly a blessing.
To truly understand this command to love everyone, we have to return to the story of creation. In the story of creation, God creates the world and everything in it by speaking it. God speaks creation into existence except for when God creates Humanity. Genesis tells us that God formed Humanity from the dust of the ground. The hands of God fashioned Humanity out of nothing, but that is not the most amazing part of the story. After God fashioned Humanity with God’s own hands, God breathed life into Humanity. The very breath of God, God’s Ruach, was breathed into the lungs of Humanity. Genesis tells us that God created Humanity in “our own image and likeness,” and the breath of God is the divine spark that is inherently present in all of Humanity. It is that divine spark, that breath of God, that compels us to love all of Humanity. In the end, God sat back and looked at creation, all of creation, and said, “it is Good.”
But for me, it all comes down to the verse from today’s Gospel. For God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to show us a new way, the way of love. Think about it; God loved the world, all of creation, to such an extent that God was willing to humble Godself in the person of Jesus Christ, to take on this frail form that we have for no other reason than to show us a better way.
Sure, we can get all theological and talk about substitutionary atonement and all the rest, but I am a simple guy with a very simple theology that tells me that this God of love, in an act of love, sent Jesus to say to us, there is a better way.
There was a wedding not long ago in England. A young couple was being married, and they invited a preacher from the United States to preach during their wedding. Perhaps some of you know this story. But this preacher spoke about love, not just the love of the couple standing before him, but the love that God has for all of creation and our part in that. In that sermon, the preacher said, the way of Jesus is the way of love. And the way of love will change the world.
One of the more famous quotes of Mahatma Gandhi is, “be the change you want to see in the world.” Friends we need to love, and we need to be love to the world. We start in our own little sphere of influence, from the places where we are right now, and then that love spreads, and like Bishop Curry said at that small wedding, that love will change the world.