SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D ALLAN B. WARREN III AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, MAY 22, 2011, THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

From the Gospel this morning:

“Truly, truly I say to you, he that believes in me will also do the works that I do.”

And also from the Gospel of John:

“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you are to love one another. If there is this love among you, then all will know that you are my disciples.”

The Greek language is very fancy, and I wish I knew more of it. Dr. Johnson once told one of his friends, “Greek, sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can.” He was right, though it’s not clear whether the lace he refers to was at his cuffs or adorned the many ladies he admired. However, that may have been, Greek like lace is complicated. For instance, when English has but one work for a concept or a subject, Greek often has several and each one specifies and particular aspect of the subject. For example, the concept of law. The most used and most familiar Greek word is nomos. This is “law” in its descriptive sense. Law - as how things work, how they are organized, how they operate. The law - if you will, the inner law - of their life, their being. Nomos describes things, and if there is obligation implied - as there is when we normally use the word law - it is the obligation to follow, to obey, to act in conformity with the law of one’s being, or the law of things or society around us.

This may be a bit too simple, but never mind, for the reason I mention this first word nomos is for contrast, because there is another word for law which is quite different. This term is entole - and it is the word that is most like “law” as you and I use that word. It means law or commandment. A law, as an order. Law - not from the inner being or working of something, or someone - but law as imposed by an authority outside. This is the word which John puts on the lips of Jesus when he tells his disciples - the twelve, you and me also - “I give you a new commandment: love one another.” It is, as He says, a commandment, an entole. It is not a suggestion on the part of Jesus, our Master. It is much more than a good idea or a nice thing to do, urged on us by our Teacher. Rather it is a command. It is an order; it is a law. And therefore, according to Jesus, it is not optional for Christians, but obligatory. Indeed, if we go back to the original texts, we will notice that the same word is used here as that which describes the law of Moses, the Ten Commandments. Those were the laws of the old covenant, but there is now a new law of the new covenant in Jesus. This new law is love, and it carries just as much weight, imposes just as much obligation as the former ten.

We must not sentimentalize this, for sentimentality always clouds reality and hides the truth. “All you need is love” - how clever of Jesus to have come up with this so may years ago! What an elevated idea! Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all loved one another. But this is not intended by Jesus to be an inspiring thought, and it is most definitely not intended to be an improving program for greater understanding and world peace. It is an order, a command, a law. And those who are disciples are not given a choice. It is the law of Christ - love - and it is up to you and me to obey. The outcome may, in fact, not be greater understanding, but rather incomprehension. And it may not make for peace, but rather persecution. . . or even crucifixion. Even so - no matter the outcome - it is Jesus’ Law. “Love one another.”

It surprises me, you know, how eager many people are to condemn someone who has transgressed the familiar or conventional dictates of morality (as if we all didn’t do so at one time or another.) How many there are who are forever poised to cast the first stone at whomsoever does what they themselves proclaim is wrong. And yet hatred, the failure to love - the one thing we as Christians are explicitly commanded to do - this never seems to merit the same degree of disapproval. Can it be that we all accept the failure to love or act lovingly as a commonplace or inevitable, and not as a serious moral failure. But for Christians, it is a serious moral failure. Love is an order from our Captain, a command of our Master, a law of our Teacher - given by Jesus, our Captain, our Master, our Teacher - the Son of God. If we are to be disciples, if we are to walk in the way of the One who is, as we heard in the Gospel this morning, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, then we must obey.

But let’s go a little further. Back to Greek. When Jesus commands us to love, the New Testament uses a very particular word in Greek to describe this love. Again, unlike English, the Greek language has several words for love. The one used by the New Testament is unusual and rare. You have, I am certain, heard it before but it’s worthwhile to hear it again. The word is agape - the noun; agapao the verb.

It is an almost uniquely Christian word and is found infrequently outside the New Testament. The Christians, it seems, deliberately chose this word because it was rare and had few associations and then they gave it a special meaning. For them it came to mean just . . . love. Love without reservations or complications. A love which does not seek to possess or get something from its object. A love which goes far beyond friendship or affection - as good as those things are. Indeed, it means a love which “keeps on loving” - just keeps on loving and expects nothing in return. Just keeps on loving in spite of rejection or insult or injury. (“Love your enemies,” for instance.) Just love. In Scripture agape is used to describe the love of God. God just loves. That is His nature. God is love!

And so you see, when Jesus commands His Disciples to love one another and when He commands us - who would be His disciples - He commands and orders a rather difficult and uncompromising love. The love that our Lord orders and commands is again agape - the love which never considers an outcome, a benefit or reward, which loves in spite of insult or injury or outright rejection. Un-self-ish. Un-self-regarding. It is the same love which Christ has for us and had for those around Him as He hung dying on the Cross. “Love your enemies.” “Father forgive them.” That is the love we are to have for one another. “As I have loved you, so you are to love one another.”

But there is more. Jesus goes on: “If there is this love among you; then all will know that you are my disciples.” Love is the distinguishing mark of a disciple of Jesus. It is how a disciple is recognized - not by piety, not by any emblem or outward sign - but by this fierce and courageous, in fact, mysterious love. It makes no sense to the world or worldly wisdom. It won’t get you anywhere, for it contradicts the way of the world and what the world teaches us. But it is what God teaches us. It is mysterious, such a love. Supernatural. It is Divine.

* * * * *

But can we love this way? If it is a supernatural and divine love, what can it have to do with you and me? Am I capable, are you capable of such a love? I can’t love that way - I’m not sure I want to - and neither can you . . . . unless . . . . somehow . . . . unless somehow this love is given to us. And that is part of what Christianity is all about: God will give us the power, the grace, and the will to love with His love. God will enable us to love and keep on loving and keep on loving . . . in spite of. Through Christ in the Holy Spirit God can make our human love Divine.

It used to be said: you can’t legislate love. And as far as that goes, it is true: you can’t and certainly I can’t legislate love. But perhaps God can, for this, of course, is exactly what Jesus is doing. Love is the law of Christ. “I give you a new commandment: that you love one another”. But, you see, the commandment is given, because the commandment is possible. And the commandment is possible because the power for its fulfillment is given. And that power is the grace and the love and presence in us of Christ Himself.

Again from the Gospel today:

“Truly, truly I say to you, he who believes in me will do the works that I do.”

Amen.