How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
(1 John 3:1)
“Dear friends, family, faculty, and especially you, the class of 2019…” Have you heard one of those lately? Tis the season for it. Even if you’re not attending a graduation this spring, watch the news and you’ll see selected clips of graduation speeches from all over the country. From the well-polished high school valedictorian, glued to her manuscript, but always breaking for appropriate eye contact; to the irreverent comedian speaking at an Ivy League school; to the notable politician who was hauled in to say a few nice words, and maybe do a little campaigning. Have you ever noticed that just about every graduation speech that you hear is over-abundantly optimistic? Nobody stands up and says things like, “The vast majority of you will be completely un-employable in this economy.” “I imagine most of you are here today thanks only to Google, Wikipedia, and Copy and Paste.” “Your parents better get their basement ready because chances are good you’ll be living there soon.” Instead those speeches are almost always laced with pie in the sky optimism – which is sort of ironic, because all the years leading up to the day when the students don their caps and gowns they’ve been hearing all about how not ready they were to graduate, and then the day comes and all of a sudden every single one of those robe clad academicians is going to go out and change the world! No matter what the speech or who’s giving it, graduation speeches usually boil down to two parts – a look back and a look ahead. Think of all the memories we made from the first day we stepped foot on this campus, inevitably springboards into, Now go out and make a difference! A graduation speech almost always calls on the graduates to go out and change the world and do great things, but does just saying it give you the power to do it?
Our gospel lesson is from John 13, when Jesus and his disciples were in the upper room the night before he died, and Jesus’ upper room discourse can almost feel like a graduation speech, can’t it? This was the end, but strangely it was also the beginning. Jesus was speaking to a group of men who had a proven track record for fear and abandonment, but Jesus’ words that night were anything but the cliché laden commencement address with its, “We made it” and “Go do great things!” Instead, with the rapt attention of his disciples in the upper room, Jesus said things like, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms…you know the way to the place where I am going…I am the way and the truth and the life…You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. Not small things to say! Today, we turn our attention to one small section of that great message of Jesus – A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. The world will recognize you as my disciples, not because you’re lighting the world on fire with your charisma, but because you love one another. Jesus almost seems to say too much, doesn’t he? People will see you and in you they’ll see me, not because you’re the most brilliant mind or have the longest list of accomplishments. The world will look at you and see me if you love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. That’s it? Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
Your Savior says, Love one other, as I have loved you. That’s a tall order. Love, not as you define love, but as I do. Love one other, as I have loved you, Jesus said. But how? I mean, is that kind of love even possible? The love Jesus has for you led him from divinity to humanity, from heaven to earth, to hell and back to make you his own. To love others as Jesus has loved us sounds like a pretty tall order – and it is. But don’t miss his point. The kind of love Jesus shows you is a love that is focused on your best interests, not his own. The kind of love that Jesus shows you is a love that’s willing to sacrifice everything, if it means that you benefit. To love others as Jesus has loved me is a tall order, because by nature I always and only want to do things that will benefit me. Self-interest is a whole lot more appealing than selflessness. Self-satisfaction sounds so much sweeter than self-sacrifice. So, think about it. What is it that gets in the way of me loving someone else just like Jesus loved me? What makes it so hard? I don’t want to love the person who hurt my feelings or made me mad, because then it’ll be like I’m saying what they did was OK. I don’t want to love the person who’s so stubborn and never seems to get it; I can’t love the person who’s different from me; I just won’t love the person who hurt me. If I give to someone else – be it time, money, or attention – then there will inevitably be less there for me. Did you catch it? What gets in the way of me loving someone else just like Jesus loved me? It’s me. It’s my sin. How on earth can I be expected to love someone else, when I’m just so in love with myself?
On the night before he died, Jesus wasn’t filling his disciples’ heads with unfounded optimism that they’d go out and do great and glorious things. Instead, Jesus showed them and us how we love one another as Jesus has loved us. He shows us where true greatness and glory are to be found – but it’s not where you’d expect. In the opening words of our gospel lesson, John records, When he was gone… Do you know who “he” is? It was Judas. Do you know where he went? To go and betray Jesus. Then, and only then, does Jesus say, Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. Now – the wheels of God’s plan of salvation that have been spinning since eternity are set in motion for glory, and where is it found? In what Jesus came to do – to suffer for your sin, to die to pay for it all, to rise again – to love you like no one ever has. What Jesus says here is important. When Jesus speaks these words is, perhaps, equally important. Just how would Jesus obtain his glory? There they were, in the upper room, the night before Jesus would go to the cross, and what did Jesus do? He wrapped a towel around his waist and knelt to scrape the grime off of dirty disciple feet. How did Jesus show his love? He broke bread, gave thanks, and gave it to them. He did the same with the cup – my body, my blood, for you, he says. Jesus predicts the betrayal of one of his disciples, the denial of another, and the cowardice of all, but still Jesus gives and gives and gives with no thought of getting. Jesus wasn’t sending his disciples out into the world with some unfounded command to “go and do great things!” He was loving them to death and back, and equipping them to reflect that love to the world.
But this was always Jesus’ way, wasn’t it? John started off his gospel by saying, He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him…The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. Right from day one, Jesus’ life was a testimony to that. After his birth, King Herod tried to kill him. When he grew up, Jesus went back to his hometown to preach the good news to his friends and family and neighbors, only to be rejected and almost run off a cliff. Time and again, Jesus was rejected, reviled, and plotted against, but just as consistently, Jesus loved and served and gave – even giving his own life to pay for sin. This is Jesus’ way, isn’t it? Jesus keeps on loving from birth through his ministry, all the way to the cross and empty tomb, and even now – all for people who don’t deserve it, people like you and me. How on earth could you possibly love someone like that? By remembering that you have been so loved by Christ himself.
This is the only starting point for a love that changes everything – Christ’s love for you. He’s forgiven you for your lack of love, and set you free. This is truly a faith where good things run wild – Jesus has given you a slate cleaned by his blood, a robe of his righteousness covering you head to toe, body and soul, he’s spoken into your ear and, by his Spirit’s grace, has planted into your heart a promise of your eternity secured in his nail scarred hands; Jesus has given you absolutely everything and now he’s turned you loose into the world with a new command – love one another – not to earn God’s favor, because you can’t. Love one another, precisely because, in Christ, you have every bit of God’s favor. Every day is a new opportunity and a constant exploration of the question, “How can I love today?”
According to church history (and maybe a little bit of popular legend) just about all the apostles of Jesus died in some pretty gruesome and horrible ways for confessing their faith in Christ. The apostles died martyrs’ deaths – all of them except John. So John was the one out of the twelve who lived out his years into old age. There is a church tradition that when John was a very old man in Ephesus, some of the people in the congregation would have to go to his house and literally carry him to church. So, they’d scoop him up and cart him all the way to the front of the assembly where John, allegedly, would always preach the same five word sermon: “Little children, love each other.” And that was it. Week after week, they’d help John to the front and he’d say it again, “Little children, love each other.” But why? Why go to all the trouble as a practically immobile shut-in to speak one sentence to his fellow believers? Because John was there. He heard these words come from the mouth of Jesus himself. Even in old age, John expended all of his strength to bring the word of Jesus to people – not to bash them over the head and say, “You’d better be loving, or else…” No, John spoke this way, John wrote this way because he was there – he saw the embodiment of perfect love; the kind of love that lays down his life for his friends.
Love one other as I have loved you. It’s a tall order and, by nature, you simply cannot and will not do it. But Jesus doesn’t leave you alone. It’s only because of him and his love for us that we can love each other as Jesus has loved us. What wondrous love is this?! The love that didn’t think of heaven’s glory as something to be selfishly grasped, so he gave it up – for you. What wondrous love is this! The love that led the Creator of all things to gestate in a womb for nine months and become completely dependent on his mother. John saw this love that touched the unclean, healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and called the dead out of their graves. The old man John can’t even stand up straight, but he belts out his five word sermon with joy: “Little children, love each other!” Why? Because your Savior Jesus has loved you with an everlasting love. He has covered you completely in his perfect righteousness before God. He has set you free from all your sins. He’s removed the sting of death and shackled the devil forever. That’s love – not a kind of love that burn bright and hot for a few moments and then it’s gone. No, the love that Jesus has for you has no limit and knows no end. I probably could’ve saved us about fifteen minutes this morning and just stolen a page from the Apostle John’s playbook – “Little children, love each other!”
You’ll hear some graduation speeches this spring, a look back and a glance forward, the end and the beginning. Some might even offer a suggestion that what the world needs now is love sweet love, but will that fix it? The world doesn’t just need more love, it needs a perfect love, a love that sacrificed his life for yours, a love that seeks and saves and forgives. The world doesn’t just need more love, it needs Christ’s love. That’s the love that comes to you freely in the gospel. That’s the love that Christ rejoices to send through you into the world. You are loved, so love one another!
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.