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Stand Firm or Fall Flat on your Face

May 19, 2019 - Sermon Text: John 13:31-35

The first part of our reading speaks about glorification, followed by the command for the disciples to love one another. The final two verses appear when we read this portion of John’s Gospel during Holy Week as Jesus says to Peter “will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times” (John 13:38)! Peter makes a solid declaration that he would stand firm and lay down his life for the Lord.

I suppose you’ve all heard the expression, “if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” In Peter’s case, he was willing to stand solidly on his statement of faith, until the cost was more than he had bargained for, at which point he ends up miserably falling down flat on his face after denying His Lord three times. Last week, we talked about how the Lord lovingly dealt with the hurt eating away at Peter by reminding him of his love for Jesus.

“Jesus said, Simon son of John, do you love me? He (Peter) answered, yes, Lord, you know that I love you” (John 21:16). At this point, we do a motion picture flashback, as Peter finds himself sitting at the Passover Meal with Jesus and the other disciples. On the night of his betrayal, even before Jesus informs Peter of his imminent denial, Jesus says “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” (John 13:34-35).

If we are going to stand firmly on the foundation of this new command to love, we need to understand it in its context and not in the way that modernism has expanded love into a multiplicity of different ideas and concepts. The Greek language had a very simplified understanding of the word we translate as “love”. As we explore Jesus’ new command, I pray that we can come to an understanding that will form a foundation that we might be able to stand upon without the fear of falling flat on our faces.

Understanding the emotion of love begins with exploring the use of the different words which we translate as “love” from the Greek Language. The Greek language has four different words which we translate as love. Classical Greek includes the word “storge” which does not appear in the Bible. This word often refers to parental love – i.e. the love of a parent to a child.

In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the word “eros” is used only in the Song of Solomon. This is another of those books that Luther felt didn’t belong in the Canon of Scripture. “Eros” speaks of erotic or sensuous love. This word does not describe anything relating to reproduction. Unlike modernity, the Bible does not contain a word regarding the love making process between a man and woman although some newer Bibles incorrectly translate that word as ‘making love’ while the proper translation reads “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain” (Genesis 4:1 ESV).

The two most commonly used Greek words translated ‘love’ are “phileo”, which Jesus uses when speaking to his disciples and “agape”. “Agape” refers to the perfect, unconditional; no strings attached love of the Father for His Son and for all human beings. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34) is “phileo” which describes brotherly and sisterly love (or friendship between equals).

I believe that there’s lot of talk in our world today about love. Jesus loved everyone he encountered. Love is central to the message of the Gospel and it is a word that we would hope to hear regularly spoken and proclaimed in all churches. Jesus clearly says in today’s gospel that we are to “love one another” (John 13:34). It sounds simple, but why is it so difficult to do?

The problem occurs because Jesus’ simple little message can be easily twisted, perverted and misunderstood. Jesus uses the same word for “love” four times in this short teaching. Love is a short four letter word, and it’s a word that many of us use on a regular and even daily basis. Jesus says that we are to love other people in the same way as Jesus has loved us, and yet, that short little phrase has even been frequently abused.

The reason this happens is because when we hear the word “love” spoken - we translate it into the form of love as it is understood in our modern worldly society. Consider for a moment how the world in which we live understands “love”. To begin with, you have to agree with me that the word love is a pretty ambiguous word. Love is used to describe many different types of relationships. We might use love to describe our feelings toward our parents, our spouse, our children, our friends, our church, our community, our home and even our favorite foods.

The kind of love we have for a parent or for our spouse is a very different kind of love that we have for pizza (at least I hope that’s the case). And in reality, the love you or I have for a spouse is going to be a very different type of love than we have for parents, children or friends. As we continue to explore the different variations of love, we begin to move away from and distort Jesus’ intended message even further. The love that we give and/or receive in our relationships with other people is also different from that of other people who live in the individualistic self-serving modern idea of what is & what is not considered “being loving”.

If you want the world’s definition of love, simply turn on the radio and listen to the so called popular music of the day. It doesn’t stop here as movies, television, romance novels, & various types of internet media are describing love on their own terms. Once you have managed to endure all of this media persuasion along with its sociological influences including the sensuality of commercials you will begin to get at society’s foundation regarding love.

What you will discover is that modernity is proclaiming and defining a love that is self-serving and egocentric. In the world in which you live, love is comprehended as true love when it suits me as an individual person. One of the great attractions of the modern church is that they give you feel good music and a feel good message in the midst of a life that often feels not-good & leaves you feeling exhausted, depleted and worn-out by the end of the week.

Our world looks at love as something that will satisfy one’s own personal needs and desires by having someone else serve me and give me some sort of an emotional “high” where I can mentally and psychologically leave behind all my burdens while I enter into a world that makes me feel good for a short while & where nothing can go wrong. When you attempt to stand firmly on this type of love, a love that has no foundation, you can’t help but fall flat on your face.

Honestly, standing on modernity’s concept of love is like standing for nothing. If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything. Think about it, how many ‘love’ movies or books end with the man and woman madly in love with each other riding off into the sunset to “live happily ever after” without having to endure any of hardships or problems of reality as real life has often demonstrated to us over and over again that relational love is not perfect.

Society’s definition of love has been repeatedly tested and proven to be flawed. When a person you claim to “love” no longer suits your needs, or you find someone else who you think might be a better “fit” as you simply get rid of the old one because you think you love the newer one instead? And, what happens when you lose that “love at first sight” ‘spark” and that relationship become drab or boring. When the excitement is gone it’s time to go out and look for a new ‘spark’. I have known people who have gone from heterosexual, to homosexual, and back to heterosexual relationship while they were searching for love. Many people simply will enter into a loving relationship only to put that love aside because it’s not suiting their needs or the other person needs more of their love than they are able or want to provide.

Love according to the world is often also used as leverage to try to get what we want out of other people. This is truly a self-serving love. It not surprising the number of young couple whom I’ve married believe that marriage is a 50/50 proposition. Even when I get them to understand that marriage is a 100% giving of themselves to the other person, they still don’t get the idea, that it’s not give and get back or expect something back relationship – but rather Christian marriage is about giving and giving (through good & bad times ) and not expecting to get anything back.

Soon after they are married and they start living together something strange happens. They had already been living together and doing everything a married couple do before they are married, but now love and expectations appear to take on a different shape – a different type of commitment. Suddenly, you begin to hear things like “If you really love me, you’ll do this.” This is a conditional form of love and what happens when my conditions aren’t met? Couples begin to pull away from each other. They might start looking for greener pastures. In the end, society encourages us to simply terminate that “love” and move on to someone else. Love loss in separation and divorce leaves a lot of unhappy, hurt, wounded and broken people in its path.

Now, let’s turn our attention back to the Bible as we ask ourselves if modernity’s concepts of love is the same kind of love that Jesus is telling us to have for one another? If we believe that we’re going to have a pretty serious problem on our hands. But here is the good news - Jesus’ definition of love doesn’t depend on you or me or how we as sinful human beings treat each other. Jesus is clear when he says that we are to love one another. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).

If it’s not about how I’m supposed to love others, then we need to understand and ask ourselves the big question - how has Jesus loved us?

Let’s go back to the Upper Room where this teaching first takes place. Jesus and all twelve of his disciples have gathered together. In modern terms, we are nearing the end of Holy Week in what is now called Maundy Thursday. Jesus has just shared the traditional Passover Meal with His disciples. He has washed their feet showing His humility in serving them. Sometime during the Last Supper Judas leaves the fellowship as the time of fulfilment approaches and the Passion of our Lord begins. It will only be a matter of hours before Judas returns to the Garden of Gethsemane with a group of soldiers as Jesus is arrested and falsely charged with crimes that he did not commit. He allows Himself to be whipped, beaten, mocked, and spit upon.

Within twenty-four hours of his arrest Jesus will be sentenced to death, and forced to carry the instrument of His own execution out of the city of Jerusalem up to the hill called Golgotha. Jesus is innocent and has the ability to call down a legion of angels to save him – but he doesn’t. Why does Jesus allow all this to happen if He is God? As he hangs between heaven and earth on that wooden tree, he is repeatedly challenged to prove himself by miraculously coming down from the cross. “The chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. He saved others, they said, but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:31-32).

Jesus does this for the disciples, for you, for me and for all people. This is how Jesus shows His great love for us by taking our place and suffering the punishment that our sins deserve. This is what the Greek language would call “Agape”. It’s not a love between equals. It’s a love that gives 100% of itself and doesn’t require anything back. This is unconditional love.

Agape says “I’m going to love you anyway, no matter what it costs me.” Jesus had spent the three years of His human life and ministry teaching his disciples and anyone who would listen to him that His Agape for them would be demonstrated in his willingness to suffer and die for them so that they could be forgiven and set free from their bondage sin so that they could freely “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31).

Jesus stood solidly on “agape” demonstrated by fulfilling God’s plan for the salvation of sinful humanity and as such he would not and did not fall away from that destiny – no matter the cost. Every time we gather in the Upper Room with Him, Jesus gives us a personal taste of His Agape in the meal of his own body and blood – given and shed for us for the forgiveness of all of your sins. “Take and eat; this is my body … Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27-28).

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Rev. Marc Lapointe

St. Andrew's Lutheran Church, Kamloops