This sermon was first preached for an online service of Mosaic Lutheran Church on May 9, 2021.
Relevant lectionary readings can be found here.
Grace and peace are yours from the resurrected Christ. Amen.
It is so good to be with you all, virtually, this morning. I have heard a lot about this congregation and it is clear what a special place it is. I am grateful for the invitation and the opportunity to participate in your community.
This week in the Gospel of John we are reading a little bit more from what is sometimes called the Farewell Discourse. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem and tensions are high. He has been clear for a while that going forward with his ministry, marching towards an end to oppression, marching towards love and liberation for all people, meant marching towards the cross. And he has decided to be faithful to his call and ministry, no matter what the cost.
But before his arrest and execution by the state, Jesus shares some of his heart with his followers. These are the people who have been living daily life with him for three years now, who have participated in his ministry of teaching, healing, feeding, and other miracles. And as this chapter of their ministry together is about to come to a traumatic and violent close, Jesus wants to be sure that this is all for something, that the people who carry on his ministry after he is gone understand what it’s really all about.
And so you can picture the urgency of these words when Jesus says to them, “Dwell in my love. As I have loved you, love one another. Love one another.”
Today is Mother’s Day, a day that can be painful or joyful or both depending on your own story. Motherhood is a complex thing. My family is a multi-racial family formed by transracial adoption. Meaning, I am a white mother to Black children. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say that when it comes to parenting, “Love is all you need.”
And that is true, in a way. But it really depends on what we mean by love. Sometimes we use the word love in a superficial way, to point to some kind of internal sentimentality we might feel about another person. Yet love – real love – the kind of love that Jesus talks about? Is more than that. Often when I hear people, particularly other white people, say, “Love is all kids need,” they say it in a way that implies that love somehow covers over the very real needs that children have, especially children of color growing up in a society infected by white supremacy. When I say that my children need to be connected to their roots and their community for the sake of their own racial identity development, or I say that it is important that we live in a community where they are not ever going to be the only kids of color in their class at school, this phrase, “love is all they need,” is used to gloss over these matters and dismiss them.
But Jesus in this passage tells us that love, true love, is not merely sentimentality. It is not trite phrases in the face of real problems. The kind of love that Jesus is naming is sacrificial. It is driven by action. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for their friends.
So for me to truly love my children in the ways that they deserve to be loved, it means taking into account the realities of the world they are living in. It means, in the example of Jesus, that my love for them must lead to real action that makes a tangible difference in their lives. My love must mean struggling for their liberation, no matter the cost. I confess to you that even though being a mother is the biggest joy of my life, I often fall short of the momentous task in front of me.
Just as we sometimes use a thin definition or understanding of love, the Church also at times has had an incomplete or shallow vision of the Gospel. We have talked about the saving acts of Jesus as if they are merely spiritual or existential – that they can somehow be separated fro our bodies – that what Jesus has done for us in his life, death, and resurrection is just about saving us from damnation and granting us access to Heaven when we die. This is of course definitely part of what Jesus does. Jesus saves our eternal souls, Jesus forgives our sins, Jesus reconciles us to God.
But what Jesus did for us is not just about someday, somewhere else, after we die. It is about here and now too. It is about on Earth as it is in Heaven. Just like true love is an action that liberates in tangible ways, the Good News of Jesus has central implications for our daily life here on earth as well. Our salvation is for our souls and bodies.
And our bodies have needs. Needs that Jesus cared very much about. That is why so much of Jesus’ ministry was about feeding and healing. It wasn’t just about promises for after people died. His ministry made a difference in people’s lives here and now. It improved people’s day to day. It changed their lived reality.
In this season of Easter we are reminded by Jesus’ words that the resurrection too has real implications for our lives here on earth; both individually and communally. Both personally and systemically. The image that Jesus uses in the passage we read talks of upending systems of hierarchy, especially on the economic level. Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants. I call you friends.” A servant is property of a master. A friend is an equal.
Jesus is calling us siblings and friends, putting us all on equal ground with one another. There are no longer masters and servants, no longer bosses and workers, no longer roles where a ruling class exploits and oppresses the masses. We are all, all of us, friends of God, the Creator of the Universe, who considers us precious enough to suffer for and our liberation important enough to die for.
Jesus then commands us to follow in his example. To love one another with a self sacrificial love that demands abundant life and freedom for our siblings and neighbors. No longer can we treat others as our servants, below us. All people are worthy of love and care. And no longer do we treat others as our masters, above us. We too are worthy of liberation. We can and must claim our dignity as the sort of people that God calls, “Friend,” as people created in the image and likeness of God.
What people in our lives and in our society do we treat as our servants, either purposefully or unwittingly? For myself, I think about the fast fashion I often purchase out of convenience or affordability. When I participate in this system, where people abroad whose names I don’t know suffer under unsafe work conditions to make my clothing, I am acting as if my desire for cute, cheap clothing is more important than the health, security, and liberty of my siblings. I am not laying down my life for them, treating them with the love that Jesus commands. I am treating them as my servants.
And there are people or systems also in my life that I treat as my masters. I listen to the lies of exploitative industries, like the beauty or weight loss industry, that tell me that my worth is dependent on looking or behaving a certain way. When I let these patriarchal systems tell me who I am, when I give them authority to question my inherent goodness, I am not thinking of myself as the sort of person that God calls, “friend.” I am treating these demonic systems as my masters.
Praise God that Jesus has come to liberate me from these roles, both from oppressor and oppressed. The cross of Christ breaks down these divisive, harmful parts that we play and instead casts us in a new, freed identity; a friend of God, invited to dwell in God’s love and love one another in return.
This week I invite you to take stock of the moments where society casts you as either a servant or a master, and to reflect on the ways that God might be calling you forth in freedom from both. And as you notice these moments, instead of feeling guilt or fear, I pray that you dwell in God’s endless love for you. May you remember that God has already liberated you from these chains. God continues to come to us, God continues to free us – all of us – so that we might be freed also to better love our neighbor.
Thanks be to God.