Listening to John
When I began to prepare the sermon for today, I found myself in a debate with myself. As usual, I reflected on the readings appointed for today to decide on what kind of message I would offer to you. Again and again I looked at the Gospel reading, Jesus the Good Shepherd. That’s always a sermon asking to be given. Again and again I looked at the passage from the Acts of the Apostles, and there is Peter, the man who betrayed Jesus, the man whom Paul accused of being a hypocrite; there is Peter, full of faith and courage and fire. There’s another sermon asking to be given---to talk about how Peter’s experience of the Risen Christ, how Peter’s experience of the power of the Holy Spirit, had made him a new person; there is Peter standing ten feet tall, speaking before the high and mighties, telling them what they had to hear and pulling no punches.
I thought, all right, is it Jesus the Good Shepherd or Peter the superhero? It would definitely be one or the other. But John, his letter, kept saying “uh, uh.” I wanted to preach about the Good Shepherd. I wanted to preach about Peter, and how we might share in his life changing experience. But John kept saying, “uh, uh.” Why would I base my thoughts on John’s letter, when I had two marvelous possibilities in front of me. No, it would be the Good Shepherd or Peter’s transformation. “Uh,uh,” John said. I was a little annoyed with myself that I couldn’t settle on the Good Shepherd or that inspirational scene in Acts.
I gave in. John got his way, and it’s more than wonderful to reflect on our reading from his letter.
Listen again, “We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us.” Then John’s punch line, “And we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” We ought to lay down our lives for one another!
John was the last surviving Apostle, and it goes without saying, that Christians wanted to see him and meet him and hear him. Any time John was going to visit a group of Christians, they looked forward to his visit with excitement for what he could share with them. Here was someone who was there. He was there at that last meal with Jesus. He was there at the foot of the Cross. He was there; he knew the Risen Christ. What stories and insights he could share. And yet, again and again, in a way, people were disappointed. John’s message over and over again was the same. Love one another. Is that all? Yes, that’s all. That’s all.
John continues, “Let us love not in word and speech, but in truth and action.” Then we come to a couple of verses that really say it all. “This is God’s commandment that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another.” Is that all? Yes, that’s all, but no, John goes on. Love as Jesus commanded us. And how did Jesus command us to love one another? Love one another, as I have loved you, Jesus commanded. Loving your neighbor as yourself is all well and good, but Jesus gives us a new commandment. Loving your neighbor as yourself isn’t going to make you a new you and isn’t going to make this a new world. You are not the measure of how to love. Jesus is the measure of how to love. And how did Jesus love. He loved without measure. He loved totally and unconditionally. In Jesus the infinite, all-embracing love of God is perfectly revealed.
Jesus knows we cannot of ourselves love as he loved. Again and again Jesus teaches that the very Spirit of God, whose Name is Love, dwells within us, the same Spirit who dwelt in him. Jesus commands us to love by the power of the Spirit, Divine Power. When we love by the power of the Spirit, it is God who is loving. Jesus commands us to be channels of the very Love of God. Jesus commands us to make the love of God real. This is what Jesus means when he tell us that the kingdom of God is within us. Loving by the power of the Spirit, we will be transformed into new persons, and this world will be transformed into a new world. The brokenness of the world will be healed and all things will be made new, and the world will be transformed into the kingdom of God, and we will know the abundant life Jesus promised and the complete joy that is God’s will for us.
There is another punch line. “And by this we know that we abide in Jesus and Jesus abides in us, if we are loving by the Spirit who has been given to us.” How could we ever tire of hearing this message? This is what it is all about. This is what Jesus came to tell us. This is what Jesus came to show us by his example, example which climaxed on the Cross. New life? New world? Love one another, and love one another as I have loved you, by the power of the Spirit of God who dwells within you and among you. Is that it? Yes, that’s it. “But.” There are no “buts.” “What if?” There are no “what ifs.” No exceptions. If you want to do it God’s way, this is the way.
So, what about the Good Shepherd? What does it mean to follow the Good Shepherd? It means to try each and every day, enlightened and strengthened by prayer and by God’s Word and by his Sacraments, to try each and every day, to love as he loved, by the power of the very Spirit of the very God.
So, what did Peter’s experience of the Risen Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit do for him? It turned him on to love as Jesus loved. It transformed him so that Peter could and would invite the rulers and the elders and the scribe and the high priest and his whole family to follow the Good Shepherd. We sing “The King of Love, my Shepherd is.”
One of the signs that we are trying to love and live by the power of the Spirit is that we try to see each and every person from God’s merciful perspective. So it is that judgmental sheep and critical sheep cannot hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and cannot experience what Peter experienced. Let’s go further. One of the signs we are trying to see every person from God’s merciful perspective is a sense of humor. Grouchy sheep, in particular, cannot hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. One of the signs we are trying is our smile. Those who really are trying day by day to follow the Good Shepherd are more than people who smile. They are smiles that God builds people around. How does Jesus know his sheep? By the way they love, and frequently by their smiles.
I’m glad I gave in, and decided to think out loud about what John says in his letter. Do we really get the message? Perhaps two steps forward and one step back, but we have to get the message because the command to love as Jesus loved is the whole of it. After all has been said about the Bible and Sacred Tradition, after all has been said about doctrine and Creeds, after all has been said about codes of behavior and Church canons and polity, and name what else, this is what it’s all about.
This is our calling - each and every day to try to love as Jesus loved, by the power of the Spirit of God, whose Name is Love. This is what our neighbors are looking for. This is what those who are less than neighbors are looking for. This is, as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, this is what the whole of creation is groaning for.