God of abiding love, you dare to call us friends.
Take our fragmented hearts, hold us safely in your love,
So that we too can love others as you have loved us.
I’ve worn glasses – or contacts, as I do now – since I was eight years old. I’ve always had terrible vision, and if I were to lose my contacts or my glasses, I would be pretty much helpless – unable even to find my way home. Everything is incredibly blurry and reading, or watching TV, or even being able to recognize loved ones becomes far more difficult.
Our passages this week are written from the point of view of having put on glasses for the first time – everything comes into focus in a new, dramatic, living way. “O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things,” our Psalmist cries, and what are those marvelous things that he has done? Well, our Acts passage – not to mention our Gospel and Epistle – spells it out. He’s granted salvation even to the Gentiles, to us!! Salvation is not just for the limited circle of God’s chosen people the Jews, but for the entire world! It’s as if suddenly a pair of Holy Spirit-glasses have been put on the believers, and they see with startling clarity for the first time that God’s plan of salvation is for everyone.
But we’re also handed a pair of glasses in our Gospel passage this week, and we begin to see clearly what love – from God’s point of view – looks like. And it’s not easy.
“This is my commandment,” Jesus says, “that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Well it’s easy to love ourselves and our neighbours when the going is good. But what Jesus is talking about here seems to be on a different level. This is a self-sacrificial love, a love that continues when the going gets hard, a love that ignores the cost to self and reaches out to everyone, regardless of circumstances or lovability. And when we are faced with those whom society rejects or, even harder, those who have hurt or betrayed us, how do we love as Jesus loved us then? It feels so impossible.
As I was wrestling with this very question this week, a dear friend gave me this advice:
“Abide first in the love of God, and let God’s love free you.
It’s only then that you are able to love freely.”
Abide first in the love of God. Wise words from a wise soul.
So let’s put off wrestling with the “how to love others” question for a moment, and let’s take a moment to rest in – or abide in – these words and in God’s love.
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”
The word order of this beautiful verse in Greek is different than in English. In Greek, the word order has [love – Son – Father – us – love]. Literally, “Just as loves me the Father, so I you love.” Love brackets the Father, the Son, and us. I love how one commentator puts it: “the Father and Son are nestled at the centre, drawing Jesus’ friend-branches into that love and holding them there between the two verbs.”
It’s in this secure place, safely bracketed and surrounded by love, that we are called to abide. Not just for a moment, but continually.
* * *
I am lucky enough to have a very wonderful cat. His name is Loki – named after the Norse god of mischief – and while he is sometimes mischievous, he is generally just pretty sweet and surprisingly empathetic, for a cat.
As a kitten Loki hated to be held or cuddled, and he would squirm out of my arms as soon as I picked him up. As he has grown older, he’s come to tolerate, and even like, a brief moment of being held in my arms.
But every now and then, after I’ve been away for a while, or when he particularly needs it, I pick up my cat, and rather than jumping down after a second or two, he nestles into me and wraps his paw around me and leans his head against me, and just lies in my arms for moment after moment, pressing into me. Abiding, resting, letting himself be loved.
I treasure those moments, which feel all too rare. And I always wish they would go longer.
This picture of Loki, resting contentedly in my arms, soaking in my love for him, gives us an image for how we can relate to God. Rest in God’s love, press into him, and simply let yourself be held.
It is only from this secure place, resting in and surrounded by the Father and the Son’s love, where we are abiding in safety, that our own natural, self-serving love begins to be transformed into God’s supernatural, self-sacrificial love.
* * *
For a few weeks now the lectionary has had us dwelling in John 15 – Jesus’ long goodbye to his friends – and 1 John, the epistle on love. The two go together naturally, speaking closely to each other, both of them calling us to a new resurrection reality. And when these two books speak about love, they speak about it from the other side of the grave. “Love” in these passages is only understood from the perspective of Jesus Christ – betrayed, forsaken, crucified, and risen from the dead.
When Christ speaks about love, he speaks about it from the perspective of someone who has experienced hurt at the hands of his friends and the hands of the world. He speaks as the one rejected.
This is the love of One who not only sees that his friends are about to betray him, deny him, and desert him, but chooses to wash their feet anyway. It’s a love that will look on the soldiers who will cause him the greatest physical agony of his life, and be able to say, “Father, forgive them.” And when Jesus says “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” he’s charging us to love with the same kind of love.
It is this sacrificial love, that seeks the good of the other no matter the cost to oneself, that Jesus calls us to.
How is this possible? Think back to the love-brackets.
“Abide first in the love of God, and let God’s love free you. It’s only then that you are able to love freely.”
When we are resting in this place of love – when we know ourselves to be deeply and truly loved by the God of the universe, in such a safe way that we will never escape it, that love gives us a safe space to reach out. Here we can breathe, and rest, and release our tensions, our hurt, and our fear long enough for Christ to begin to give us eyes to see the world – our friends and our enemies – as he sees them. As we rest in him, he begins to correct our vision so that it is aligned with his, performing a kind of spiritual cataract surgery, removing the film of fear and sin from our eyes, clearing them to see with God’s love.
And as we do so, we begin to see the deep, deep brokenness and pain of those around us. We see that those who lash out do so out of their own fear and pain. We see that those who are most offensive are often those who most need a kind word and most rarely get it. And so this love calls us to the hard place of letting that vision win – of letting go of our own fear and pain and anger in order to bring God’s love to the brokenness of those around us, whether they “deserve” it or not – and most often when they don’t, because that’s when they most need it.
The sacrificial love that Jesus is talking about starts small and starts right in front of us, with the people that we live with and work with, with the person sitting beside you on the bus, and the person next to you in the grocery store. It sees the hurt of the world, the hurt of those who have hurt us, and longs to draw everyone into the same safe space of love that we abide in.
This path of loving self-sacrificially, in the way Jesus called us to, is not easy. But friends, as we rest in Jesus’ embrace, as we learn to rest in the belief that we are truly his friends, it becomes easier. And what’s more, we learn that it is the path to joy.
* * *
Jesus said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” He knows better than anyone that despite what our instincts tell us, the path to joy is found in this hard, beautiful thing of laying down our lives for our friends, because that is where we are closest to God’s heart.
I’m sure you all know the story of Mother Theresa – the Catholic nun who spent her life helping the poor and destitute in the slums of Calcutta. Mother Theresa knew better than many how to see people with Jesus’ eyes of love, and to love sacrificially. But she also found that this profound paradox is true: “If you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”
One final thing that is important to say. For too long the church has counselled sacrificial love as a reason for people to endure abuse. Friends, sacrificial love does not mean putting up with abuse. Yes, it means acting for the good of the other above your own. But you are loving the other by removing yourself from harm’s way, by not enabling or excusing abuse, by getting help if that’s what’s needed. And you too are invited into the safe space of God’s love for you, a love that will never betray you.
So friends, abide in the love of God this week. And let that pure, profound, deep love infiltrate you to your very core, and transform your heart and transform your vision, so that you can in turn see the need for love in those around you, and reach out, and draw them in, so that they, too, are within the brackets of love.