In today’s Gospel, we see once again John’s emphasis on Love: loving our neighbors, loving one another, even to the point that we might lay down our lives for a friend. Jesus says that we are to do this, to love one another so that our joy may be complete! This commandment to love one another: its intention is to bring us joy! There’s several things in this passage that we need to understand, the first of which is that the commandment to love one another is just another way of saying “Love your neighbor.” And, if we remember the story of the Good Samaritan, we realize that our neighbor is everyone who is not us. 

The second thing about this passage is the definition of the word “complete.” It brings with it the ideas of “maturity,” of “wholeness,” and of the “full realization of some form of potential.” In other words, it doesn’t just mean “finished,” but that something has accomplished the purpose for which God created it.

So, what God is saying is that our Joy will attain the purpose that God has intended for us, if – and when – we love one another. It’s a very simple commandment, but it is not always easy to implement.

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus had even told his disciples to “Love their enemies,” and to “Pray for those that persecute you.” Very simple commandments, but once again, not at all easy to implement. Love God, Love your neighbor, Love one another, Love even your enemies. Jesus would not have told us – his disciples – to love our enemies unless he knew that the command to love those who didn’t love us would bring us joy.

So how do we do this? How do we love our neighbor, when this world increasingly accepts and justifies violence? You will find all sorts of rhetoric that is intended to make us afraid, because fear provokes anger. The rhetoric is intended to inflame our passions, to make us mad – mad enough to do something about it – preferably with sticks and stones, or even with guns and knives.  You see the rhetoric plastered across newspapers, television and, more often, in posts on various social media sites, sometimes going so far as to call for violence or even death to those that hold a different political viewpoint.

Honestly, this sort of rhetoric is nothing new. We’ve been dealing with it in this world for as long as there has been written history. But as Christians, we need to be able to step back from this sort of rhetoric, and ask ourselves whether what we are being told is intended to make us afraid, and therefore angry, because we know that when we are afraid, and when we are angry, we are unable to love one another.

Are we able to trust God enough to be able to consider the option that Love might be a better way?

In your bulletin today, you’ll see a comic. For those that don’t have a bulletin, I’ll describe it right quick. Jesus tells his disciples he’s got to go, and that they should remember what he told them. The disciples reflect, and realize that it’s pretty much, Love God, and Love your Neighbor. Then one of them says, “Well, that seems pretty simple. I don’t see how we can mess th–” And he gets cut off by another disciple who says, “Uh-oh. Here come the theologians.”

While we might be able to name theologians off the top of our heads, like Augustine, Luther, Cranmer, or Barth, what most of us don’t realize is that each of us engages in theology on a daily basis. We read the Bible, or hear portions of scripture read, and we interpret them through our own lenses – and that makes us theologians. We can either engage in theology that interprets the words of God and asks us to shape our lives to the simple commands to love God and love our neighbor. Or, we can look for loopholes. Good theology calls for us to transform our lives to conform to God’s will, and to Jesus’ teaching to love God and neighbor. Bad theology looks for loopholes, and seeks to justify our behavior, so that we do not need to change anything about ourselves. Bad theology looks for ways where we get to decide who our neighbors are, so that we don’t need to love our enemies, or pray for those who persecute us.

Love one another, as I have loved you.

A very, very simple commandment. It’s just not very easy to implement. Because, you know why? We all like to feel morally superior, we all like to win an argument, we all like to retaliate with power and control, rather than love and compassion. We hate the idea of having to apologize, because saying sorry means we have to acknowledge we were wrong. 

We all love the idea of justice, and people getting what we think they deserve. But given our human nature, we would rather take justice into our own hands for a quick fix, rather than let the hand of God work through the love that God’s disciples share with the world. In case you’re wondering, that’s us – we are the hands of God in this world. 

The concept of loving our neighbor is a simple one, but actually loving our neighbors is not always easy.

Some of you may remember this. This story has stuck with me since the very first time I heard it:  In 2006, there was a shooting in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. A man barged into an Amish schoolhouse and shot ten 10 young girls, killing 5 of them. Then he shot himself.

These Amish people, only one day after having performed the funeral services for their own daughters, attended the funeral service of the man who had killed their children. They all hugged the widow, and then hugged the man’s children. Later on, they raised money to support this man’s family.

And you can probably guess the reactions to this act of compassion: People were outraged! Many of them accused the Amish of not caring that their own kids died, since they had “Gotten over the tragedy too quickly.” Some people claimed that justice would be allowing the Amish to kill the children of the man that murdered their own – a sentiment that many people agreed to. They pushed violent retribution, rather than love.

The Amish, however, responded that they were indeed still grieving for their own children, and that they recognized that the family of the shooter had lost a husband and a father, and that that family was grieving too. It was an incredible display of compassion in the midst of their own grief.

When asked how they could possibly forgive someone who had killed their children and love the family of that same man, the Amish responded: “God has commanded us to love one another. That is what we are doing.” 

When asked if it was difficult, the answer was, “Of course it is difficult. We grieve for our loss every day, but we have been commanded to forgive sins and to love one another. That is a choice we have to make every single day.”

The psychologist Erich Fromm, in his book, “The Art of Loving,” said this:

Love is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go. How can I judge that it will stay forever, when my act does not involve judgment and decision.

In other words, Feelings come and go, so how can God command us to have feelings of love for our neighbor? The simple answer is that God doesn’t. God commands us to love, which is an active decision to behave a particular way, as evidenced by the Amish in response to the murder of their daughters. They clearly didn’t have feelings of love. Instead, they chose to express love through strength of will.

The Amish held a belief that they could – and would – see something beautiful even if they loved their neighbor despite the murder of their children. They had internalized the good news that Jesus said we should love our neighbors so that our joy might be complete!

The Gospel today says, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” We know that the way that Jesus loved us was through a sacrificial death on a cross. The Gospel then goes on to say, that “greater love has no one, than to lay down their life for a friend.” We often like to think of this laying down of our lives as a heroic act – an act of martyrdom when others are facing persecution – and that we would step in and take their place. We like it because of the finality of that decision, the understanding that it is “giving everything” for someone else.

But more often than not, laying down one’s life for a friend means sacrificial forgiveness, the decision to love, and a willingness to walk away from the rhetoric that pulls our hearts toward hatred and judgment. It’s never an easy task to make the decision to try and understand people and see things from their viewpoint, which is the pathway toward forgiveness and love. It is easy, however, to pass judgment and to refuse to forgive. 

A hard heart takes very little damage.

William James, the psychologist, said, “Action seems to follow feeling, but really, actions and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.”

Or, in other words, “Feelings come from action.” Or, “What we do, we come to feel.” If we choose to support rhetoric that calls for violence upon others, then we will be more likely to actually commit violence, because we will begin to feel hatred and live in judgment. If we choose to respond in forgiveness, love, and compassion, then we will be more likely to feel the emotion of love, because feelings follow actions.

We need to only look to the Amish again to see this. We can see the results that their difficult decision of compassion in the face of evil had on their community.

In an open letter to the Amish community that offered her comfort during the aftermath of the shooting, the wife of the shooter had this to say: “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”

The letter continued, saying “Please know that our hearts have been broken by all that has happened. We are filled with sorrow for all of our Amish neighbors whom we have loved and continue to love. We know there are many hard days ahead for all the families who lost loved ones, and so we will continue to put our hope and trust in the God of all comfort, as we all seek to rebuild our lives.”1

Now, all these years later, the family of the shooter, and the families of the victims have not only become friends, but have remained friends, and visit one another regularly, caring for the victims and sharing their faith in the God of Love.

Through the active decision to engage in sacrificial love – to display compassion – this community was brought to the very maturity of joy that God has promised for those that love one another. 

The command to love our neighbor is a simple one.

It’s just not always easy to do.

But if we choose the path of love, we can stand on God’s promise that our joy will be made complete.

[This sermon was delivered at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Wickenburg, AZ on May 5, 2024.]

About Michael

Mike was called to be the Vicar of St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Wickenburg, AZ, and started this call on February 1, 2024. Before taking a call as clergy, Mike worked in IT for almost 25 years, variously working as a back- and front-end web developer, database developer and manager, and as a business analyst. If he's not engaged in the work of the church, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride, or training for an upcoming BikeMS ride. Mike holds a Bachelor of Arts in Classical History from Seattle Pacific University, and a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. He attended Sewanee School of Theology for a year of Anglican Studies in the Fall of 2022, and graduated in May of 2023. Mike was ordained as a Transitional Deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona on January 20th, 2024, and will be ordained to the priesthood on July 27, 2024.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.