No greater love

One of the few good things to come out of the pandemic is a wider definition of heroism. I don’t spend more than a few minutes a week on Facebook anymore, but I used to waste a lot of time paging through it, and I was alarmed by a trend that I saw.

It seemed like every ninth or tenth post was a photo of a man in military garb carrying a semi-automatic rifle and a caption that said, “This is what a real American hero looks like.”

Occasionally the soldier would be replaced by a police officer, always male, his sidearm prominently displayed. Rarely a firefighter would show up, but firefighters don’t carry guns, so they apparently ranked low in the Facebook hero department.

I always wondered, “What about other first responders? What about medics and corpsmen and chaplains, who also serve on the front lines, and doctors and nurses, who are just off the front lines? What about military families who wait at home for word of their loved ones? Isn’t their service heroic?

“What about the single mom who works three low-paying jobs to keep her family fed and clothed? What about the teachers who buy their own school supplies because schools can’t afford to provide them? What about old folks who struggle to live their last days in dignity, abandoned by family and friends in dingy nursing homes? Aren’t these people heroes, too?”

Then came the pandemic, and with it came stories of doctors and nurses working under impossible conditions to treat covid patients while risking exposure themselves. Suddenly, they, too, were recognized as heroes. They were giving themselves for others, sometimes giving all of themselves. People began to line up outside hospitals to cheer them and send them care packages and other signs of regard.

Even today there’s a nursing facility near me that has a sign out front that says, “Heroes work here.” And they do. Heroes also toil, largely unrecognized, in nearby homes and apartments. Once a year, on Mother’s Day, we pause to recognize some of them.

Today is the day we celebrate our moms and the love we’ve enjoyed receiving from them and from other special women in our lives – grandmas, aunts, next-door neighbors.

Sometimes we make the mistake of saying that God’s love for us is like Mom’s love for us. But the opposite is what’s true. At its best, Mom’s love for us is like God’s love for us. “We love because God first loved us,” 1 John 4:19 says (CEB). God’s love always comes first. But someone had to convey that love to us. Someone had to teach us how to love, by showing us how to love. For many of us, maybe most of us, that was Mom.

Not every Mother’s Day card is adorned with flowers and frills, but we tend to over-sentimentalize our love for Mom. Often what we love most about her has little to do with sentimentality. We love her not just because she smelled nice and we enjoyed her warm and soft hugs.

We love her also because she was the one who pried us out of bed every morning, force-fed us breakfast and shoved us out the door in time for school. She was there when we skinned our knees, and when we fell down in other ways, too.

Her fury was a frightful thing, but we knew it was kindled only because we had failed so totally to be the best we could be. And we had no louder cheerleader than her when we jumped back into the fray. Whether we won or lost, she would do whatever she needed to do to turn our defeats into victories and our victories into moments we would always remember.

Yes, what Moms do, or what other special women in our lives do, is mirror for us the love of God.

Friends, this is another in our series of messages about Living the Resurrection. It’s the second to last, to be exact. We pick up today where we left off last Sunday, as Jesus is speaking to his disciples right after the Last Supper.

“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me,” he tells them (John 15:9). So now he gives this command: “Love one another the way I loved you” (15:12).

See how that works? The Father loves the Son, and the Son loves us and tells us to love one another the same way.

The disciples can’t know yet how much he loves them, though they soon will learn. “This is the very best way to love,” he continues. “Put your life on the line for your friends.” (15:13)

That’s how the Message version words it. We may be more accustomed to hearing something like this: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (NIV).

It’s his friends he is speaking to now, not those who follow him as his disciples. Their relationship has changed. He says: “You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father” (15:14-15).

The best way to love, Jesus tells us, is to love sacrificially. That means putting your life on the line for your friends – or in more traditional terms, laying down your life for your friends.

It may come to that, literally, and you may be recognized as a hero because of it. A friend of mine has a son who was a corpsman, a medic, in the Marines before he went to college. My friend says he was never prouder of his son than the day there was a live shooter on campus and while everyone else was running away from the sound of gunfire, his son ran toward it, the way he was trained to do, and he ministered to the wounded as well as he could, putting himself in harm’s way while doing so.

That’s the greater love Jesus is talking about. It’s sacrificial love, dying to self, setting aside for the sake of another your priorities or your comfort or your safety. Yes, that is the best way to love and to live.

Most of the time for most of us, it won’t be on a field of carnage, and it won’t be an act that is often recognized as heroic. No, it will be in quiet and familiar places, in the normal moments of our daily lives. It will be something we may have done a thousand times already but by doing it one more time, for someone else, when we don’t have to, in a way that inconveniences us – by acting in this way, we make this act heroic.

What makes it heroic is not the pain or inconvenience it causes us but rather the good that passes to someone else because we are willing to suffer the pain and inconvenience. That’s how the greater love of Jesus changes the world.

We are willing to go one step more, one step beyond the expected, one step beyond what we think we are capable of making – and that step has a cascade effect. It snowballs, as it were. It keeps having a greater effect than any one step can normally be expected to have.

One step changes the world because it changes another person. If that person takes a similar step, soon hundreds, even thousands, of others are affected. All because one person decided to make a phone call, just to say hello to a friend. Or send a card. Or drop by with a plate of brownies. Just one little step.

We all know, though, just how hard it can be to take that little step. Maybe I’ll sleep five minutes more before waking the kids. Maybe, instead of making that phone call tonight, I’ll just watch a little more TV. Maybe … maybe … maybe. Understand, I’m not berating you. I’m talking about me. If there were a procrastinator’s club, I might run for president, if I had the energy, which I don’t. Surely someone else will do it.

Jesus calls us friends. Do you understand what a big deal that is? Some years ago, one of my daughters was going through confirmation at the church we were part of then. For Confirmation Sunday, the confirmands were asked to write a statement about what they had learned, about what Jesus meant to them.

Several of them wrote long paragraphs full of the kind of theological profundity only 12-year-olds and doctoral candidates are capable of. By contrast, my daughter’s statement was short and simple. She wrote: “I learned that Jesus is my friend.”

I was momentarily shocked. That’s all? Jesus is your friend? That’s all you learned? Sometime later, Jesus got me alone for a moment, and he said, “Look, dummy, she got it right. I’m your friend, too, when you let me be.”

Jesus says we are his friends when we do what he commands us to do. And what does he say about that? He says: “This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you” (15:12).

We do our darnedest to complicate that. We want to make it undoable so we can throw up our hands in mock despair and say, “I knew it would be too hard.”

It is hard. But it is not undoable. God loved us first by creating us, by giving us this wonderful world so full of delights. God continued to love us by becoming one with us in Jesus, living for us and dying for us and being raised to new life for us. God continues to love us by residing in us by the Holy Spirit, leading us to live the right way, leading us to love.

“Love one another the way I loved you,” Jesus says. Sort of the way Mom did, or maybe still does. It’s the best way to love. It’s the best way to live.

If you can, give your Mom a big hug today. If you can’t, give somebody a hug for her. You’ll both be better for it.

Amen.

This message was delivered May 9, 2021, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, from John 15:9-15.

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