My parents were going out on a date and I was old enough to be left home without a babysitter. Just not old enough to make good decisions.
I was asking them about going to a friend’s house (he’s moving the next day! I pleaded. I won’t see him again!) They weren’t going to be home anyway, so what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that they said no. They wanted me to be at home. They were going away.
Easter 6A | John 14:15-21
I did what any responsible child would do given this unique dilemma, I tried to sneak out without getting noticed. I hopped on my bike, raced up the block, turning left toward Chisholm Street and rounded the corner, ditching my bike in the front yard.
This felt like an impossible situation. I was compelled by these two needs: to bring closure to a relationship with a friend as I had promised him and to respect the command of my parents. So I was hurrying up to try to do both. And I had the sinking suspicion I was failing.
I had given my word, though. So we said our goodbyes and we talked about keeping in touch, with the complete awareness of the pre-social media days that such a task is impossible for 12 year-olds without Facebook or email. These goodbyes were permanent.
Flying out the door, I dragged my bike under me into full steam, my legs punching the pedals with CHINK CHINK CHINK CHINK. I couldn’t have been there more than 5 minutes. They were out the door, so I’ll slip back in. Simple.
As I turned the corner back onto First Avenue, there was my parent’s minivan coming up the street. Busted.
The trouble with rules is not that they’re bad. And it isn’t that they need to be enforced. It’s that rules are rarely clean. And how we live into our rules is the very frustration of life. It’s rarely the straightforward ideal we take it for.
I broke the rules that day. And I was punished. My parents were so angry; they thought they couldn’t trust me. And as a parent, I totally get it. If my kids did that, I don’t know. I’d feel that same anger and confusion and betrayal.
I also know that they didn’t understand that I had made a promise. And parents, we get so high and mighty about our rules we can forget that we’ve taught conflicting rules. We’ve taught our children to honor their commitments. And, yes we might reason it away and say children can’t make those promises, that I made a promise I couldn’t keep.
But that’s not what I heard. I heard those words, but I heard that my promises mean nothing. That the disappointment of my friend means nothing. That our relationship is less important than a rule they made up for this particular night, now that I was old enough to stay home.
The trouble is that two commands given me were in conflict and I wasn’t sure how to order them. That night I did. But before they left, I didn’t.
And it was clear we would not come up with a way to honor them both.
Can you imagine how confusing it must have been for the disciples to deal with commands Jesus was leaving behind? How they had gathered around a table for one last meal and Jesus taught them a few really important lessons on top of years of following him everywhere, how it must have all been swimming in an ocean of possibilities. He’s going away and then what?
The Love Commandment
Our gospel story drops us in the middle of the farewell discourse in John, where Jesus is saying goodbye to his disciples. And it begins with that ominous line
Jesus said, ”If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
It starts there, but it doesn’t tell us what those commandments actually are. And given our tendency to take stuff out of context, we’re likely to read this broadly: like do what I say or follow my rules. But in chapter 13, right before this, Jesus gives a single commandment, beginning with a demonstration.
He washes their feet and says
So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. (John 13:14)
If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (John 13:17)
And then, a little later:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. (John 13:34)
Jesus has been talking about a single commandment with big reverberations. A commandment to love. To love God and the God in each other. To love in affection and in service. This is the rule. All the other rules hang from this or else they aren’t really Jesus rules. Love. Like God loves, love.
It seems so simple. Just love. we say. But it all gets so mixed up in those feelings we have that are very much not love. The ones that come out a whole lot more like anger and fear and anxiety. They don’t feel like love. And they don’t look like love. And there are few who mistake them for love.
But that’s our mistake. We think love is an emotion. Clinical and objectively defined. That feeling we get. And not our expression, our action, or our decisions.
Full of Love
If you got lost trying to figure out the tangle of who relates to whom in that gospel reading, you’re not alone. John rivals Paul for the most convoluted statements in the New Testament.
On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
I’m constantly frustrated by these mangled phrases. But they express something far more important tangled than they do if we actually diagramed this passage and determined all the ins and outs of each of these relationships. There’s more meaning in the messy tangle of these relationships than in the clarity of any one of them. Because love, as Jesus defines it, is a blessing from God, shared with us with the intention of sharing it with the people around us.
To call love an emotion is to wedge the Rocky Mountains into a gift bag. To speak of Jesus’ commandment to love as some rule to be followed is to describe life as a sequence of eating, excreting, and expiring. When we claim our traditions as the truth, we are saying to our children, the only food there is to eat are tacos. Yes, they are delicious. And yes I could eat them every day. But there’s way more than this.
This commandment Jesus leaves them with is everything. Because keeping it means they’re doing what Jesus did and their sharing with each other as Jesus shared with them. And they are going out into cities and countryside to heal the sick and clothe the naked and feed the hungry and house the homeless and welcome the immigrant. Because this is love.
Love is relationship.
That’s why GOD reveals GOD’s self to us in a divine relationship of three and why Jesus taught his disciples in a holy relationship and encouraged them to keep it up after he left.
So love isn’t just an emotion or a feeling or even a verb. Love is found in relationships and created by them. Love is the fabric of our Sunday best and the gold of our wedding bands. It’s not the bowl or the hot fudge on your sundae, or even the ice cream; love is the sundae! And sundaes taste like love, don’t they?
Love is our guide because GOD is love. To love is to know God. Loving our parents, children, spouses, partners, cousins, grandchildren, friends, neighbors, strangers, criminals, people who go to the wrong church, you name it.
And this love, this commandment to love and seek love and make love where there is no love is not easy. Not in the least. It’s confusing and conflicted and sometimes love gets us in trouble. And sometimes our love starts to look like God’s love. Full of forgiveness with a short memory for the pain and a long memory for the good stuff.
And sometimes it really is that simple. Our confusion is tangled up and we don’t know which way to go or how we relate to one another or to God or even what we should do to rebuild a relationship. Looking, not only at our friends or our kids or our God but looking at ourselves in the mirror and asking
Is this full of love?
Are these words, these deathbed offerings and celebratory hurrahs full of love?
And those critiques and great ideas and end-of-our-rope exasperations, are they full of love?
Can you find no more room? Is it full to bursting with love?
Do I have any more love to squeeze in there?
Because I’ll tell ya, if you’re running out of love, I have a pretty good idea of where you can get more.