This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached today, the Fifth Sunday of Easter. The gospel text was John 13:31-35.
I’m like to teach you something new today. It’s called breathing. It’s easy. Here. Do it with me.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.
There. Now you can go out and do that on your own. Now, I would understand if you said to me, “Umm, that’s not something new. I’ve actually known how to breathe for quite some time now.” And that would be a good point. After all, breathing is pretty much the first thing we learn as we exit our mother’s womb. I think I can say with some confidence that every one of you listening, whether here in person or on video, has a lot of experience breathing.
So why would I say this is something new? I’ll get to that. But first, let’s look at the gospel.
In today’s gospel reading Jesus gives a new commandment. This is part of what scholars call the farewell discourse in John’s gospel. John tells us that Jesus said these things to his disciples just hours before he was arrested. The things he says in this discourse are significant and important, things he wanted them to remember.
He said this: “I give you a new commandment: that you love one another.”
And I don’t know about you, but I think that’s rather underwhelming. Love one another? Seriously, Jesus? That’s your great pronouncement? That’s your new commandment? That’s like trying to teach people how to breathe, isn’t it?
I mean, come on, Jesus. I know the disciples were sometimes rather slow to understand, but were they that dim? I know they sometimes fought among themselves, but were they that cruel? That they needed you to remind them to “love one another?”
Somebody once told me that the very first thing she learned in Sunday School was to love one another. Maybe that’s true for you too. We know all about loving each other, we’ve been doing it for years. Loving one another is kid’s stuff, easy as breathing.
Except it’s not. Loving one another is not simple, and it’s not easy. Maybe it is when we’re very young children, I don’t remember that far back, but it’s not simple or easy as we get older. Because life gets complicated. Really complicated.
Imagine this. You own a store, and you hire a friend of yours to help manage the store. But you soon discover that your friend isn’t the worker you thought he was. He is coming to work late, making sloppy mistakes, and making your life harder rather than easier. What’s the loving thing to do? Do you just let it slide, because he’s your friend, and you should be “nice”? Or do you fire him on the spot? Or is the loving thing somewhere in between? It’s probably somewhere in between. Love includes both compassion and accountability. But it’s not easy.
Or imagine this. You have three children, who are grown-up now. And two of them are fighting. All the time. You’re not even sure what it’s about anymore. It’s gotten to the point where family gatherings just aren’t fun anymore, because you know that these two are just going to bicker all day. Your other child won’t even come for holidays anymore. What’s the loving thing to do? Do you just back off, and let them deal with it…they’re grown-ups after all. Or do you step in and lay down the law and tell them they’re not welcome until they work it out? Or is it somewhere in between? It’s probably somewhere in between. But it’s not easy. Not at all.
What do you do when you’re in a group of people who are talking politics, and you disagree with them? What’s the loving thing to do? Is it keeping your mouth shut? Leaving the conversation? Sharing your opinion? It’s not easy.
And what about that person you just don’t get along with at work? Or in your extended family? Or at church? There are people we honestly just don’t like, and that’s okay. But how do we love them, nonetheless? Love isn’t a feeling so much as an action. Loving one another doesn’t mean we have fond feelings toward one another, but that we treat them with respect and care as God’s child, no matter who they are or what they do. Acting politely and civilly toward people we don’t like is hard enough, but loving one another? That’snot for the faint of heart. And it’s not easy.
Loving one another is hard work. It’s tiring. It’s not, after all, like breathing. Hold on, maybe it is. It’s like trying to breathe like this.
Try breathing like this with me:
Breathe out. Breathe out. Breathe out. Breathe out.
That would be a new way of breathing, wouldn’t it? A fatal one! You can’t keep breathing out – before long you’re empty. That kind of breathing doesn’t give life – it saps it away, quickly. And that’s how it feels sometimes when we try to love one another. Like we don’t have enough. Like we’re empty. Like there’s nothing left to love with.
And honestly, that’s how a lot of us are feeling right now, every single day. Like we don’t have enough. Like we’re empty. It’s hard to love right now. We’re so tired.
Jesus knew that. He knew that very well, and that’s why he gave a new commandment. The new commandment is not simply “love one another.” The new commandment is “love one another as I have loved you.” And he doesn’t just mean “love one another as much as I have loved you.” If that was it, that would just make it even harder, impossible even. No, it’s more than that.
In the first letter of John, this is written: “We love because God first loved us.” This doesn’t just mean, “We choose to love because God first loved us.” Yes, God teaches us how to love, but it’s more. “We love because God first loved us” means, “We are capable of love because God first loved us.” God loved us first, and God’s love is what enables us to love one another. Otherwise we’d be empty.
You can’t breathe out until you’ve breathed in. Christ said, “As I have loved you, you should love one another.”
Loving one another is like breathing out. And Christ’s love for us is like breathing in. You can’t do one without the other. You have to receive Christ’s love first. You have to let Christ touch you deeply, flow right into you like air into your lungs. Without that, you are not strong enough to keep loving the people you need to love. Without that, you are not strong enough to deal with all the stuff of your life. You need help.
So breathe in. (inhale)
Breathe in the love of Christ. Breathe in the love of Christ here in this place, through the Word of God that flows into your ears and changes your heart. Breathe in his love through his body and blood, the bread and wine that flow into your belly and change your heart. Breathe in his love each day through prayer. And if some days you need to breathe really, really deep, then go for it. There’s no limit on God’s love.
And breathe out. (exhale)
Love one another. Filled with the love of Christ, really, truly, love one another.
And that’s what I want to teach you today. Not to breathe. But to see that God’s love flows into us and out of us just like air. To breathe not just air, but to breathe God’s very Spirit, the Spirit of love. So practice with me. Breathe in God’s love, and breathe out the same love.