Sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Year B - Mucknell Abbey
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Sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Year B

The Community here at Mucknell is, as with any group, made up of diverse individuals with varying opinions on just about everything! As such, sermons posted on our website represent the ideas of the preachers who wrote and delivered them, not necessarily those of the entire Community.

Sunday 5th May, 2024

The Gospel passage that we heard today follows on directly from last’s week beginning of this ‘Vine and Branches’ discourse: in her commentary online, Professor Karoline Lewis, to whom I am indebted for parts of what follows, said, “like any good discourse in the Gospel of John, Jesus can’t let the metaphor go after only one take.” What we have before us today, then, is a subtle shift in the image that takes it further. Last week, we heard Jesus say, “abide in me”; this week we hear him say, “abide in my love.” The image of the vine and its branches then takes on a new facet, as a sign of the love shared between God the Father and God the Son, a love into which we are invited. Love becomes perhaps the defining hallmark of discipleship, and more than discipleship, as Jesus today calls his disciples his friends.

There’s a real sense here of handing on a baton: Jesus knows that his time is short, and there are things he needs to tell the disciples, things he needs them to understand. What he is handing on is, essentially, his own life and experience. “As the Father has loved me, so I have love you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

Hang on. What’s all this talk of commandments doing in the middle of a discourse about love? Surely love is something freely offered, with no rules or restrictions? Well, yes. And then again, no.

We are all, after all, human, and experience and history show us that a bit of guidance can be helpful. As monastics in this place, we follow a Rule which is intended to order and guide our lives into love for God and love for one another, expressed in real and concrete actions. It’s not the only way of showing love – far from it – but it’s the one which we have chosen to live under, and one which down the centuries has borne much fruit. For Jewish believers both today, and in millennia past, obeying the law is not fundamentally a burden, but a way of expressing love for God. It’s there in the Shema, the prayer said morning and evening, which has in its first phrases the injunction that “You shall love the L-rd your G‑d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”

When I was teaching, we had a few simple classroom rules that were designed to create a calm environment that would help everyone – me included – do their best. They were: We are quiet when someone is speaking to the whole class. We follow instructions straight away. We let others get on with their work. We respect each other. That last one particularly was the ‘catch-all’, perhaps an equivalent to Jesus’ command to love, suited for its context.

If love is a rule, a commandment, then love is also, necessarily, an action. It may be that by sitting in my room all day doing not a great deal I am expressing love to someone, somehow. But it becomes far easier to express love if I get up off my backside and go cook lunch, or mop a floor, or plant tomatoes, or listen to someone in distress.

Love is something we do, and it is something Jesus has done too. He has lived in a way that has kept his Father’s commandments. Jesus’ obedience to God has been about being the most faithful rendition of God in the world that he can be, becoming, as Madeleine L’Engle puts it, “God’s show and tell”.

Jesus has spent time with the disciples, showing them what loving obedience and obedient love look like. His discourse here must then be seen in that context, as a summation of what he and the disciples have been living. And so we hear Jesus say, “This is my commandment, 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.”

Does this mean we have literally to die for one another? Probably not. But if we look at the immediate context of Jesus’ words, the disciples to whom he speaks will have to make very real choices for each other in the hours and days ahead. Many of them have already laid aside aspects of their life to follow Jesus, and Jesus – again – takes this further by directing them to extend this beyond him to one another. They’re asked to lay down their life for their friends, for those they travel with, just as Jesus, even before his crucifixion, has laid down his life for his friends, and for strangers, too. Even enemies. He has sought to serve those around him, to love them, to heal them, to care for them, to show them the love of God that surpasses all understanding, that they in turn might share it with the world.

As I’ve been reflecting on this over the week, I’ve had very much in mind the death of my friend Lauren 4 years ago. We’d met at university, as part of a wonderful group of about a dozen or so friends who had coalesced in the way people sometimes do, a mixture of subjects – various sciences, maths, classics, languages – origins, hometowns. A bit of a ragtag bunch, but we cared for each other deeply.

Lauren was diagnosed with cancer one Christmas, and it was quickly clear that it was very terminal. So all of us – and I do mean, all of us: no one was missing – dropped everything on about 3 days notice to go and spend a Saturday with her and with one another. If it sounds grim, well, yes, the situation was, but the day we spent together was glorious. We’d all bought university photos and such with us, as well as the various partners and children the years had added, and we talked and laughed all day. It was amazing, and to me a living testament to the power of love – to laying down our lives and our plans because Lauren needed us, and we needed each other. Could we simple have sent her messages of love and support on any number of messaging apps? Yes, and we did. But it was the action we took, our physical presence with one another, that became a day I hope I never forget. Lauren died 13 days after our visit, and although we couldn’t all make her funeral, we’d been there when it counted, at what she herself, in her inimitable fashion, called her “pre-funeral wake”.

And this day brought to life what Jesus means when he says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” That day in the hospital was pure joy. Our sharing of love and support, for one another and for Lauren, was pure joy.

The more we love, the more we are loved, the more we can do love together, the more I believe our capacity for joy and for love is increased. And perhaps this was true even of Jesus.

Jesus experienced abundant love when Mary anointed his feet, a love that he then takes forward into Jerusalem, into these final hours with his disciples, where he is able to wash the feet of his betrayer, Judas, and his denier, Peter. Jesus takes Mary’s love with him – which came, no doubt, from his love for her – to the garden, his arrest, trial, the cross, and into the darkness of his tomb.

By loving one another, the disciples will carry their love forward in their own loss and grief ahead. It is the love that they have for each other that will get them through not only Jesus’ absence but what is to come once they leave the house, cross the Kidron Valley, and enter the garden. The community of the disciples is commanded to do works of love, and loving one another makes possible loving the world God loves.

God cannot love the world without the love they and we take into the world, and it is through loving one another, loving the world, that they and we will know and live in God’s love. As we do love together, whether that’s in this Community, in marriages, in friendships, in families, in this gathering here today, we will be living in Christ just as Christ will be living in us. Amen.

Sr. Jessica

Image: Wooden Love Sign, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57756 [retrieved May 28, 2024]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mastababa/2398441001/