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May 13, 2001
by Tony Grant
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of John chapter 13 and follow along as I read verses 31-35. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." (RV2:29).
31 Therefore, when he was gone out, Jesus said, Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him.
32 If God be glorified in him, God shall also glorify him in himself, and shall straightway glorify him.
33 Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me: and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you.
34 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.
35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
In the tranquil, sunny Methow Valley of north-central Washington, twenty tough men and one tough woman are getting ready for a summer of "smokejumping" - parachuting into remote and rugged mountain forests to put out wildfires. When they are not leaping out of planes and fighting fires, the smokejumpers welcome visitors to their home turf, the North Cascades Smokejumper Base. Such a visitor would see parachutes, shovels, saws, food and camping gear sitting ready to go at a moment's notice. Out on the runway, the smokejumpers' plane stands ready to fly. Visitors can climb into the prop plane, a Spanish-built Casa 212 (sometimes a Twin Otter is used) that carries up to eight smokejumpers at a time. It is basic transport with a bare metal fuselage and hard benches. The North Cascades smokejumpers can make up to twenty-five parachute jumps in a summer season. They fight forest fires in Washington and wherever else they are needed, from Alaska and western Canada to Colorado and New Mexico. When they're not out fighting fires, smokejumpers work on keeping in shape. They have to be fighting fit for their jobs, which require them to parachute out of a plane at 1,500 feet; scramble through the woods carrying 100-pound packs; dig firebreaks; saw down brush and trees and sleep in the rough. [Kristin Jackson, "Touring the smokejumper base," The Seattle Times, May 20, 1998.] Smokejumpers are the Green Berets of the firefighting world. They are usually the first to get to isolated fires on public land, and in some cases they find themselves battling flames for days on end. And they are scared to death. Who would not be, jumping into the jaws of hell? But they have got both power and passionqualities that are absolutely essential for leaping from a plane into a flaming inferno.
In John 13, Jesus was peering into an equally daunting deathtrap when he said goodbye to his disciples at the Last Supper. Knowing that he would soon be plunging into the inferno of an arrest, trial and crucifixion, he challenged his followers to show the power and passion of love. "Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another," he instructed them.
Our scripture passage today begins with a transition phrase: "Therefore, when he was gone out." The "he" here is Judas. Judas has just left the fellowship in order to betray the master. Thus, the community of faith is closed. Jesus is among his eleven truly faithful followers who are alone worthy to receive his farewell discourse. They do not necessarily understand all that Jesus is saying, but at least they believe in him.
The general chronology of Jesus' last meal with his disciples in John's gospel is shared with the Synoptic GospelsMatthew, Mark, and Luke. However, in contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, John, in his gospel, does not end the meal with the institution of the Lords Supper. Rather, Jesus washes the disciples' feet and gives them not a new liturgical sacrament but a new sacrament of love: "that you love one another. Just as I have loved you" (v. 34).
The word "sacramental" means a sign of the real presence and power of Christ. Jesus in his life and death has shown us a sacrament of love. He calls upon his disciples to mirror that sacrament in their love for one another. It is a divine sacrament, for it is a divine love, the love between God the Father and God the Son.
Notice that this is not a call to a universal love. We have that call, that demand, in other verses. Jesus said we should love our neighborwhomever that neighbor may be. He even demanded that we love our enemies. But that is not what is being talked about in John 13. This is a love that is inwardly directed, a sacramental love for other faithful members of the community.
In v31, Jesus speaks of the glorification of the Son of Man. This glorification is that Jsus is recognized and treated as God. At the end of his earthly ministry, any distinction between Jesus and God disappears: As you see Jesus, you see God. The Son is glorified in the Father, and the Father is glorified in the Son.
This glorification and revelation of Jesus is too much even for believers, let alone the unbelievers, to fathom, and so Jesus calls his disciples "children" (v. 33). At this time the disciples cannot go where Jesus is going. It is neither the moment for them to suffer in the way that Jesus will suffer, nor is it time for them to share the glory of Jesus. They must continue to live in the here and now and live in community.
In order to maintain the new community, the disciples have the new commandment of love. The love that Jesus commands is intimate and personal. It becomes a sacramental witness to the fundamental relationship that Jesus has with the Father (17:23-25). Jesus may be physically absent from his disciples; however, those who remain can experience the actual presence of his love as they love one another. And, in loving one another, they will experience the love that is between Jesus and God.
Mutual love is the way that members of the community will make Jesus present, and any discord within the community will suggest just the opposite. The implication here is that the world - those outside the faithful fellowship - are looking at the witness the community offers. They are looking to see if we are real and the way they will know we are real is by our love for each other.
Let us be clear about this communal love. It is not just a warm emotion. It is not just a feeling of affection, strong liking or good will. It is not the result of a direct hit by an arrow from cupids bow. This is a powerful and passionate love that jumps into fires for the good of a neighbor. ICR13 says this love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things" (1 Corinthians 13:7). This is the kind of love that is the distinguishing characteristic of the church: a love that leaps and digs and fights and saves, day after day after day; a love that has no fear, because "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).
We might call it a smokejumping love. I realize that sounds hackneyed and clichéd, but that is precisely the kind of love we are talking about. It is a scared-to-death love that leaps into the flames for others. Make no mistake about it. Love requires us to take risks for other people. We may have carved out for ourselves a place of relative safety and security. Love requires that we jump out of that place into the troubles and problems of the world. Galatians 5:13 says that through love we are to become slaves to one another. Not many Christians ever really hear what the Apostle Paul is saying to us in that verse. The kind of love he is talking about would make us work for another person as if we were their slave. That is a smokejumping love.
Seven years ago, a little girl named Keri was placed in foster care after suffering extreme neglect at home. "Keri was a zombie," recalls her foster mother. "She didn't talk at all." At the same time, Elmer Davis and his wife, Marjorie, were deep into retirement boredom. They were zombies at the other end of the generational spectrum. "I was just vegetating," admits Elmer, a former machinist.
The person who gave Elmer his new profession is Brenda Krause Eheart, the creator of an innovative subdivision in Illinois called Hope Meadows. Within this community, Eheart has united two marginalized groups--foster kids and senior citizens. So often, foster kids are considered to be a drain on the system, and seniors themselves feel washed up and unneeded. But here, at Hope Meadows, they meet each OTHER'S needs. "It's phenomenal," says Eheart.
So today, 82-year-old Elmer Davis is a spiritual smokejumper for 9-year-old Keri, who has turned from a zombie into a chatterbox. On a typical afternoon, Keri wheels her bicycle two doors down and into Elmer's driveway. "Hi, Grandpa Davis," she says. "Hi, Tickles!" he answers, using a nickname that makes her giggle. After adjusting the handlebars and seat, Elmer Davis sends Keri on her way. "It's fixed," he says, smiling. "Now scat!"
It's a powerful and passionate love that responds in such a situation, answering the call of Jesus to "love one another" (v. 34) - just as Jesus has loved us. Elmer Davis is up for the challenge in his relationship with Keri, and - if truth be told - Keri is showing the same kind of life-giving love in her relationship with him. They are living out love for each other--foster child and senior citizen.
If we are talking about fighting fires though, even if they are only spiritual fires, it is a work that requires planning. Wayne Williams is a master smokejumper. He is passionate about saving forests. He has battled complex and unpredictable fires for 23 years. His experience can be a real help to us as we become spiritual firefighters, trying to express love of neighbor in the real world. Wayne Williams knows the value of precise teamwork and smart strategies. He says: "Whenever I'm unsure about whether my crew can deal with the problem at hand, I gather everyone together and talk about it. We talk about strategies, we talk about comfort levels, we talk about risk. Of course, a fire may burn a few more acres in the meantime - but in the overall scheme of things, that's nothing."
His point is well taken. Sometimes in order to save the forest, you must lose a few trees.
No matter how hard we try, we can not save everyone. Fires are burning around us, and they will continue to burn. These are spiritual fires. They will blaze away and burn people up as we build our teams and devise our strategies. As much as we hate to see anyone suffer, it is only through talking and problem-solving and working together that we can do any lasting good in the world.
Consider the planning and effort that Brenda Krause Eheart put into the Hope Meadows subdivision, where senior citizens and foster children are now living together. This was no quick and easy fix to the problems of seniors and kids.
She started in 1993 by persuading Illinois lawmakers to give her nonprofit group a $1 million startup grant. Once she had the money, she needed a neighborhood. She found one in the Chanute Air Force training base, which the Pentagon was selling for $215,000. Determined to buy it, Eheart hounded the agency with 2,000 phone calls, and finally fired off a fax to the White House. In the end, the Pentagon sent a team to negotiate, and Eheart's organization bought the place.
It's a passionate and powerful love that takes on such a challenge, and prevails. Eheart and her organization had to wrestle with lawmakers and Pentagon brass and even the White House in order to create a neighborhood in which seniors like Elmer Davis can keep busy with foster kids on playgrounds and in carpools. Eheart discovered that it's really tough when you have to keep digging and digging, going for hours and hours and hours - fighting the flames like a bruised and battered smokejumper, day after day after day.
But is it worth it? Absolutely.
"The job beats you up, but this is me," say all real smokejumpers. "This is what I do."
The same holds true for all who love their neighbors. The job's a killer, but it also gives life. It is the only life for a disciple of christ.
Love is a Choice
In out text today, jesus speaks of us as his children. He is the parent. When a parent goes away for awhile, he or she sometimes makes a list of things that children should do while he or she is gone, things such as, clean your room, do your homework, help with the dinner dishes, don't fight with your brother or sister. Jesus is about to leave his disciples, and so he wants to give them instructions to guide them while they are apart. However, Jesus does not leave us a long list of things to do. He has only one item on his list for his disciples: "Love one another" (John 13:34). This is the most important instruction for followers of Jesus, because Jesus knows that if we follow this commandment, then things will go better for his people. So "love one another" should always be on our list of things to do.
Unfortunately we get the list all mixed up and we keep forgetting what is important. We listen to all those cop-outs about love. Someone will say, "Hate is an emotion that we are just born with and when we are pushed far enough, we cannot help hating. If someone does us wrong, and the wrong is hard enough and bad enough, then we cannot help hating them because we are just human beings.
That is a lie. Unfortunately, it is a lie many people believe. They believe this lie in order to excuse their hatred. After all, if we can not help but hate, then hatred is never our fault.
But we can help it. Hatred is a choice. We choose to hate, just as we choose to love. Oh, I know, there are people out there who believe love is not a choice, that love is primarily an emotion, a feeling, and we do not have any choice about whom we love. These are the same people who stay married for six months, then divorce. These are the people who love the idea of love but seem unable to stay in love. So understand one thing today, if you get nothing else out of this sermon: Love is a matter of the will. Love is something we decide to do. Love is a choice. Love is something we decide to live. And Jesus said, if we are his people, that is a decision that we make because that kind of live changes lives and changes history.
Mary Rose O'Reilley wrote a book called The Barn at the End of the World [Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2000, 169.]. She talks about an encounter with love that changed her life.
"Three young women, in particular Sharon, Marcy and Judith, entranced me with steady affection. The order we belonged to, which followed a Jesuit rule, was famous for its intellectual discipline and methodical training for ministry, all of which did me a great deal of good. But these three young women were on a different and better path. They followed a rule centered on art, kindness and contemplation; its liturgy was a peculiar form of manic one-on-one basketball. They took me in, washed up from my dumb perfectionist misadventures, and taught me to shoot hoops. I came from a family where no one touched much - this is Minnesota - but they were strokers and handholders. Maybe they had gotten together and hatched a plot to rescue me - they were witty and subtle enough to do that. Or maybe, by good fortune, I just happened into the spillover of their loving natures. They let me be a fourth in their subversive conspiracy of warmth. They let me into their family. That I knew anything at all about loving my own children, or could manifest to some surprised 10-year-old a casual jump shot, is thanks to them."
Sharon, Marcy and Judith taught Mary Rose O'Reilley about love. As she puts it, "I just happened into the spillover of their loving natures." That is what Jesus is talking about when he says love one another. He is saying that we should create the kind of loving environment that will spill over and engulf everyone who comes in contact with it. Amen.
Cheakalos, Christina. "A family of neighbors," People, November 6, 2000, 119-123.
Muoio, Anna. "Where There's Smoke ... " Fast Company, April 2000, 300.
Sherry, Allison. "Hot times," The Daily Sentinel, July 4, 1998.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 07/18/01