All Saints Margaret Street | Sixth Sunday of Easter – High Mass Sunday 10 May 2015

Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter – High Mass Sunday 10 May 2015

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses


Readings: Acts.10.44-48; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17

Jesus is speaking to his disciples on the night before he dies. Our passage from his last discourse   begins and ends with his commandment to 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.”

“This I command you, to love one another.

“Love” is a word much used, much abused and much misunderstood.  What is meant by it here?  For us English speakers matters are complicated by our use of it to translate several words in Greek; which themselves often have overlapping meanings – just to make things more difficult.

In this passage, the word “love” translates agape which signifies a love concerned for the good of the one loved. In Latin it becomes caritas, and so in English, charity. The gradual shift of this word to narrow its meaning to philanthropy has meant that we have come back to “love” as the best translation in spite of its ambiguity.

What does Jesus mean by love?

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.”

He begins with the love the Father has for him. For Christians our understanding of love must begin with the inner life of God as it is revealed in the life of Jesus Christ. 

As his disciples, our relationships with each other, should conform to our relationship with him. That in turn finds its example and source in the relationship of Jesus with the Father.

We are helped to understand what love is by the love among the persons of the Trinity: concerned about others; not possessive or subordinating, allowing the other to be; and so inexhaustible that it is offered without reserve.

So, in this world, Jesus links its meaning with dying for others:

“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The idea of dying for a friend is found not only in these words of Jesus, but also among the philosophers of Greece and Rome: Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. 

Aristotle in his writing on ethics describes three kinds of friendship:

1.  Some people are friends because this is useful to them. It allows them to make business connections, enter a social group they want to belong to, join a political party; all so as to get on.

2.  Other friendships are pleasurable; cultivated because we enjoy them.

3. The third kind of friendship, the best in his view, is for the sake of friendship itself. We cannot have this level of friendship with many people, because it requires a degree of physical presence and availability, time and effort that should not be stretched too thin.  These friendships are not just pleasurable but formative; they inform and transform who we are.

Aristotle, along with Plato before him and Cicero after him, thought that this true friendship might involve even willingness to die for the friend. 

When we ask what does Jesus means by “friend,”  we find it is rooted not in an idea or a theory, but in the reality of his death for others on the cross; his giving of himself even to death in obedience to the Father’s will. 

Again, the Greek can help us. The word used is philos – from which we get philanthropy – which also means “beloved.”  The friends of Jesus are those whom God loves. 

“In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins,  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”  1 John 4.10

His friends are not those he has chosen for their qualities or advantages. Jesus has chosen us as his friends in spite of ourselves; before anything we have done or could possibly do. As Paul says in Romans: 

“While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man – though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

He tells the disciples that they are chosen, for their joy, yes, but also that they might bear much fruit, the fruit of love and obedience. They are chosen not as some privileged elite but that they might be part of Christ’s love for all; that they might make known that love to others and draw them into that relationship of love with God which is found in Jesus.

The link between love and obedience can be difficult for us. We think of commandments as rules to be obeyed. Love, we think, must be spontaneous and unforced, not compelled or commanded.  But in the case of Jesus, it is commanded by his very being and nature. If we read through John, we will search in vain for much in the way of specific rules.  What John means by obeying the commandments of God, is to live in conformity with the nature, the very being of God who is love. Love is not just one characteristic of God: “God is love.” 

When St. Thomas Aquinas developed his Christian synthesis of Aristotle’s ethics, which had been lost to the Christian west for hundreds of years, but preserved in the Islamic world, he took up this idea of friendship to mean that part of the goal of the Christian life is to become friends with God.  Through this friendship, we hope to take on God’s characteristics as our own – and to love one another as God loves us. 

For Aristotle, one of the best ways to learn a particular virtue, to make it habitual, part of ourselves, practice not just theory, action as well as words, is to imitate those who already embody it.  This works best when we become friends with those whose life we seek to emulate:  “For the friend is another self.”  Friends form each other in the moral life, taking on each other’s characteristics – both good and bad.  We are known by the company we keep. We are likely to become the company we keep: either good or bad.  “Bad company corrupts good morals.”  (1 Cor. 15.33)

We know, don’t we, that children learn to love by being loved by their parents. That love involves not just displays of affection when things are going well, but being there when they are not.  That is why the Marriage Service, which has a pretty unromantic view of love, speaks of “for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death us do part.” 

The love which is based on the inner life of God gives us a sense of the proper pattern for Christian love. Far from a mere feeling, it is a disciplined habit of care and concern that, like all the virtues can be perfected only over a lifetime: “until death us do part.”  This love should be so deeply woven into our lives that the giving of self to others becomes second nature to us, the core of our being. We might even find ourselves willing to die for it. We will certainly be willing to reach out in love beyond our own circle, to love even those who seem unlovable, and to love without calculation of our own advantage or pleasure.

As disciples of Jesus, the centre of our life must be that friendship with him which he has established – our abiding in him – so it is not only something we can rely on and put our trust in – as we can in a loving parent or partner – but it also something from which we constantly learn, on which we pattern our loves – which we obey – that is listen to –so that it forms our life and love in a way which becomes habitual.  That abiding requires care and attention, effort and patience, as does any relationship. “Obedience” comes from the word “to listen,” so we must listen in prayer and worship. Friends are companions, those who eat together.  We remember that Jesus says these words during his last meal with his disciples, his friends. If we are to live out what it is to be his friends, to learn what he makes known to us, then this sacramental meal in which he feeds us at the table of word and sacrament must be the centre of our life. Our encounters, our meetings, our sharing with him, in the sacrament of his self-giving, that offering into which he draws, must shape our life.  “This I command you, to love one another.” 

And we must also think of our earthly friendships in the light of that relationship. Do our friendships, our relationships, our marriages, our partnerships, the company we keep, make us better people?   Do our relationships with others contribute to making them better people?  Do we encourage each other in goodness and love, faith and hope? Are we a blessing and joy to them? Or do we simply reinforce each other’s more negative and harmful characteristics – harmful to ourselves as well as to others?

A true friend is someone who accepts us we are, as Jesus does, true, but not someone who simply leaves us as we are, much less reinforces the worst in us. A true friend challenges and encourages us.  Such a friend sees in us the potential we have to be something more and better than we are through our relationship with the one who calls us his friends and died for us.