You may remember a few years ago a British romantic comedy called Love Actually. It opened with the scenes of a busy airport passenger area and a voiceover from one of the characters saying that whenever he gets gloomy about the state of the world, he thinks about the arrivals terminal at Heathrow Airport and the uncomplicated delight you see on the faces of friends and family as they find each other and reconnect. Then he goes on to say that all the known parting messages by people who died on 9/11 were messages of love, not hate. And at the end, the film closes with another scene of airport greetings.
I would bet we’ve all glimpsed those moments in airports—the teary hugs and farewells, the ecstatic greetings even with flowers and balloons. There is something about parting and about coming back together that focuses us on what matters most. It’s often a time when we say things we’ve left unsaid. And especially if we’re saying good-bye, we often utter what’s on our mind, what we most want someone we love to hold onto as we part.
The last Sundays in the Easter season are all about farewells. For fifty days after Easter Sunday the risen Lord continued to appear to his disciples, but all that came to an end, and this Thursday, Ascension Day, marks the close of that time.
The lessons for these weeks come from the last urgent words Jesus speaks to his disciples before he went to the cross. They are his farewell words, what the scholars call the “Farewell Discourses.” They are intense, packed with advice. In fact, they often sound repetitive, as if Jesus needs to keep circling around the same words and ideas so they will stick in his followers’ ears.
Last week and this he keeps talking about abiding. “I am the vine and you are the branches,” he said in last week’s passage, “abide in me as I abide in you.” This week he’s at it again. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my life. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love.”
Then, like a worried mother at the airport pouring out her last urgent words of advice before junior steps on a plane for two months away, or like a professor giving his last lecture and trying to sum up what he has wanted to say over a lifetime, in these crucial moments for Jesus, the words come tumbling out:
Love one another as I have loved you.
I do not call you servants any longer; but I have called you friends.
You did not choose me but I chose you. I appointed you to go and bear fruit that will last….
[And then, again,] I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another
But beneath all the words pouring out of Jesus’ heart, there was really one word, and that word expressed the reason for his whole life. It’s love, actually. For Jesus, love is the reason God made the world, love is the way we are made to live, love is what worship and religious life are made to show us, love is why Jesus came to us, love is what God will never stop trying to draw us into embracing, love is what we are meant to abide in all our days.
This love isn’t an individual decision to act a certain way in a particular situation, although that’s always where love will take us. “Abide in my love,” Jesus keeps saying. Being a Christian entails a willingness to dwell in, to enter into the outpouring stream of divine love flowing endlessly through the world like waves surging around us.
“God is love,” Jesus says, “and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” That’s the sentence that finally opened again the door of faith for me again after years of questioning. As part of my searching, I had been slowly reading the New Testament straight through, night after night. And one night I came on this passage, and all of a sudden talk about God that for so long had seemed remote and abstract became concrete and real to me.
To love, I saw, is literally to experience God. God is the energy of existence, the energy of communion, the secret unity that holds everything together in one unity and that moves through atoms and molecules and rivers and mountains and people and the forces of history. So when I love, when I move out of myself to care for another, I am stepping into the flow of God’s love, I became united with the power of life moving through the universe. And when I don’t love, I cut myself off from God and those around me.
For the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, it is this loving that leads us to God. The wise old monk in The Brothers Karamazov was giving his own farewell teaching to his followers from his deathbed when he said:
Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every
grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love
animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing you will
perceive the mystery of God in things…
This kind of love is anything but sentimental. “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams,” Dostoevsky’s old monk said. In fact, one of the most important books I read in my searching years was The Art of Loving, written by the secular Jewish psychiatrist Erich Fromm. He, too, said that the whole point of existence is loving, but that there is nothing more demanding we can ever take on. Loving is an art, he said, and it takes the kind of practice and discipline required to be an accomplished pianist, dancer, or scientist. If we want to become full human beings, he said, we must slowly, carefully, learn the art of loving.
I sometimes wonder if the word love is even recoverable. It’s used for so many different things. I love chocolate ice cream, I love that new car, I love baseball. Any minister will tell you that much of what couples often bring to the altar at a wedding is the strong sense of feeling in love. That’s the natural place for a marriage to begin, but unless their love grows deeper the marriage probably won’t survive. The love we speak of in Christian marriage speaks of isn’t about feelings. It’s an act of will, a commitment, to care for the other “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer over a lifetime.” And it’s that promise, that commitment, that will provide a safe, strong harbor of love and devotion as feelings come and go.
I have to say that for all the charm of the movie Love Actually, I don’t remember seeing much love in it. It seemed more about physical attraction and the complex ways people keep “falling in love.”
You see, love is changing diapers and doing the dishes, it’s living with the ups and downs of life with teenagers, and the ups and downs of parents too, for that matter. Love is speaking honestly to someone who has hurt us. It’s telling a friend she is drinking too much. It’s putting a career on hold because our family needs us. Love is making sure that values deeper than the bottom line drive our business decisions.
Love is the parents and grandparents and school teachers who gathered here at the Cathedral on Friday evening to welcome the newest group of Cathedral Scholars, who will study here over the summer and spend afternoons as interns in offices around the city. These bright young students from D.C. schools face immense odds in getting a good education. But a lot of devoted friends and family and members of the Cathedral community are determined to make it happen.
Love is Congressman John Lewis, a guest preacher here just a few months ago, choosing to be arrested recently for protesting in front of the Sudanese embassy against the terrible genocide going on in Darfur.
Love is the family I saw here as tourists last week, walking around with their Downs Syndrome son, now probably in his twenties or thirties, lovingly and patiently helping him to experience the beauty of this holy space.
Love is the heart of it all. It’s what finally matters for every human being, Christian or not. Because when we love God is in us and we are in God, whether we believe in God or not. Coming to church doesn’t save our souls. But it shows us the things that do—love, forgiveness, compassion and it enables us to receive Christ’s energy and Spirit, which make those things possible.
Thanks to John Buchanan, senior minister at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, I have learned of a real hero in this love. His name is Tom Mauser, and his son Daniel was one of the youngsters killed at Columbine High School several years ago. This father remembered how a few nights before Daniel was shot he had said at the dinner table, out of the blue, “Dad, do you know there are loopholes in the Brady bill?” [‘People are still getting lots of guns.’]
And Tom Mauser described waiting after the shootings with all the parents for their children to arrive on a bus. He waited and waited as the other parents picked up their children and headed home, and slowly began to realize that his son wasn’t coming off the bus this time, that this time he wasn’t coming home. He described how Daniel had been a small, skinny kid who had joined the debate team to overcome his shyness and the cross country team to try to compete in athletics. And he said that after Daniel’s death he had decided to “run in Daniel’s place” to try to make the world a safer place.
So Tom Mauser took a leave of absence from his job to work for a gun control advocacy effort in Colorado. He began speaking and lobbying and telling his story, working to reduce the flood of unregulated, deadly firearms in this country, and along the way endured harsh words and even death threats. He made out of his son’s death an act of redemptive love. [From “No Greater Love,” May 28, 2000]
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them,” Jesus said.
And he said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
That’s the center, the heart of Christianity, the point of it all. It’s love, actually.