Living Love, Not Life to Its Fullest

a sermon based on John 12:20-33 by Rev. Scott Elliott

Three long time friends died in an accident and arrived in heaven for an orientation. They were told “When you are in your casket, and friends and family are mourning over you, you’ve all been such good people we can grant a wish for one true thing you’d like people to say as they pass by the open casket. ”

The first guy said, “I guess I would like them to say in truth, ‘He seemed to care more about others than life itself. What a great doctor and a good family man.’”
The second guy said, “You know, I’d love to hear them truthfully say, ‘He lived his life for others as a wonderful husband and school teacher and made a huge difference in many children’s lives.’”

The last guy said, “I really loved my life, so my wish is to hear all the people passing by truthfully say . . . ‘Look, he’s moving!’”

Too bad for that third guy that all four Gospels report what we just heard Elinor read that Jesus said “Those who love their life lose it, those who hate their life in this world keep it for eternal time.”

In the context of the Gospel of John that saying means to be willing as Jesus did, to give up life if necessary for love. It means as Christians we can’t let the desire to stay alive supersede risking the sacrifice of life for love. That’s what is meant by the scriptural reference to hating life in this world, you give up life as the be all end all and risk it to gain for God . . . for God.

On Jesus’ Way – as difficult as it may be to hear– living is not paramount, loving is. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary puts it like this:

To hate one’s life in “this world” is to declare one’s allegiance to Jesus and so receive his gift of eternal life. (p 711).

As Jesus explains it in the reading:

“Those who love their life lose it, those who hate their life in this world keep it for eternal time. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. ”

The New Interpreter Bible Commentary notes this means that Jesus “calls the disciples to love as he loves, hence to serve as he serves.”

Simply put, we – followers of Jesus– are called to make comfort and even survival – life– take a back seat to loving. And that’s not just tough to do . . . It is counter-intuitive, it’s counter instinctive. Right? Living beings in creation have a longing and yearning to live, that’s not bad, but it’s not supposed to be paramount on Jesus’ Way. We need to rewire our thinking so that we long and yearn to love, more than we long and yearn to live.

Following Jesus as he tells us to do, and living a life toward love, is most important, even more important that living to stay alive, or worse living to be comfortable with no hassles, while doing nothing about others being oppressed or forgotten or shunned or killed.

If heaven on earth is Shalom – a word for peace that means well being for all– it cannot come about if less than all have well being. That’s why Jesus claimed the rich in his day did not have much chance of inheriting the kingdom of God, this was because the rich in the Roman Empire had extreme well being while almost all the rest of the people at that time were barely able to survive day to day. This was especially true in Roman occupied Palestine. They, the rich, were the few who had the comfort of well being, and they were ignoring love for others in order to live as they wanted. It wasn’t that the rich were rich per se, it was they were doing nothing about others well being.

Heaven is a place where all have well being. Jesus came to show us how to bring heaven to the here and the now. His Way is most often emphasized these days as about the afterlife, but it was and is really about life now. Jesus’ Way is about doing the work needed to acquire well being on earth, not just for you and yours and me and mine, but for 100% of the people. That’s the heavenly goal. It’s about love being played out to its fullest in life.

What Jesus taught, what he wanted for us to worry about while we are alive, is living to love so the whole world experiences Shalom, has well being. Now. Here. That’s the race Jesus ran and the stories of his resurrection include his handing us the baton to carry, to keep running the race to the finish line, the victory is heaven on earth for all. Stopping short of heaven is like the third guy in the joke who wants life so much he makes a wish to avoid heaven. We get that, because a part of us wants to cling to life over anything–even heaven, even being in the presence of love. The joke is about living to avoid a post-life heaven, but Jesus’ teachings are about living to bring about a heaven on earth. Actually that’s what the parable Jesus tells in the story is about;

unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Jesus’ death created rebirth of him through us, the baton carriers. Jesus seed of love in us bears fruit in the likes of us. That is, through our experience with him and following his teachings, we bring more and more of the fruit of love that he planted into the world. But that requires us to live love to it’s fullest, not life to its fullest. That’s exactly what Jesus can be heard to mean when he said:

Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. (John 12:24-27)

Hear how counter-intuitive and un-instinctive that is? As living creatures we tend to want to be saved from death, have people claim at our casket that we are still moving and alive. But for what? To live for life? Or to live for love? That’s what this boils down to. Actually if we think about it that is what all of Christianity boils down to: do we live for love first? Or do we live for life first?

There are and always have been Christians who soften up the meaning of love, so that they can wriggle free of it’s meaning and fudge it so they get to keep their way of life when it conflicts with love. You can hear them do this by defining love in ways that would not be considered love anywhere else. They define it in ways that allows them to consider some factor in themselves as of supreme importance, things like their race, gender, sexual orientation. Or nationality or religion. Of course, it’s always an attribute they possess that is superior.

And they bend the meaning of love to allow them to place what they find a supreme attribute to take precedence over the actual well being of others. So they don’t have to love, actually care for the well being of those without that attribute.

Supremacist is a term we tend to hear as referring to racial supremacy but the term actually means an “advocate of the supremacy of a particular group.” (Google Definitions).

Sadly history is littered with the mistakes of Christian supremacists, those who use the religion to advocate for their group’s superiority. Like white supremacists believe whites are better than people of color. Like male supremacists believe men are better than women. Like wealth supremacists believe rich are better than poor. Like straight supremacists believe straights are better than gays. Like citizen supremacists believe citizens are better than aliens. Like religious supremacists believe those of their religion are better than others. Like hermeneutic supremacists believe their interpretation of the Bible makes them better than other Christians.

Christian supremacist’ re-define Jesus’ love commands and the word love to allow themselves room to mistreat others, to subordinate those who are not supreme in their eyes to justly abuse and disregard, even shunning and outcasting. As if they get to be in charge of God’s call and Jesus’ meaning to love.

To make wriggle room for mistreatment in “Christian love” is a cop-out. It is sinful. Choosing our way over the loving way, is in a sense like the third guy in the joke wishing to not experience heaven, only heaven in this scenario is here in life.

The point of today’s Lectionary reading is that we are not supposed to be in charge of deciding what God’s call is. As Christians, our lives are not for us to do as we want when it comes to love, there’s no wriggle room. We are not supreme. It’s the meek who inherit the earth not the arrogant.

Love means to love. Period. We are not to water it down so we can mistreat others. Putting Love first means to make others’ well being of supreme importance, as Jesus did.

The New Interpreter’s Bible on today’s text notes:

Since Jesus ultimate service is the gift of love, [verse] 26 calls us to love as he loves and hence serve as he serves. (P 711).

Nowhere – nowhere– does Jesus assert anyone who follows him gets to claim they are supreme. He provides no authorization to mistreat anyone, not women or Blacks or LGBTQs or Aliens or the poor or other religions or other Christians.

Indeed nowhere in all the Gospels does Jesus mistreat anyone. He loves everyone, and that’s hard stuff to do, that’s why so many folks muddy the love part up, it’s easier to be able to claim you are supreme and loathe or mistreat those you want to look down upon, than to really truly love everybody. But that is what Jesus does and asks us to do. As I just read, verse “26 calls us to love as he loves and hence serve as he serves.”

Jesus’ followers do not get to revise the meaning of love so as followers of Jesus they can mistreat those they think they are superior to. Jesus’ Way is not about reading texts to justify hates by softening up the word love so that we can call it love to consider others less worthy than us.

Christians who want to oppress –to mistreat– others tend to claim to take literally Bible texts that support their mistreatment, but in order to do that they have to get rid of the pesky Bible texts that command love and they get rid of them by ignoring them or redefining the word love to fit their need. But the truth is love never ever literally means love if it allows for mistreatment–there’s no care or well being in that. There’s no heaven in that, none. There’s no Shalom in that.

Jesus held hard and fast to the love God and neighbors commandments. He claimed those love the commandments were greater than all other commandments for a reason. The reason is that love is all that matters. It needs to matters more than life itself.
In our reading today we heard Jesus call on God to glorify God’s name, not his own. “Father, glorify your name,” he says. Then we heard “a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’”

I find the next part of the reading very interesting. We are told
The crowd standing there heard [the voice] and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”

Thunder is sign of experiencing God throughout the Bible. It’s often a part of theophanies, God’s tangible presence. In the story today, the people gathered experienced it, some heard thunder, some heard angelic words. Apparently not everyone understood God saying “ “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” But we are told everyone knew it was a theophany.

Whether they heard thunder or angelic words, or understood what it meant, the gathered all were in on God presence. And there’s a reason God showed up. And as Jesus explained God showed up for his followers’ sake “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. ”

The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary observes that

Thunder was a common religious symbol for the voice of God. And angels were traditionally understood as God’s messengers. The crowds hearing the voice of God as either thunder or an angel’s voice suggests that the crowd recognized that they were witnesses to an epiphany, some revelation of the divine, but they did not grasp that they witnessed the unmediated presence in God’s relationship to Jesus. (p 712)

See the voice of God is telling us Jesus is the real deal. The theophany is experienced, as Jesus instructs his followers, to not love life more than love. Love is the be all end all point for Jesus. It is supposed to be for us too.

I like to think that those who hear that message hear the angel’s voice. Those that hear thunder, they know God said something, but for some reason that just cannot . . . or will not . . . seem to make it out. The thunder-hearers don’t get . . . or don’t want to get . . . that love means love, that we have to love more than life itself, more than even attributes we want to claim are superior in ourselves. The ones who hear the angels voices get the message that it is all about love. And it’s not love as we want to define it. The word has a dictionary meaning.

I’ve read this to you before it is the definition of love from the Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms. I read it often because we don’t get to define love and most religious debates boil down to what love means and people tend to redefine it and our job is to not let them redefine it for us. The dictionary definition defines:

Love [as] Strong feeling of personal affection, care and the desire for the well being of others.

And here’s perhaps the most telling part of the definition, it goes on to note that love
is a primary characteristic of God’s nature and the supreme expression of Christian faith and action.
It’s hard work to love, but it’s God-work and it is the supreme expression of Christianity. In fact, it’s the only supreme thing there’s supposed to be about it. May we all work toward loving love more than even life itself . . .as Jesus did.