6th Sunday of Easter – 2021b
Old Testament – Psalm 98
New Testament – John 15:9-17
INTRODUCTION: Every summer in June a small group of college students participate in a leadership program run by a university out in Colorado called Western State.
Known as the Peter Terbush Leadership Summit, the week-long program aims to teach young men and women leadership skills through rock climbing.
You see, several years ago now Peter Terbush actually lost his life while rock climbing in Yosemite National Park. While anchoring the rope on the ground for his friend Kerry, who was about 60 feet up in the air, an estimated 150 to 200 tons of granite suddenly cut loose from the mountain roughly 1,000 feet above the climbers.
As boulders the size of small cars started cascading down the mountain, Kerry scrambled to find shelter in a nook in the mountain face. But Peter Terbush, a seasoned climber, knew that Kerry’s life was in his hands. As the belayer for Kerry, as the one who held the rope in case his friend fell, Peter refused to leave his post on the ground.
And so when the rocks finally stopped falling and the dust had settled, the worst that could have happened did. While Kerry survived the rock slide tucked in his nook, Peter Terbush lay dead under a pile of rubble.
According to one news report, when his body was finally uncovered, Peter was found in the arrest position with his right hand clutching the rope down by his hip ready to cinch it in the harness if need be to keep Kerry from falling.
Needless to say, it was a heroic and amazing act on the part of Peter Terbush. And so perhaps not surprisingly, the Peter Terbush Leadership Summit was started to honor his bravery and sacrifice. And while the participants learn how to rock climb during the course, they also learn about things like service and commitment during their training.
Or as the motto of the Leadership Summit likes to say: “It is through service to others, that we realize our true potential.”
ONE: Of course, we hear about Peter Terbush and his amazingly heroic act and it’s hard not to think of Jesus’ words from chapter fifteen of John:
“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. You are my friends if you do what I command you…I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
Part of an extended speech in which he is trying to explain what it means to be one of his disciples, Jesus' words are, well, pretty weighty, right? Discipleship, as Jesus seeks to tell us again and again, means commitment and sacrifice - not just to him, but to each other as well.
You see, for Jesus, love is never just an emotion that we get to have toward another person. No, for Jesus to love someone means to actively work for their well being even if that means having to sacrifice some of our own well being.
It’s the kind of love that Thomas Aquinas liked to refer to as benevolentia, which is a love that wills another’s good even when it costs us something in the process.
And it’s not as if Jesus didn’t practice what he preached, right? Jesus talked about the need for us to love and then he went and showed us exactly what he meant. He hung there on that cross in redeeming, healing love.
So I don’t know about you, but Jesus’ call for us to love scares the livin’ daylights out of me! I look at the cross, see what he means by the word love, and it’s easy for me to get a queasy feeling in my stomach.
TWO: Of course, the fact that Jesus commands us to love only makes my stomach even queasier. After all, it’s not as if the charge to love is an option.
Look, we can be honest. Faith for all of us, myself included, often ends up being a little bit like a buffet. With so many different ways to be disciples, it’s only natural for us to pick and choose. There are practices and behaviors some of us consider to be important when it comes to the life of faith, and there others we deem not so important.
I have colleagues that simply can’t get their day started until they’ve spent 20 or 30 minutes in personal devotion every morning. Me? Well, I will confess that has never been a practice I find rewarding. But I understand and appreciate such daily devotional practices are really important for some people.
Others habitually attend Sunday school classes. Why some people have been going to Sunday school classes their whole lives! But others? Well, others would prefer to have a root canal done without novocaine than sit through a Sunday school class. And while I find Sunday school to be pretty important, I get it that others don’t.
But when it comes to love, well, love doesn’t seem to be one of the choices we get to pick from at the buffet table that is discipleship. “This is my commandment,” says Jesus, “that you love one another.”
It’s not a suggestion. It’s not a good idea. It’s not something we should decide to do if we have the time. Nope. It’s a command. “This is my commandment,” says Jesus. “This is my commandment.”
THREE: Of course, being good Reformed people we know that a command from Jesus doesn’t immediately translate into action, right? We are, after all, broken people who live by grace.
Yes, there is the command to love. But loving is hard, hard work, as we all know - especially for creatures like us, who can be preoccupied with and pretty vain about our own lives. No wonder we Presbyterians are such big fans of God’s grace. For we know...we know just how crooked and misshapen all human lives can be.
What’s that famous bit from Paul’s letter to the Romans? “I do not understand my own actions,” says Paul in Chapter 7. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Well, who of us hasn’t had that experience? We ponder some foolish thing we just did or said and wonder, “Why in the world did I just do that?” So it goes for broken humans, which we all are.
So the command to love gets complicated, for sure. For when it comes to humans, knowing what we’re supposed to do, doesn’t automatically translate into being able to do it.
Of course, these days...well, these days there seems to be an almost intentional willfulness to ignore Jesus’ command to love that should give us all pause. Yep, we seem to live in a time when people are especially intent on not even making a good faith effort to love.
A colleague of mine put it well the other day, I think, when he said he had never been around so many people who seem to relish in being “snarky.” Mocking others now seems to be the favorite pastime for many of us.
Combine that with an idolatrous obsession about individual rights, and you get what we have now. A nation teeming with navel-gazing, self-absorbed people, who, consequently, find any discussion about the need to be concerned for other people’s well-being offensive, and even an attack on their very person-hood.
Yep. In my short time on this planet, I am not sure I have ever seen so many people indignant and aggrieved over the idea that being concerned for others is important, which is really kind of odd. After all, that’s pretty much all Jesus did - he cared for others.
So yes, Jesus’ command to love is hard work, for sure. But it’s made even harder when we willfully choose to not even try.
FOUR: Many of you have probably heard about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
A Lutheran minister who opposed Hitler, Bonhoeffer ended up in prison and was finally hanged just weeks before the war ended. Safely tucked away teaching in America where he could have stayed, Bonhoeffer eventually decided he had no choice but to return to Germany. Even though returning might cost him his life, Bonhoeffer felt that was the only way he could be obedient to Christ.
But there is another man in Bonhoeffer’s life story that you may not have heard of. His name was Arthur Forbeck, and he was the judge that oversaw Bonhoeffer’s trial and eventual execution.
As legend has it, after receiving word from Hitler to have Bonhoeffer executed, Forbeck headed to the city of Flossenburg to personally oversee the matter. But about 20 kilometers from Flossenburg, the train Forbeck was riding was unexpectedly delayed.
But the judge was so intent and eager to carry out his orders, he acquired a bike and peddled the rest of the way to Flossenburg rather than wait. And after arriving on his bike, Forbeck did as commanded. He executed Bonhoeffer.
Well, that story of those two men provides a powerful example. For as their intertwined lives remind us, we all, in the end, take marching orders from someone, right?
The question is, who? Who are we going to take our orders from? And one of the two, well, he decided to take his orders from Jesus Christ, the other from someone else.
CONCLUSION: Well, there are all kinds of ways to be faithful, right?
Some people find quietly praying by themselves a way to be faithful. For others, it’s pouring over a biblical text in conversation with others. And still for others, it’s serving on a committee or singing in the choir. All good things to do.
But there is one way we’re all expected to be faithful together. It’s not an option and it’s not a suggestion. Nor is it something to get around to when we have the time. Nope. As queasy as it might make us feel, it’s a command.
“This is my commandment,” says Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you.”
And now to One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.