The Sixth Sunday of Easter
John 15:9 -- 17
The Little Golf Club
Our Lord's new commandment, to love one another as he has loved us, is easier said than done. Love is such an overused word in our society and even in sermons that it's sometimes difficult to get a grip on what it is that love really means. Perhaps our Lord's love is particularly difficult to get a handle on because of the preconceived notions we may have about him. Sunday school images of the mild and gentle Jesus may come to mind. Never a harsh word spoken, a smile on his face, a sweetness in his spirit ready to tend to every one of our needs. This image of Jesus, an image that may come from childhood songs like, Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, leaves out not only the challenging nature found in the way Jesus loves individuals, but the sacrificial nature that is profoundly expressed upon a Roman cross on a hillside outside of Jerusalem where he stretched out his arms of love.
His love may seem beyond our capacity to love and yet his love is available to each of us to embrace and to be embraced by. Some of us are blessed with examples of human love. Some have friends and family who have loved us into greater growth and nurtured us with loving actions. My grandfather loved golf. And in his profession he had the opportunity to take clients out golfing. He was a member of an upscale golf course in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He would regularly play rounds of golf with scores in the 70s. I never experienced his competitive nature and yet to be that good a golfer I know he must have been pushing himself throughout his golfing days. When I was a little boy my mother and I moved in with my grandfather because of my mom's divorce and my grandmother's death. I know that my grandfather loved having us there with him. It was a secure environment, one in which I always felt loved and cherished by him. I have memories of sitting on his lap as he sat on his large dark brown leather chair with his feet stretched out upon the ottoman and watching the Philadelphia Phillies in his den as he drank an occasional Miller Beer and smoked his unfiltered Camel cigarettes. Every now and then he would give me a wet kiss on the cheek and I would experience his weekend stubble. Looking back on that time I suspect that there was a mutual ministry going on between my grandfather and me. Because of the grief that I know he must have felt over the untimely death of his wife, to have his grandson living with him at a time of such deep vulnerability for him must have been a blessing. Without knowing I was ministering to him I'm sure I was, simply by being there, by receiving his affection, by enjoying his presence by wanting to be with him. I loved my grandfather and I'm certain he knew it.
One day he came home from the golf course with a little golf club. It was a real golf club one that had been sawed off at the pro shop. A new grip had been made for it and my granddad took me out to the backyard and he taught me how to take a swing with it at a real golf ball. I loved to go out into his backyard which at the time looked wonderfully large to me and my five year old body. I dug a few holes around the backyard and made a little course where I would find myself playing for hours. When my grandfather wasn't out playing golf with his friends I remember him out in the backyard with me. Though he did not bring his clubs to the backyard rather he brought a little trough and patiently dug up every single prickly weed so that I could run around in my bare feet. I didn't think much of my grandfather's labor back then but now as I look back I see that his digging out the prickly weeds was a labor of love. He was in his 60s at the time and I'm certain that working out under the hot blazing sun of the Pennsylvania summer, when he could have been inside sitting in the screened in porch or in his den enjoying the comfort of a day off, I'm certain that weeding was not his first choice for a weekend activity. He went out and dug up those weeds because he didn't want his grandson to hurt his feet or to lose his joy in playing in the backyard. Granddad had a gardener who did most of the yard care and I'm sure had he wanted to, he could have paid the gardener to do this work for him but rather he got down on his hands and knees to dig out the weeds so that I would not experience the pain of their prickly touch. My hunch is that my grandfather experienced some pain in digging out the weeds. The pain of bending over, possibly straining his back, experiencing the discomfort of those hot and humid days, looking back I recognize in that gesture that he loved me.
The little golf club that he made for me is another example of his love and invitation to share in his life. I don't think he was trying to make me a little golf pro, and I know that he wasn't seeking to live his life through me, rather he was inviting me to share in his life, he was inviting me to participate in an activity that brought him great pleasure -- great joy. That little golf club was an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual truth, in a funny way that little golf club was a kind of sacrament between my grandfather and me it was a sign that we could be friends. The little golf club was a sign that we could share in an activity that would put us on equal footing. The little golf club was a sign of love. If anyone was a servant in this relationship it was my grandfather. It was my grandfather who served me by digging up the prickly weeds throughout his very large backyard. It was my grandfather who served me by spending some of his hard earned money on creating a custom-made golf club so we could share a playful time together. It was my grandfather who served me by opening up his house to my mother and me so we could live with him at a vulnerable time in her life, and our life, and in his life.
Our Lord invites us to love one another as he has loved us. His love is not found only in the big gestures, his love can be found in the little things of everyday life. There is a book that I have found helpful in counseling couples who are preparing for marriage and I think in a rather simple way it opens up some profound opportunities for understanding love. It's a book by Gary Chapman titled, "The Five Love Languages." For me the heart of the book is found in the understanding that there are particular ways that each of us know we are loved. One of the insights it shares is that it's more natural and obvious for us to give to another the language we need. The five love languages include, physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts and quality time. The challenge of the book to the reader is not so much to discover one's own love language but to discover your spouse's love language. And then once discovering your spouse's love language being willing to learn to communicate in a way your spouse will receive the love you share for him or her. I think the book is primarily about learning to give, at times it's about learning to surrender one's own way of doing things for the sake of building up the other. When our love languages are different it requires sacrifice to learn the other's language and to communicate it to him or her in a faithful and consistent way.
When couples begin to exercise the challenges that are found in the book there is a new sense of joy that often arrives in their relationship. Our Lord tells us that as we live into his commandments, and learn to receive and abide in his language of love just as he has learned and received and lives into his heavenly father's love, that we will find our joy increased. Our Lord wants the same joy that is in the relationship that he has with his Father in heaven to be in us not only in our relationship with the Lord but with one another.
Perhaps today we may be challenged to open ourselves to discover what it is we can lay down for those we love. Are their behaviors or attitudes that we hold more sacred than the people we've been given to care for, behaviors or attitudes that damage relationships rather than build them up? Some of us may have addictive personalities and may find ourselves struggling with abusive language, alcohol, rage or any of a thousand sins that keep us out of balance and unable to love as we have been loved by God. The love of our Lord given to each of us has the power to set us free. True love, loves the other into greater growth. Throughout Jesus life he is constantly challenging false perceptions, restrictive religious practices, injustice, hypocrisy and even the cultural norms of his day. Jesus does not love to gain power for himself, rather he loves to empower others. As we search the Gospel we will not find one soul who is outside his desire to lead into a healthy relationship with his heavenly father. Yes, it is true that his mission was primarily to the Jewish people, yet on occasion his ministry and mission would be interrupted by Gentiles whom he would affirm whenever he saw a depth of faith and commitment within them. Are there people in our lives whom we consider to be outsiders? Are there members of the human community who we count as unworthy of our love, our time, and our commitment?
The other day I saw a bumper sticker on the back of a black Ford pickup truck that said, "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" In this age of terrorism and of religious intolerance I find myself wondering if we Christians are not given a unique call. As we study the teachings of our Lord and open ourselves to the teachings of other religions we may well find that the one profound difference between them is our Lord's challenge to love more deeply than may appear humanly possible. When Jesus said love one another as I have loved you it's impossible to not consider our enemies and those who are different from us. Jesus did not say love only those whom you are comfortable with. Jesus did not say that we should only love those who go to church every Sunday. Jesus did not say that we should only love Christians. Jesus did not say that we should only love one another. Jesus said we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. And he showed us through his own life that he meant what he said, when he was stretched out his own body upon the hard wood of the cross he embraced all those who had crucified him. He embraced the religious authorities whose only solution was to get rid of him. He embraced the Roman government officials whose system of justice had failed and whose soldiers had driven the nails through his hands and his feet. He embraced his disciples who had abandoned him. Our Lord's call to love one another as he has loved us, is not only for those that we are comfortable with. I believe the us that he is talking about is the whole human community and we who know the love of our Lord may be in a position as we receive the love of our Lord to show forth his saving grace which is the only grace that can bring lasting peace to a world which once again is close to the brink of destruction.
We are not helpless, we have a helper in the Holy Spirit. We are not hopeless, our hope is in the Lord. We are not useless for we can offer ourselves to our Lord's purpose. We are not victims, rather we are called to be healers. Christians throughout time have been given a unique gift and that gift is a relationship with the living God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Our call is to love one another as our Lord has loved us. Our call is not so much to make converts for our Lord as it is to teach the world to become friends with our Lord. Perhaps we can look around us today asking God to open our eyes and our hearts to the possibilities around us to reflect and show his amazing grace and love. Is there someone in your neighborhood, someone in your family, someone who is an outsider, perhaps they are from another religious tradition, perhaps they have no religious tradition, perhaps they are grumpy or abusive or just downright nasty. It doesn't matter, our Lord was indiscriminate in his gift of love. When he stretched out his arms of love on the hardwood of the cross he stretch them out for everyone and we are invited to love one another as he has loved us, we are invited to stretch out our lives for every one as well. The Gospel challenges us. Our gestures of love may be as simple as making a little golf club and pulling up prickly weeds so the children in the neighborhood can have a place to play. Some of us will be given larger opportunities to make a difference in the world, what is important is not the opportunity we are given but that we take the opportunity we are given and use it as an arena where we can show how great and vast is the love of God by reflecting the love of Christ. To love as Jesus loved is not to ram the love of Christ down another's throat, it is not to force the love of Christ on another, but rather it is to love one another into greater growth with the love of Christ, having ourselves been loved into greater growth by the love of Christ.