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Radical Love, a Sermon from the Fifth Sunday after Easter

Rev. Elisabeth Sinclair

May 27, 2022

During this Easter season, we’re jumping around the gospel of John, the Acts of the Apostles, the Psalms, and Revelation. The readings are not presented chronologically but rather thematically. This week could be called “Love” Sunday because we return to Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, where after speaking rather cryptically to them about his glorification and mysterious departure, he gave them a “new commandment” to love one another. The selection from Acts depicts Peter demonstrating love by patiently helping fellow Jewish followers of Jesus understand God’s embrace and inclusion of the Gentiles. Psalm 148 has the whole natural world singing praises of love to God. The book of Revelation symbolically features a joyful, marriage-like union between God and the people He loves. So, happy Love Sunday to each of you.

At first glance, Jesus’ commandment to love one another doesn’t sound new at all. You could argue that most of the Scriptures [Hold up Bible?] teach us to love one another. How, then, is Jesus’ commandment new? As is often the case in biblical literature, the gospel writer uses the literary device of parallelism to tell us more. With biblical parallelism, an idea is introduced, and then a follow-up statement mirrors or expounds the original statement. For example, look at the first 2 verses of Psalm 148: “Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights.” One idea stated twice in slightly different language. “Praise him, all you angels of his; *praise him, all his host.” In John’s gospel, Jesus first said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” Then, he slightly expanded the original instruction: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Just as I have loved you. Jesus’ new commandment set his own love as the essence of the love we should show one another.

Love is a pretty slippery concept. In a presentation my husband Bryan gave this week at a national chaplaincy conference, he asked, “Is love sacrifice or affection, or both? Is it erotic or platonic? Is it mercy, compassion, courage, vulnerability, justice or empathy? Is it all of these? What is tough love, and how does it differ from unconditional love?” Based on these and many other facets of love, we might naturally wonder what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to love one another as he had loved them. The Greek word in both of Jesus’ statements is “agape,” usually meaning to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly.

This is certainly a good starting place for how to treat one another, but it’s hard to see how that kind of love would be enough to prove to onlookers that we are Jesus’ disciples, which is how today’s passage concludes. Many have described Jesus’ love as radical… We might ask, what makes love radical? Jesus gave his new commandment of love right after washing his disciples’ feet and urging them to do the same for each other. Jesus’ love is radical in that it was up close and personal: his hands to their feet. He served them rather than waiting or expecting to be served. His love challenged existing hierarchies; with Jesus, the least among us becomes the greatest and worthy of being served by the one who, societally, may appear to hold more status and power. Jesus’ radical love is self-giving for the other’s wellbeing, even to the point of death. When Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd, he said that the shepherd will lay down his life for his sheep, whereas the hired hand will run when danger approaches. Of course, this is exactly what Jesus ultimately did when he submitted to death on a cross.

It might sound like Jesus’ radical love is impossible and therefore dismissable. But, the real world is actually full of examples of radical love, so it is possible. Where have you personally witnessed or experienced radical love? In my own life, my friends Sam and Don cared for their wives for years as Alzheimer’s slowly ate away at their wives’ minds and finally their bodies. My girlfriend Jill, at age 50, legally adopted 4 small neighborhood children when their parents were incarcerated. Several friends’ families, including my sister, moved into urban Milwaukee to be a sign of humility and reconciliation in an economically and socially devastated area. Another friend gave up a profitable medical career in a schwanky hospital to instead move between homeless shelters providing low-cost care. Radical love is creative, it starts at home in our closest relationships, extends to our neighbors, and, ultimately, it is responsive to the world’s real needs.

But radical love grates against human nature and even the evolutionary process, which often prioritize personal happiness and the survival of the fittest. How, then, do we cultivate radical love? In his book The Seven Principles of an Effective Marriage, John Gottman presents what he calls the four horsemen of the Apocalypse that undermine agape love in marriage contexts, and then he offers an antidote for each one. The antidotes are practices that help us live a radical love that honors Jesus by esteeming the other person and seeking their good, even if at great cost to ourselves. As I share these horsemen and their antidotes, notice how they might affect relationships in your life and here at Christ Church.

The first horseman is Criticism: Criticism is about taking an issue that lies between us and considering and naming it as a problem in the other person, as though something is essentially wrong with them, and they are bad. The antidote to criticism is to ask for what we want or need without resorting to aggression or “a global attack on the other person’s personality.” –Lisa Lund, MFT

The second horseman is Defensiveness: Defensiveness is attempting to defend yourself from a perceived attack by deflecting responsibility and posing a counter complaint or taking a victim stance. The antidote to defensiveness is to actively listen to the other person, step into their shoes, and take some responsibility for the problem and its solution.

Contempt is any statement or nonverbal behavior that puts yourself on a higher ground than the other person. Mocking the other person, dismissing their perspective, calling them names, rolling your eyes, and sneering in disgust are all examples of contempt. The antidote to contempt is twofold: to refrain from contemptuous statements and behaviors and actively work on building a culture of appreciation in the relationship.

Stonewalling happens when the listener withdraws from the conversation or relationship, either by physically leaving or by shutting down. The antidote is to learn to identify the signs that a person is starting to feel emotionally overwhelmed and to agree together to take a break until both parties feel calmer and can re-engage with good intentions.

Radical love may start with these antidotes, but it doesn’t end with them. The possibilities are endless, and living into them is mission-critical. Because the Holy Spirit empowers Christ’s followers with divine love, we have a particular responsibility to practice radical love with each other. In the new Spider Man movie, Peter Parker’s mom figure May reminds him: “You have a great gift and great power. With such gifts comes great responsibility.” Our love for each other is one of our primary forms of evangelism; by this, people will know we are Christ’s followers. Do you need to repent from an absence of love in a relationship with someone in your home, neighborhood, or Christ Church? The love of Christ covers a multitude of sins. May the beauty of radical love among us draw many to know and trust Christ.

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