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When I was in elementary school, we had a tradition in which graduating 6th-grade students would leave a gift for the incoming 6th-grade class. Sometimes, they would leave behind a favorite pen with a bright colored feather at the top. Other times, they would leave behind words of wisdom for how to survive the 6th-grade. But every time, they left something that the remaining students could hold on to as they continued on their path towards graduation. They left a legacy.
In the text for today, Jesus says to the disciples, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." His commandments were part of what He was leaving behind for the disciples. They were part of His Farewell Discourse. Soon, Jesus would no longer be physically with them as they knew Him. He was preparing them for life without His physical presence, something today's Christians can relate to. Thus, Jesus emphasized how His followers were to continue the legacy He was leaving: through living a life that He modeled for them and obeying his commandments.
But what were the commandments Jesus was referring to? Earlier in the gospel, Jesus tells His disciples that He is giving them a new commandment: to love one another as He has loved them (John 13:34). He goes on to say that this is how everyone will know that they are His followers, by their love (John 13:35).
But what does love really mean? Our society is obsessed with the notion of love. It is in our romantic comedies, showing us that in the end true love always prevails. It is in our books, which help us to reflect on the different ways we show and receive love. It is in our music, no matter the genre. We even have a holiday dedicated to celebrating love, as if it is the only day all year where showing our love counts most.
But what does the Christian faith say about love? Throughout the New Testament, we encounter many definitions and descriptions of love, some mysterious and others more evident. We know that God is love and that God loves us so much that Jesus, God's only son, was given to us. We also have the popular descriptors of love that are shared at many weddings: "Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant" (1 Corinthians 13:4). Leviticus even tells us that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, with Jesus claiming it as the second greatest commandment, with our love of God as the first (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:36-40). Yet, Jesus' statement, if you love me, you will keep my commandments, does not specify any of these; it only implies that if we love Jesus we are to love each other, leaving the means of love to our discretion.
However, in this text, we can learn more about what love means to Jesus through other parts of the legacy He left the disciples. He said to them, "I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Advocate to be with you forever" (John 14:16). Out of Jesus' love for His followers and for God's love of both Jesus and humanity, an Advocate, or helper as it is translated from Greek, would be sent to Jesus' followers. It is also important to note that Jesus said another advocate. Jesus is also an Advocate sent by God to the world, to reconcile it, to love it, and to draw humanity closer to God through his life, death, and resurrection. Thus, after Jesus was no longer physically with His followers, the Spirit would walk with them and guide them the way Jesus walked with them and guided them. The Spirit would be with the followers as Jesus was with them. It was as if Jesus knew His followers would need assistance living a life of love as He, the ultimate embodiment of love, did. Luckily, for them and for us, the Spirit they were given would be with them forever: it was with them and within them. The Spirit would be part of His legacy, reminding His followers of His legacy and guiding them as they strove to live into it.
So here, to love is to be an advocate, to give oneself for others as Christ gave Himself for us and as God gave of Jesus and the Spirit. This definition of love is illuminated throughout the Gospels. We see Jesus loving, advocating, and in ministry with the poor and the marginalized, women, persons with disabilities, lepers, strangers and the imprisoned. He fed the hungry and healed the sick. And the list goes on. These are all part of His legacy. We are to continue loving our neighbor and seeing them as God sees us all, in word and in deed. This Spirit is still moving among and within us today as we continue Jesus' work of love! We too have not been left alone in the task we are called to as believers. But how are we to live into Jesus' legacy? How do we reflect, live into, and embody love?
There are many such stories circulating through our media today. This past February, Atlanta, and many other areas of the South, experienced weather they were not accustomed to. In Atlanta, where I live, many people ignored the weather forecast, hoping that it would change as it often did. But to their dismay the forecast was correct, leaving the city immobilized. People were stranded in their vehicles for hours. Children and teachers spent the night at their schools. Children were stranded on their schools buses. Parents, families and friends worried as they waited to hear the news about when they would be reunited with their loved ones. But amidst the chaos there were beacons of light! Churches, gas stations, stores, and strangers opened their doors for people to eat, stay warm, and get some rest. Other people handed out water and snacks. They were acting as the hands and feet of Christ by showing love to their neighbors.
As individuals, we are also advocates within our personal relationships. Making sacrifices out of love for others, forgiving, being forgiven, and working towards reconciliation in our relationships. I have a friend whose ex-husband was behind in his child support payments. He was going to jail for contempt of court because he failed to pay. When her children learned of their father's future, they asked their mother to forgive him so he would not go to jail; and she did. She forgave him for not paying over 100,000 dollars worth of child support. She shared her story with me, saying "The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I did need to forgive him for not just the debt but for leaving me alone with three small children. It was the most freeing thing I have ever done." She also lifted up her children, sharing how her forgiveness was exceeded by them, for they forgave their father for missing out on parts of their life.
My friend was an advocate for her children, willing to forgive for the sake of her children, and herself. She trusted God and was moved by the Spirit to love, despite how difficult her situation was on her and her family. She was obedient and continued Jesus' legacy.
In addition to showing love as individuals, we are to show love as a community of faith. We are to advocate as a church. We are to preach and teach messages of love. We are to advocate through the hospitality we show to those who are most active in the church, towards those who visit once in a while, and towards those who need a warm place to sleep or to receive food. We also show love as a church outside of the church building, being a public witness of God's love. We must strive to dismantle systems that keep people in poverty by advocating for human rights. We must listen to people in the community who are deemed voiceless as we meet them in the community or when they enter our churches. We must journey with persons as they seek to grow deeper in their relationships with God and with their neighbor. We must create disciples of love.
While this is ideal, it is not always reality. It is a difficult task, much like embodying love as an individual. The church is made up of diverse people with different passions, schedules and resources. Yet we strive to come together, bound by our love for God and commitment to Jesus' legacy. Theologian Orlando Costas puts it best in his essay Evangelism and the Gospel of Salvation when he says, "That [humanity] will never achieve a perfect, just, and peaceful world through [itself] is clearly taught in Scripture. But [humanity's] search for justice, peace, hope, and solidarity is, nevertheless, a sign of the coming age which the church must relate to and interpret in the light of the gospel. [Humanity's] life struggles constitute, therefore, opportunities for the church to show forth and demonstrate prophetically Christ's saving power." This too is Christ's loving power.
The responsibility can be overwhelming. I am sure the disciples were overwhelmed by the life they were summoned to live. However, like the disciples, we have the Holy Spirit as our advocate. The times we feel powerless or unequipped for a particular task, or for delivering God's message, we too can ask God for the Spirit of Truth as Jesus did.
This reminds me of one of my favorite hymns by Daniel Iverson (Spirit of the Living God):
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Spirit of the living, God fall afresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
This is our prayer. To be God's vessels of love, not only holding it within us, but pouring it out for others to receive as we receive. Melt me: work within me to be more loving. Remove aspects of myself that keep me from loving fully, from forgiving, and for asking for forgiveness. Mold me: into the person you created me to be. Fill me: with your love, compassion, indignation, courage and wisdom. Use me: to continue your ministry of love in the world, working beside others as models following your example, inspiring the church and the world to create not only a present reality of love, but a future one as well.
I recently came across another verse of this hymn that I had not heard before. It is by Michael Baughen and continues the prayer saying:
Spirit of the living God, move among us all;
make us one in heart and mind, make us one in love:
humble, caring, selfless, sharing.
Spirit of the living God, fill our lives with love.
A great reminder for how we are to carry ourselves in love. It also reminds us of what Jesus said to the disciples after He told them of the coming of the Holy Spirit. He told them, "On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you" (John 14:20). We are reconciled to God through Christ. Christ is one with God, and we are connected to them, loved by them, equipped by them. The Spirit and Jesus both reside in us, empower us, and equip us. We are one in love, with God and with each other.
As we are obedient, however, we must also consider the legacy we are creating. What does society consider the Christian presence in our current community, nation, and the world? What is our footprint? Does the world see us as vessels of love, building a present to produce a future of love? Or do they consider our legacy to be something else?
As we reflect on the many ways we have shared and received love, may we remember the many ways in which we can still grow in our ability to love until the day when we are united with Christ again. This way, we, like the 6th-graders, can leave a legacy of words and actions to equip those who are entering the world behind us.
Let us pray: Loving and Mysterious God, thank you for loving us so much that you sent advocates to guide us throughout our lives. Thank you for sharing your Son with us, providing an example of the embodiment of love we seek to emulate. Help us to be obedient to your commandments and open to the guidance of the Spirit so that we may continue living Your legacy of love for generations to come. Amen.
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