One of Dr. Martin Luther King's most important works was a little book entitled The Strength to Love. It was a collection of sermons compiled to provide inspiration for those who were about to run the long-distance race in the struggle for human freedom and liberty. He titled the book of sermons "The Strength to Love" because it takes strength to love. I want to suggest today that it not only takes strength to love, but there is strength in love. Don't underestimate it. Don't ignore it. Don't miscalculate it. There is INCREDIBLE STRENGTH in love.
Go back to the story for a second. Fishing in the ancient world was hard work. It wasn't a recreational sport. Fishermen were hardworking, strong men of their time. I don't think I overestimate the case when I say that fishermen were the longshoremen of their time. They were the shop stewards of the first century. They hauled heavy nets, worked long hours, sometimes in unsafe working conditions. Fishermen lived with a muscular mindset. They were Palestinian macho men of their time. And it is in this context, if you will, a macho strength. It is in this context, if you will, of a locker room. It is in this context that Jesus comes up to Simon Peter. I have an image of Simon Peter as the kind of guy with his sleeves rolled up and with muscles bulging forth. In this context Jesus comes up to this Palestinian macho man and says, "Simon Barjona, do you love me?" My sense is that Peter being a product of his time, part of his context kind of backs up a bit, and he says, "Yes, Lord, you know I love you." And Jesus responds to him, "Feed my sheep." A second time Jesus says, "Simon," a little louder, "do you love me?" And you can almost feel Peter's embarrassment for love is not normally the language of the locker room. Love is not normally the language of political commerce and dialogue. Love is not normally the language of the labor union. Love is not normally the language of power politics and you can feel Peter's embarrassment. "Yes, Lord, you know I love you." And he says, "Feed my sheep." And then a third time Jesus asks again. And finally Peter is frustrated. He is obviously upset. He is obviously embarrassed, and Jesus says, "Feed my sheep." And later on he goes on and explains to him. He says, "You know, when you were young, Simon Peter, you used to go where you wanted to go, but when you grow old, when you mature in this faith thing, when you grow up into Christ, you will find that another will take you by the hand and will lead you where you do not want to go. Do not underestimate love, Simon. Do not miscalculate. Do not be afraid of it; there's strength in love. There's POWER in love."
In the Bible, context is everything. Everything. Context of a passage makes the difference between what it means and what it doesn't mean. For example, in just normal life, if you're at the gym and someone says, "Put them up," that's good. You're working out. If you're out on the street and somebody says, "Put them up!" you're in trouble. Context always determines content. If I tell you I love you in church during the passing of the kiss of peace, for example, that's one thing. But if we're in a restaurant, a candlelight dinner, with violins playing in the background, and I look you into your eyes and I say I love you, that's an entirely different thing. Context determines content.
If you look at the context of this conversation with Simon Peter, more specifically, the context of John's gospel where Jesus begins to speak of love, you'll discover that Jesus begins to speak of love most profoundly, most consistently, as he nears the cross, as he nears the moments of betrayal, nears the moments of sacrifice, nears the moments of suffering. Jesus begins to speak of love. It's at the Last Supper in John's gospel, roughly chapters 13 through 17 that Jesus speaks of love. "By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples, that you love one another." It's as Judas leaves to betray him--love. It's as Simon Peter will deny him--love. It's as the shadow of a cross lingers over the horizon of his life--love. It is as he is nailed to a cross. It is as he finally suffers, bleeds, and dies--love. And then he says it is love that lifted me up. It is love that raised me up. "Simon, don't be afraid of it. Don't miscalculate it. Don't underestimate it. There's incredible strength in love."
This past August I went to the Holy Land with a group of other pilgrims and it was a blessing to be there, to be in the place where Jesus once walked, to see those shores near the Sea of Galilee, to ride a boat on that sea where Jesus once walked. We went to the holy city, Jerusalem itself. And after being in Jerusalem, it became so clear to me how powerful, profound, and important is this message of love. The city of Jerusalem and its very history may well be speaking. Jerusalem was founded in 2500 BC. when the Canaanites inhabited the area now called Jerusalem. Sometime after that the Jebusites conquered it and took it from the Canaanites. About 1,000 BC King David conquered it and made it capital of all Israel. In 586 BC King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered it and destroyed it. In 537 Cyrus of Persia conquered it. The Babylonians made it part of their empire. In 323 Ptolemy I of Egypt made it part of his Ptolemaic empire. In 198 the Selucid, Antiochus III of Syria made it part of his empire. In 63 BC Pompey of Rome made it part of the Roman Empire. In 70 AD the Romans destroyed it. In 135 they destroyed it again. In the 4th century the Christians made it part of the Christian Roman empire. In the 7th century the Muslims invaded and took it over. In 1099 the Christians took it back in the Crusade. In 1187 the Muslims took it back from the Christians. In 1517 the Ottoman Turks took it back from the other Muslims. In 1917 the British took it over. It 1949 the United Nations divided the city. In 1967 Israel took it over, and they've been fighting over that city ever since. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. How long, O Lord? How long? When will we learn that love is the only way? When will we learn that love is the answer?
Our pilgrimage to Jerusalem last year happened on a weekend when the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem was being enthroned. On that Sunday we went to the morning service. The new Bishop was the preacher. Here the context is critical. He is an Arab Christian. We were in the city of Jerusalem. Down the street from us, Israeli soldiers were stationed and positioned, ready for duty. Near the cathedral close bodyguards guarded the Bishop for fear of assassination. The dean of the cathedral is British. He presided. The Bishop mounted the pulpit. When he mounted the pulpit, he spoke of having met with the Prime Minister of Israel just the week before. When he mounted the pulpit, he spoke of his being ready to meet with President Arafat in Gaza later that afternoon. When he mounted the pulpit, helicopters could be heard overhead. When he mounted the pulpit, conflicts were in the street. When he mounted the pulpit, he stood up and he spoke if I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I am a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal. He said love is the answer to the heartache of Jerusalem. Love is the answer to the turmoil of the world.
My friends, don't underestimate it. Don't miscalculate. There really is strength in love. Long before modern medicines have now made it possible for people who are HIV positive, I've known families who once turned on their loved ones, who turned on them when they were dying, and I've known those same families who turned around when they stopped and realized that they loved their son, their daughter, their sister, their brother. And that love was bigger than any difference between them. I've seen that love turn folk around. I've seen that love turn families around. I've seen that love turn lives around.
Sometime ago, in our city we were involved in street crusades to reduce the levels of violence in our neighborhoods, to wage battle against the scourge of drugs. I remember one particular Friday when a group of us were standing on a street corner, witnessing, sharing information about community resources, mental health resources, as well as sharing the Christian gospel, I remember someone came up to us and said, "You all need to remember. It's all about love." In the midst of this teeming ghetto, it's all about love. With death all around, it's all about love.
My friends, we sometimes underestimate love because we sentimentalize it. We think love is what is spoken of on the soap operas and that well may be true in one form. But love is something bigger than a sentiment. Love is more than an emotion. Love is the capacity to care. Love is the capacity to make a difference. Love is the willingness to hang in for the long haul for the good of the other. See, love has the power to reach down where other things can't get. Love has the power to heal old wounds and to create new possibilities in the present and for the future.
There's a well-known, old Negro spiritual that says it this way:
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.
I realized something recently about that spiritual. As you may know, the words of the spiritual are based on the despairing words of Jeremiah recorded in the eighth chapter of his book. For there the prophet lifts up an agonized, tortured voice to heaven, "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? My life's a mess and I can't make it. Where are you, Lord, when I need you?"
Howard Thurman in his classic work, "The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death," says here the spiritual genius of the slave made a most profound point. He says the slave did an amazing thing. If you look in your Bible in Jeremiah 8, you will see that Jeremiah asked a question, "Is there no balm in Gilead?" The slave, too, knew that question. But the slave turned Jeremiah's question mark into an exclamation point. Amidst the slave and auction block, amidst a world where his world had fallen apart, the slave dared to answer Jeremiah's question. Not "Is there no balm in Gilead?" but "There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole." I've wondered for a while what that balm is. In fact, there's some scholarly debate and there's not a consensus on what specifically was being referred to. It is known that the balm in Gilead obviously was some sort of healing potion or healing salve, but from whence did it come? Where was it gathered? How was it made? No one knows. But it occurs to me that if you listen to the rest of the spiritual, you can discover what that balm in Gilead was. The slave knew. Listen to what they said.
If you cannot preach like Peter If you cannot pray like Paul You can tell the love of Jesus how he died to save us all.
There it is! That's the balm! That's the healing power! That's the liberating force. LOVE! No matter what you do, no matter where you came from--love. Whether you are old or young?love. Whether rich or poor--love. Whether gay or straight--love. Capitalist or communists, Republican or Democrat, Greek or non-Greek, Ph.D. or no D.--love--because the truth of the matter is, my sisters and my brothers, as Dr. King once said, "We shall either learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we will perish together as fools." I like the way Shirley Chisholm, former congresswoman from New York, said, and she said, "You know, we all came over here on different ships, but we're all in the same boat now." We are sisters and brothers of each other and we can make it if we walk together in love. So walk together, children, and don't you get weary 'cause there's a great campmeeting in the promised land.
Dear Lord, in your Word you taught us that all things hang together in love, that the whole of the law and prophets--fulfilled in the law of love. Teach us to love in new ways. Teach us to love the unlovable. Teach us to love even that which is unlovable within ourselves and then send us forth to love and serve you wherever we may go. This we dare to ask and pray in the precious and powerful name of Jesus. Amen.