Living in Love

John 15:9-17

In 1938, during the Great Depression, a group of doctors at Harvard Medical School began a long-term study to determine what factors contributed most to long-term health and well-being in men.  The Study of Adult Development has been going on for more than 80 years now.  Once selected, participants are followed for the rest of their lives.  They fill out a questionnaire every other year covering their physical and mental health, financial status, relationship status, and general level of happiness.  Every five years some of the men are selected at random for more in-depth study.  

Some of the findings in the study haven’t been all that surprising.  For instance, they’ve verified that alcoholism is destructive.  It has been the main cause of divorce among study participants and it strongly correlates with neurosis and depression.  So, no big surprise there.  But here’s one that is surprising:  financial success depends more on warm relationships than on intelligence. In fact “warm relationships” play a huge role in lifetime satisfaction, wealth, and well-being.

The warmth of the childhood relationship with the mother matters long into adulthood:

  • Men who had “warm” childhood relationships with their mothers earned considerably more per year than men whose mothers were uncaring.
  • Men who had poor childhood relationships with their mothers were much more likely to develop dementia when old.
  • Late in their professional lives, the men’s boyhood relationships with their mothers—but not with their fathers—were associated with effectiveness at work.

The warmth of childhood relationships with fathers correlated with:

  • Lower rates of adult anxiety.
  • Greater enjoyment of vacations.
  • Increased life satisfaction at age 75.

When George Vaillant, the current director of the study, was interviewed by The Atlantic, his main conclusion was that “warm relationships” throughout life had a greater positive influence on “life satisfaction” than anything else—greater than money, greater than achievement, greater than acquisition and accumulation of things.  Warm relationships were the greatest predictor of happiness.  By far.  “Put differently,” Vaillant says,  “The study shows happiness is love. Full stop.”[1]  When a Canadian broadcaster suggested that his statement was overly broad and sentimental, Vaillant looked down at his data then looked up and replied,  “The answer is L-O-V-E.”[2]

So Jackie DeShannon was right back in 1965 when she sang What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love[3].  And the Beatles were right two years later when they sang All You Need is Love.  But Jesus said it first.  A long time before they did.

  “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,” said Jesus.  “Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

The word “love” here is agape which is a particular kind of love.  This isn’t a sentimental or emotional love, although it can develop into warm feelings.  But agape doesn’t start that way.  Agape is a decision.  It starts in the head before it moves to the heart.  Madeleine L’Engle described it this way:  “Agape love is…profound concern for the well-being of another, without any desire to control that other, to be thanked by that other, or to enjoy the process.”   Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess.  It begins by loving others for their own sakes… Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both. It is redemptive goodwill for all people.  It is a love that asks nothing in return.  It is an overflowing love…And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love people not because they are likeable, but because God loves them.”   When Saint Paul writes that Love is patient and kind, that love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude,  that it doesn’t insist on its own way, that love it is not irritable or resentful, that it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth…when he writes that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,  when he writes that love never quits, he is describing agape.  

When Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,” that’s the kind of love he is talking about.  Talk about a “warm relationship!”  Agape may start in the head as a decision, but how could you not have warm feelings for someone who loves you like that?  And how could you not develop a certain tenderness in your heart when you’ve decided to love someone that way?  You can’t help it.  Because when you love, you make yourself vulnerable.  That’s part of the decision.

“Abide in my love,” says Jesus.  Most of us don’t use the word “Abide” too often unless we’re huge fans of The Big Lebowski.  The Greek word that’s at work here is meno, which means to stay, to remain, to continue, to continue to exist.  It’s in the imperative form, so Jesus says it as a command.  “Continue to exist in my love.”  That puts a bit of a different spin on it, doesn’t it?

There are two ways to think about that.  One is that Jesus surrounds us with divine love and commands us to stay inside the parameters of that love as we act and interact with each other and the world.  This is something of the understanding Saint Paul has when he talks about being “in Christ.”  The other way to understand it is to see that our lives have been infused with the love of Jesus and we are now commanded to continue to regenerate that love for those around us.  Both understandings work and keep the love of God flowing.  And Jesus assures us that if we keep the commandment to love, we will continue to abide, to exist, within the love of God.

“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” This statement always catches me by surprise.  I’ll be honest, I don’t usually think of Jesus as joyful.  You certainly don’t see him depicted that way very often in the gospels.  We see him arguing with scribes and Pharisees or impatient with his disciples when they’re being dense. Healing people, yes.  Casting out demons, there’s certainly something energetic about that. But joyful?  But when you think about it, these episodes of cranky Jesus that we see depicted are brief and they’re probably very much the exception rather than the rule.  We do see him dining with tax collectors and sinners.  Those were probably fun times.  He does tell the occasional joke—you know, a camel through the eye of a needle?  And joy would explain why huge crowds came to see him.  Joy is attractive.  It’s charismatic.

So Jesus commands us to continue to exist in his agape love so that his joy may be in us and so that our joy may be complete.  And then to make it crystal clear that he’s serious about this—joyfully serious—he makes love a commandment.  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

As I have loved you.    

“No one has greater love than this,” continues Jesus, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  He’s referring to the cross here, of course, hinting at just how far he will go to demonstrate his agape love for all of us.  He will lay down his physical life.

But he might be referring to even more if we dive down below the surface.  The word that’s translated as “life” here is psyche.  It means living soul, inner self, mind.  It can also mean what we refer to as “ego.”  Richard Rohr has said that in order to learn how to fully and truly love we have to learn how to get our egos out of the way.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s ego for one’s friends.

“Authentic Christianity,” says Rohr, “is not so much a belief system as a life-and-death system that shows you how to give away your life, how to give away your love, and eventually how to give away your death.  Basically, how to give away—and in doing so, to connect with the world, with all other creatures, and with God…Here the primary language is unlearning, letting go, surrendering, serving others, and not the language of self-development—which often lurks behind our popular notions of salvation.[4]

Paul Tillich once wrote about meeting a Swedish woman who had spent time in a prison camp for giving aid and comfort to prisoners and orphans during World War I.  He found in her a personification of that “greater love.”  “It is a rare gift to meet a human being in whom love – this means God – is so overwhelmingly manifest,” he wrote. “It undercuts theological arrogance as well as pious isolation. It is more than justice and greater than faith or hope. It is the very presence of God in the form of a human being. For God is love. In every moment of genuine love we are dwelling in God and God in us.”

When you love with divine love, when you let divine love flow through you, you begin to love, as John Duns Scotus says, things in themselves, for themselves, and not for what they do for you.  That’s when you begin to love your spouse.  That’s when you begin to love your neighbors–when you start seeing them detached from you, what they do for you, or how they make you look, or what they can get for you.  It takes work to learn to love them in themselves, and for themselves, as living images of God.

When you love things and people in themselves, you are looking out at the world with the eyes of God.  When you look out from those eyes, you see that it’s not about you.  And you will see things that will give you joy.  Simple things will make you happy.

Reality will start giving you joy, inherently.  And you will start overcoming the gap between you and everything else.

Abide in Christ’s love.  Be a friend of Jesus.  Build those warm relationships in the world.  So that Christ’s joy may be in you.  And your joy may be complete.

Amen.

Prayers of Intercession – Easter 6B 

Growing in faith, lifted by hope, guided by love, and alive in the risen Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we bring our prayers before God who promises to hear us and answer in steadfast love.

A brief silence

Loving God, you call us to be your fruit-bearing church.  Strengthen the bonds among all Christian churches.  Toda we pray for the Moravian Church, giving thanks for the life and witness of Nicolaus von Zinzendorf, renewer of the church and hymnwriter.  Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great. 

Creating God, the earth praises you.  The seas roar and the hills sing for joy.  Fill the earth with your love so that by their song , all creatures of land and sea and sky, burrowing and soaring, may call us to join with them in praise.  Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great.  

Faithful Savior, you conquer the world not with weapons but with undying love.  Plant your word in the hearts of the nations’ leaders and give them your Spirit, so that the peoples of the world may live in peace.  Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great. 

Gracious God, as a loving mother comforts her child, you comfort us.  Bless mothers and mothering people in our lives.  Comfort those who miss their mothers, mothers who grieve, those who grieve because they cannot be mothers, and those who have never known a loving mother.  Your mercy is great.  

Caring Healer, you forget no one and accompany the lonely.  Be present with those who are sick or suffering.  Provide for those needing homes or medical care and point us towards life-changing responses to these needs in our own communities.  Be present with those who are sick or suffering.  We pray especially for  Lance Hailstone, for Donna’s grandson, Matthew Erickson, for Edie’s grandson, Harry Plummer as he recovers from a broken back, a punctured lung and a broken leg, we pray for Baby Arthur, the child of Candy’s friend, for Peggy Bockman, for Charley Hartwell, for Mike Engle,  for Janet Simms, for Vickie Gammar, for Jim Schoup, for Dianne Keil, Judi Mellow, Dee Perretta, Ranae Wright, for Sandy Nelson and for Bruce Chinn, for Lyn Hicks, and for all those on the Prayer Wall.  Reveal your power to heal and save.  Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great. 

Gentle Redeemer, all who die in you abide in your presence forever.  We remember with thanksgiving those who shared your love throughout their lives.  Keep us united with them in lasting love.  In the hope of new life in Christ, we raise our prayers to you, trusting in your never-ending goodness and mercy, through Jesus Christ our Lord who taught us to pray…


[1] Stossel, Scott (May 2013). “What Makes Us Happy, Revisited: A new look at the famous Harvard study of what makes people thrive”The AtlanticArchived from the original on 7 June 2017. Retrieved 25 June 2017.

[2] CBC News Staff (31 July 2009). “Study proves Beatles right: All you need is love”Canadian Broadcasting CorporationArchived from the original on 26 April 2017. Retrieved 25 June 2017

[3] Written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach

[4] The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr (213-214; 219)

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