Joe Neville

John 14:15-21



If You Love Me

One of the few things most all of us in this life long for is love without conditions. As we think about this, how often can any of us say that we have been loved unconditionally?  If you can say honestly, I believe I have been loved without condition at least once, I’d say you were lucky.  Many people go through life never knowing this kind of love …and not being able to give it either."

There seems to be in our culture only a very few relationships in which the potential for unconditional love exists. Parental love is certainly one, even though some parents place all kinds of conditions on love. I believe a majority of parents welcome a child with open arms and boundless love. I know I was loved like this at my birth, and as I watch parents and friends in this congregation embrace their children, I can see your endless love shining in the confident faces of our children. I have seen a baby change the lives of couples and I have seen whole lives change through the giving of parental love. I have watched, too, when the worst happens and a child grows up to be tragically flawed or even criminal, and, even then, the parents’ love remains constant, even though pain and sorrow exists.

Excepting this parental love and devotion, other forms of unconditional love can develop over years and years of love or friendship. Love can actually grow through the discovery of the flawed character of the beloved or friend and, usually, after we have realized our own limitations in relationships. Love, the love we truly desire, does not arrive when we discover "the perfect partner" or the dutiful, caring, ideal friend. The possibility of real love only begins when we recognize, with humility and compassion, that the "I and Thou" of any relationship comes through the genuine exchange of story, trust, revelation and newfound hope.

Those of us who are in constant search of the perfect lover or the perfect partner or even the ideal community are bound to be deeply disappointed, because real love usually almost always, comes through the realization and acceptance of imperfections, and the crumbling of the ideal image of that particular person or relationship. Learning how to love without condition or being loved unconditionally is not about image or ideal; it is a gift and comes through the grace of God who loves us, warts and all.

The gift is at once both rare and ordinary. We see this love between parent and child. We behold it between lovers and friends. We catch glimmers of it in the eyes of strangers on the street, when eyes meet and a "knowing" is exchanged. Some of us carry a memory of that boundless love within us; perhaps it came from a grandparent or a great-aunt, a wise man who lived down the street a long time ago, or a teacher who saw something in you that you could not see in yourself.

In community life, we practice some aspect of this boundless love as we try to learn to share trust with each other.  When we begin to trust and act as if goodness and hope, rather than mistrust and hostility, fundamentally motivate those around us, we take a first step toward loving without condition. We begin to live with a spirit of loving kindness toward others and even the world. It is difficult in any relationship to decide to trust and to act upon that trust, but that is the first step toward creating the love and hope we desire to experience and give. It happens only rarely, but when love becomes a working principle in politics or culture or in community, it can galvanize whole nations and people for good and for justice. Remember Gandhi in India, Martin Luther King in this country and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Mandela will forever be a hero, because he emerged from 27 years of incarceration to lead a nation to union peacefully, and without violence. It is a rare event when leaders can galvanize whole nations and movements toward peace and justice through the vision of transforming love. The glaring lack of it is what makes the current crisis in Iraq such an awful tragedy.

The ultimate gift of unconditional love is that when we accept and are accepted by others, we no longer need to perform in order to win love or defend ourselves from loving others. Some of us may know this love in the parent/child bond. Some of us may know of this love in the love exchanged between partners. Every so often, we catch a glimpse of this knowing, accepting love in families, between friends, in communities and, rarely, so rarely, among nations and people.

The brief section from John’s recording of the story of Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples gives us a glimpse of this hope for unconditional love between friends and family, between father and son, between divine and human. "I will not leave you orphaned (desolate), but I will come to you. You will know that I am in God and God in me and I in you." These are the words of Jesus to his disciples. The paradox of love is this: even in absence, there is abiding presence. The gift of knowing love without condition is that, once you have experienced it, life will not be the same.

Yesterday, I pulled out an old video tape of a conversation my dad had with his family.  It was dated summer of 1983.  Two years before he died of Alzheimer’s.  In that tape my father lifted up how he had trusted in God and was approaching the time when he would be leaving us.  He thanked us for our love and told us how he just simply wanted to look at all of us and to give us his love and receive it from us in the time he had left.  I remember that my Dad was that person in my life who absolutely came alive when any one of his thirteen children or numerous grandchildren entered the room.  Dad burned with the fire of unconditional love; all of us managed to disappoint and upset him at one time of another; but, he never lost the radiant fire of his love for us.

It is through his love and example that I most clearly and vibrantly comprehend God’s love for Jesus, God’s child, and for me.  If God is anything like my dad at all, then I know I haven’t been orphaned in this life, because God comes to me and God is in me to be given to others.

Jesus' opening words, "If you love me," sound like a qualification.  All sorts of conditions usually flow from "if you love me."  If you love me, you'll take out the garbage, buy me a new car, come home before 2 a.m. and pay for a trip to Paris.  But with Jesus', words, the 'if' comes with the command to love.  If you love me, LOVE!  The 'if' is so incredibly simple, it is subversive… "You shall love God and your neighbor as yourself," or, as we hear at many weddings, "the greatest of all these is love."

Love, as Jesus understood and knew it, was not about emotion, but learning how to trust and act in relation to others with a sense of moral and spiritual obedience to God's unconditional love for him.  John would have us make the connection as Jesus did, between loving others and loving God, between having knowledge and trusting the Spirit of truth, and between loving God and overcoming the world.

Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets, writes of the power of love to re-orient our lives as it begins to heal the breach of discomfort and unhappiness in West Wind.

“You are young. So you know everything. You leap into the boat and begin rowing. But, listen to me. Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me. Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and your heart, and heart's little intelligence, and listen to me.  There is life without love.  It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe.  It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied.  When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks–when you hear that unmistakable pounding–when you feel the mist on your mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming–then, row, row for your life toward it.”

Take your first steps today. Get in the boat and row!  Trust in the love, which is present and waiting for you, in God who loves you with the fierce tenderness of a father, mother, lover, and genuine friend.  God loves you without condition, in a world filled with conditions.  Live your life with love. Amen.