[A sermon based on 1 John 5:1-6 & John 15:9-17 for the Sixth Sunday of Easter & Mother’s Day]
When I was a boy my mother would from time to time, as mothers are wont to do, tell me to do something. If I dared ask her why, she would in her kindness and patience give me a reason or two or five. But if I persisted in stalling through repeated requests that she justify her instruction, she would finally say, “Do it because I said so!”
Now, some mothers are mean; some mothers show their supposed love for their children through manipulation or abuse. My mother, though, like all good mothers, genuinely loved me and wanted the best for me—I knew it then and I know it, decades after her death, now. And I genuinely loved and wanted to please my mother, although I did at time have a funny way of showing it.
I loved my mother so I tried my best to obey her; my obedience to her was a response to her love for me and a reflection of my love for her.
My mother earned and deserved my obedience and my love. In a way, though, she also commanded and even demanded it. Oh, I don’t mean that she said, “I am your mother and you will love me!” I mean that the reality of her love and the example of her love were such that it seemed imperative that I respond to her love with mine; I didn’t see where I had much of a choice, given that I had the honor and privilege of being her son. Having the honor and privilege of being her son gave me the honor and privilege of obeying her.
I was my mother’s only child.
But I wasn’t really. Two years after I was born another son was born, this one named Stanley Abbott Ruffin. He was born with severe birth defects and, after being rushed to Eggleston Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, died after only twelve hours of life.
The only evidence that he lived at all is his small marble gravestone, the book on condolences that my mother saved and that I still have, and the home movie my father took of me standing among the flowers spread over his grave.
I have at times wondered how my life would have been different had Stan lived. What would it have been like to have a sibling, to have a brother? I have learned from observation about the deep love and affection that siblings can share as well as the deep rivalry and antipathy they can share—simultaneously, somehow. Stan was born of the same love that I was and was of the same bloodline and family tree that I was and because he was the child of my parents, whom I loved, I would have loved him, too.
Had Stan lived he would have been a special needs child. My parents would have cared for him faithfully and would have loved him unconditionally and I believe—again, as my response to their love and in obedience to the command inherent in their ways of loving and living—I would have cared for and loved him in the same way. And, given that we would have become orphans together when I was twenty and he was eighteen, I could have had responsibility for him now for over thirty years. It would have been, I imagine, very, very difficult. But I believe, although I’ll never know, that the love that my parents left with me and in me—that the life they left with me and in me—would have lived on in me and been lived out in me toward Stan.
As “different” from me as Stan would have been, he would have still been my brother; he would have been as fully the child of my parents as I am.
The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus, on the last night of his life, told his disciples the following things:
1. He had loved them as the Father had loved him;
2. They should abide in his love;
3. To keep his commandments was to abide in his love;
4. He had kept his Father’s commandments and had abided in his love;
5. Joy would be found in obeying Jesus by loving each other;
6. They should love one another as Jesus had loved them;
7. The greatest love was to lay down one’s life for one’s friends;
8. They were Jesus’ friends if they did what he commanded them;
9. They had status as his friends and so they had access to the workings of his heart;
10. He had chosen them as friends;
11. As they obeyed and loved they would receive from the Father what they needed to obey and love; and
12. He was telling them what to do so that they could love one another.
John the Elder tells us the following things that are related to the things that the Fourth Gospel tells us:
1. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah is a child of God;
2. As children who love our Father we also love our Father’s other children;
3. We know we love our Father’s other children when we love God and obey God;
4. The love of God is to obey God’s commandments which is a demanding but not burdensome privilege because God gives us the faith we need;
5. The Spirit of God sent to us by the Father after the resurrection of the Crucified Jesus teaches us what we need to know about Jesus and thus about ourselves and about each other.
It is a good thing when we can carry, whether she is alive or dead, the best of our mother’s life and love with us. It is a great thing that we can carry, because he was dead but is now alive and because his Spirit is with us, the life and love of our Savior Jesus Christ with us. Jesus loved his followers—and he loves us—with all of our differences and in all of our strangeness. Jesus calls, commands, and shows us how to love each other with all of our differences and in all of strangeness.
My brother Stan, had he lived, would have been much different than I; he would have even been, by the majority standards of the world, strange. He would likely have had from birth some characteristics that would, on a literal reading of the Old Testament law—in which we thankfully don’t engage—have disqualified him from full participation in the worship of the Lord. But I have no doubt—not one—that my mother and father would have loved him as much as they loved me and I have no doubt—not one—that, even with all their shortcomings, my home church would have loved, embraced, cherished, and included my “different” brother in their community of grace.
We don’t, you see, get to choose our brothers and sisters; they come to us by the grace of God and so we love them by the grace of God. By grace through faith, by the Spirit of God, and by the presence of the resurrected Christ we love God and we love each other. What does it mean for us to love each other? Well, it begins with accepting each other, it moves through standing and sitting with each other through all of life, and it ends with giving ourselves up for each other no matter what it costs us.
The late theologian Jim Morrison (he of the Doors) once wrote, “People are strange when you're a stranger; faces look ugly when you're alone.” His point, I think (although with Morrison who ever really knew?) is that separation and alienation breed misunderstanding and even contempt. Our world is a place that thrives on categorization and stereotyping that leads to separation and alienation.
The church will be, if we obey Jesus by loving and if we love Jesus by obeying, fellowships that embrace each other in our difference and in our strangeness.
On November 11, 1960, an episode of the Twilight Zone aired that was entitled The Eye of the Beholder. In it, a woman is in a hospital, her face wrapped in bandages. We hear the voices of the doctors and nurses although their faces are shrouded in shadows. We learn that the woman, whose name is Janet Tyler, has just undergone the eleventh and final operation in an attempt to change her facial features so they will be like those dominant in her society. When the bandages are removed, the doctors and nurses express disappointment that the operation has failed and her face has experienced no change at all. When we see her face, we see that she is beautiful, from our perspective. When we see the faces of the doctors and nurses, we see that they are ugly, from our perspective, with twisted features and pig-like snouts.
Mothers love their children when they seem just right and when they seem all wrong. Regardless of how their children seem, regardless of how they are, mothers love them.
Jesus loves us all, just like we are—and the truth is that we are all, spiritually, mentally, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally speaking, a combination of fair beauty and pig snouts, aren’t we?
In this family of faith, grace, and love, in this family whose life is built around following Jesus, love means obedience and obedience means love…