“What is Love?”
A Sermon on John 15:9-17 for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Year B; preached May 10, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
“I love my love because I know my love loves me!”
A few of you know I joined a choral ensemble over in Hartford back in December, and tonight—shameless plug, here—we’re singing a wonderful concert at a church in West Hartford centered around the themes of love and war. Among what we’re singing, there’s this old folksong from the Cornwall region of England, a folk song that was stunningly arranged for choir about a hundred years ago by the great English composer Gustav Holst. In that folk song, we hear this refrain shared back and forth between two young souls: “I love my love because I know my love loves me!”
That refrain is first voiced by the young lady, but you must understand that in this story, things have not been so peachy-keen for her. Right from the outset, she’s identified as a maid “in Bedlam”, ‘Bedlam’ having been a slang reference to the insane asylum. She rattles her chains and then we hear her first tell of her love rooted in the confidence that her love loves her.
And then she goes on:
O cruel were his parents who sent my love to sea,
And cruel was the ship that bore my love from me;
Yet I love his parents since they’re his although
They’ve ruined me:
I love my love because I know my love loves me!
So, these parents of this guy, they’ve sent their son off to sea, and it sounds like they are the reason that this young maid is in the asylum… it’s not entirely clear whether the guy’s parents themselves have had her locked up, or if she went crazy simply because her love had been shipped out. Either way, though, the young maid testifies about them, that “they’ve ruined me”, and yet nevertheless she loves them simply because they’re the parents of her love. (Perhaps that right there is enough for the asylum!) The guy upon whom she waited, he does come to her rescue, flying “into her snow-white arms,” and himself affirming, “I love my love because I know my love loves me!”
The song is sweet and sentimental, on one hand… and it admittedly presents a bit of a ponderous chicken-or-egg conundrum. If she loves him because she knows he loves her, and if he loves her because he knows she loves him, well then, where did all this love start? And do either of them love the other in so-called “true” love, or simply because they think the other loves them back? It’s one of those lines of thought that just keeps circling back on itself… like that snake that eats its own tail, or—for you mathematically-inclined—like the Mobius strip that sure looks like it has two sides, but in reality only has one.
I’ll confess that good chunks of the readings we’ve heard this morning, they’ve always sounded a bit to me like that kind of always-circling chicken-and-egg sort of thing. This section of the gospel of John, as well as most of 1st John, the letter, they seem a bit like somebody just took big helpings of the words “love”, “abide”, and “commandment”, dumped them in a bowl and just started stirring. Perhaps like different flavors of soft-serve, all twisted together in a swirl, or something. Swirl up love, abide, and commandment, and then all you need is some rainbow sprinkles on top—a little “joy” sprinkle there, a little “friend” sprinkle here, a little “vine-and-branches” sprinkle over there—and voila… you have John 15 and most of 1st John, the letter. Abide, love, commandment… abide in me and me in you… you love as I have loved you and I love as I have been loved… if you love me you’ll keep my commandments and if you keep my commandments you’ll abide in my love… it really is enough to make your head spin.
Perhaps that’s part of the point, though. Sometimes it can be too easy to see our faith and our religiosity as something like a transaction, a tit-for-tat exchange, a bartering in the marketplace of God. Do thus-and-such, and then you’ll have paid the necessary entrance fee to get in good with God. And we’re guilty of that on both ends of the liberal-to-conservative spectrum, the only difference being what thuses-and-suches we think we’re required to do, which actions and behaviors are necessary to qualify us as a basically good person, and thereby worthy. On the other hand, there certainly have been Christians—again of both liberal and conservative persuasions—that have been tempted to the other extreme, that place where nothing we do in this life matters one way or the other.
And so, perhaps this swirling together that we get in scriptures like this is the point. Does Jesus’ love of us lead to us following his commandments, or does our following Jesus’ commandments lead to our abiding in his love? The answer to this either/or appears to be, “Yes… both.” Both sides of that Mobius strip are, we find out, one. Or, as it has been said, the trick of all this is to “train ourselves to see the tasks we have been given as part of the gift. Loving one another, obeying God’s commandments, overcoming the world are not things that we must do in order to merit the gift of salvation, as if that were some other independent reality. Rather, they are part and parcel of the gift of salvation, for in doing them in response to God’s prevenient moves in Jesus Christ we find ourselves living more fully, more closely approximating our true humanity.” We are called to do because we are loved, and in doing we discover our fullest selves in the doing, and in discovering our fullest selves we discover God’s love. Command, love, abide… doing, being… being, doing… Perhaps the circular refrain shared of those lovers is wiser and truer than we thought: both sides singing forth, ‘I love my love because I know my love loves me.’
Love can be a confounding thing because it is so ambiguous. Is it simply a mushy, sentimental feeling—a “second-hand emotion” as Tina Turner once sang? Is love an action… and if so, just exactly what action is it? There are many things I might do as a sign of my love: give flowers, do some extra household chores on a day when their schedule’s jam-packed, even listen and be present in a specifically intentional way. But is the giving of flowers or the doing of dishes itself love?
Love, it would seem, has something more to do with relationship itself than anything we specifically feel or do. It’s about a relational orientation toward the other, an orientation that is concerned about others, one that is not possessive or subordinating, one that allows genuine space for the other to be.
And in the case of the love of God, the love of God known to us through Jesus Christ, the truth, my friends, is that we cannot choose or act or behave our way out of it. “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” Jesus tells us. Sure, we can make choices about how we live and act and relate to one another and to God that make a difference in whether we actually experience that love—that’s what Jesus is talking about when he says keeping his commandments leads to abiding in his love—but whether or not we abide in it, whether or not we experience it, we simply cannot choose to not be loved by God in Christ Jesus. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Jesus said, and he has already done that for us. In the brokenness and wilderness of our human existence, God has already come in love and covenant. In the valleys of the shadow of death, God has already promised to walk with us.
And so, sisters and brothers, I bid you but one thing today: Love your love—that is, love the one who loves you, Jesus Christ. Love your love because you know your love loves you.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.
 Traditional Cornish folksong, as collected by G.B. Gardiner and arranged for mixed voices by Gustav T. Holst, “I Love My Love”, Six Choral Folksongs, Op. 36b, No. 5 (London: J. Curwen & Sons, 1917).
 John M. Rottman & Matthew Lundberg, commentary for the 6th Sunday of Easter in Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary: Preaching Year B, ed. Paul Scott Wilson (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press 2014), 158-9.
 David S. Cunningham, theological commentary on John 15:9-17 for the 6th Sunday of Easter, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Year B, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 498.