What is Love?

Based on:
John 21:15-19
Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden

Sermon delivered August 25, 2019 by Joliene Wade Gatlin, MDIV at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Santa Cruz, CA

What is love?

I think it’s a question we all grapple with throughout our lives.  What does love look like?  We all seem to understand there’s a difference in the kinds of love we have for different things.  How I love my mom is different than how I love potatoes.  How I love my husband is different than how I love my cats.  How I love myself is different than how I love God.  So:  what does love– this love that Jesus is talking about– look like?

Well, I tried to search instagram for that question by searching the hashtag “love.”  That was disappointing.  I expected to find images of romantic love, which is my primary association with the word.  Most often I found selfies or objectified female bodies.  What is love?

I searched the question on Google.  The first non-advertising result was actually biblical, so I clicked on that and after a few biblical examples of how God loves everyone, the website assured me that we all sin and deserve God’s judgment and asked me if I’d like to become a follower of Jesus.  When I clicked the link that said I already was one, it wanted all of my personal information.  So I guess if I were following that website’s logic, love is slightly invasive.

Love on television is mostly romantic and often fickle or petty.

Our families and romantic relationships can be wonderful or terrible examples of love…

Perhaps our media and public culture lack many good examples of love because there’s something decidedly unglamorous about about authentic love like Jesus talked about.  In our media, we seem to like explosions, drama, and larger than life circumstances! … and sometimes love is big and exciting or big and tragic– don’t get me wrong– but most of the time… most of the time it’s as glamorous as feeding sheep or warming a cold, creaking house.

It’s often imperfect.  Sometimes even ugly.  And perhaps more often than not, it’s mundane.

This biblical passage from the Gospel of John may remind us a bit of some conversations with those we love.  Maybe like Mom asking you to take the trash out– “Mom, I SAID I would do it.”

Or when we ask our partner over and over if they’re sure they’re okay.  “I’m FINE.”

Perhaps it’s meant to elicit that kind of intimate association for us.  But it’s also meant to parallel an earlier passage in the Gospel of John.

Now this is a post-resurrection story.  Jesus asks Peter 3 times if he loves him.  Some of us may remember that before his crucifixion, Jesus tells Peter he will betray him 3 times before the “cock crow,” the changing of guards in Jerusalem… and Peter does.  He denies Jesus 3 times.  He fails to speak truth because of fear.

Love is imperfect.

But this is a resurrection story and Peter gets another chance to get it right.

One of the questions we might be asking about this story is:  who is Jesus’ flock?  Is he asking Peter to take care of his mother and siblings?  No.  Actually, Jesus asked a different disciple to care for his mother in chapter 19.  When Jesus asks Peter to feed his sheep, I think he’s talking about that kind of love that is bigger than you or me.  The neighbor-love that we hear about in the Bible.  It’s the kind of love that Jesus’ ministry was all about and yet we still have trouble discerning in the realities of our lives.

Jesus, again and again, did what society forbid him.  He ate and mate friends with people whom society and religious authority told him he should not.  He listened to people unlike him and learned from them, even though most people would have suggested there was nothing he could learn from “those people.”

When Caleb and I were on our honeymoon, we spent some time in Edinburgh.  While we were there, we toured the Brittania, the Queen of England’s retired yacht.  It’s this giant, luxurious royal residence at sea.  One of the most absurd things I heard while I was on that tour was that all of the cleaning was done at night so that the queen didn’t have to see any of it… and if any of it couldn’t be finished by the time she was awake and the queen happened to come by while one was cleaning, one would have to freeze and stop working until she was gone.

This, from my perspective, is the opposite of Neighbor Love.  It seems like the task of washing a floor is so far beneath the queen that not only will she not do it, but she will not even look at it.  The person performing the task is not to move– almost as if they’re no longer human, but an inanimate object.  As if knowing how to wash a floor would somehow sully her.  It’s kind of far from Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

Neighbor love is about loving those whom some people in the world might tell you it’s forbidden to love– people who look or think differently; people of different ages; different genders; different sexualities; different skin colors; different religions; different economic backgrounds… the list goes on.

As the Queen of England or someone frozen mid-scrub aboard the Brittania might be able to tell you, it can be uncomfortable to share space with people we think are unlike us.  After all, the wrold places these dividing lines between us and tries to tell us we’re too different to get along.  We consciously and unconsciously allow these categories to keep us separate.

I was listening to talk radio the other morning and heard someone say something that rang very true to me.  People in positions of privilege are often uncomfortable being uncomfortable.  You might say of course– everyone’s uncomfortable being uncomfortable.  But people who don’t carry certain categories of privilege often feel uncomfortable without it being obvious to others.

When I started working retail in a high end retail store, there was something uncomfortable about talking to someone who was going to spend $1,000 on a pen.  Not because I disliked people who could afford $1,000-pens, but because I was afraid of saying something wrong– something that might embarrass me.  If I were shopping in that store (which I probably wouldn’t have been, since there wasn’t much I could afford), I probably wouldn’t strike up a conversation with someone buying a $1,000 pen,  but because I worked there, I had to.  I had to get over that discomfort.

I’m very grateful for that decade I spent working retail because it helped me figure out how to talk to people I might not otherwise talk to– which is most people, because I’m an introvert.  I also got to work with a diversity of people I might not have gotten to know otherwise– different ages (high school to well past retirement), different religions, different sexualities, different levels and forms of education, different countries of origin, different family backgrounds, different ethnic backgrounds, folks dependent on their income and others working for “fun money” or “something to do.”

If our life doesn’t “serve” these diversities to us by virtue of our career or our school or our other habits, how do we form these connections?

Perhaps it is good for us to ask, when we feel uncomfortable, why we do… and ask if perhaps we need to.  The only was to get used to the temperature of the water is to get in it, right?

I know that the family connections I have made over the years, with people distantly and closely related, have been because of a willingness to break barriers: to tell truths we’re embarrassed about or the struggles we wish we could hide well.  True connections are made in moments of vulnerability, when we truly give another person something of ourselves to hold.  They are made when we show ourselves to someone without expectation, with a willingness to receive their honest truths in response to our own.

Glennon Doyle Melton, an author, activist, and founder of the online community she calls “Momastery,” suggests that one of the most radical things she does as a “love warrior,” as she calls it, is to introduce people to one another.  When we commit to getting to know people, being around them, talking to them, and engaging with them in humble, human conversation, our fear cannot survive.  She shared excerpts from emails she has received, which I want to share some of with you:

“I thought all conservatives until my brother-in-law came into my life– just one of the kindest guys I know… My church taught me to mistrust and fear gay people, but then my daughter came out and everything changed… I grew up in a town with so much racism.  It took my move to the city to understand that it was all based on fear and ignorance… I’ve never trusted a single Christian in my life until I started reading about you… I used to think liberals were just dumb, but then I went to this meeting and met a bunch of liberals doing some seriously smart, good community work… My dad taught me to be afraid of Muslims, but this new Muslim family moved in next door and…”

This epilogue chapter of John begins with Peter saying he’s going fishing.  Not like he’s going on a fishing trip– there’s no family reunion coming for Peter– he means he’s returning to his old life, to his old career as a fisherman.  Jesus is crucified.  The party’s over.  It’s time to go back.

But that’s not what resurrection life is about and that’s not what Peter ultimately does– he goes on to lead the church.  Resurrection life can’t be about doing the same old thing.  It has to be about growing our edges, widening our circles of compassion, and inviting more people to the table.

Love isn’t selfies.  Love isn’t accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior or signing up for a mailing list, it’s letting that love change you life going forward.  It’s speaking truth despite fear.  It’s feeding lambs.  It’s lighting the fire in a cold house before anyone else gets out of bed.  It’s changing poopy diapers, sitting in uncomfortable hospital chairs and courtroom benches, and having humble conversations with strangers.  It must be chosen and acted upon because we all know that we don’t love because we are told to or because we think we should.

As we go forward into the world and continue to navigate the close and distant connections that we maintain, I hope that we can all fearlessly commit to the kind of brave love that Jesus asked of us.
It can be tedious or mundane.
It can look like growing a fire in the cold of winter as much as it can look like birthday parties or weddings.  Real love happens in the in-between moments– the ones that happen on a Tuesday and don’t make good stories.
The silly inside jokes that you can’t re-tell and the expressions on someone’s face that you can understand without words.
Love happens in the silence as much as the laughter.  May we all know those deep moments of love that we can never convey.  The kind of love that burns low and long in a winter fireplace.  The kind of love that keeps us coming back, year after year, committing to each other, whether we have things to brag about or complain about, knowing that we can find in each other the hands, feet, face, and forgiveness of God.