By The Rev. Lindsey Altvater Clifton
For a whole lot of my life, I’ve been known to say “I am not a dancer; I just don’t dance.” But today I offer my first pulpit confession: that’s a lie. I totally dance – with Laura or my sisters in the kitchen, alone in the car, with my niece and nephew just to make them smile. In fact, I really love to dance!
Now, by many standards of social acceptability or appropriateness, I don’t dance well…so I’ve mostly been a reluctant public or social dancer. But the truth of the matter is that as I’ve gotten more comfortable in my own skin and more present to my body, it fills me with joy to move with music in the company of friends.
Anyhow, this emergent truth began to unfold for me during my third and final End-of-year Banquet of divinity school. As is Wake Div tradition, after a catered meal, a celebration of graduating students, and the passing down of various social positions – including Tailgate Queen/King and Party of Beginnings Host – and the transition of Student Leadership offices, there was always dancing. For my first two years, I played the wallflower like usual, lingering at the edge of the dance floor in conversation with other self-proclaimed non-dancers.
But third year was different. My people were there – Amanda, Nicole, Patrick; Ken and Demi; others. This would be our last EOYB together, and I wasn’t going to miss the chance to celebrate alongside them. It was almost like I heard a new song that I couldn’t resist. These dear friends who had been strangers only a year or two or three before had seen me ugly cry about my insecurities and the difficult road to ordination, had belly-laughed with me over the most inane things during the sleep deprivation of midterms or finals, had born witness to the birth of this odd and wondrous calling in my life, and had loved me into spiritual healing and renewed faith.
I had walked with them through vulnerability and doubt, loved them along their meandering paths of faith, life, and vocation, too. We held each other accountable for following Jesus when it wasn’t easy. So we had church right then and there—bread already shared, wine in hand, dancing it out, and singing at the top of our lungs with Whitney Houston and Beyoncé and the Holy Spirit. Drawn together by Jesus into the friendship of God. It changed me. And I think that’s the invitation of today’s text: to experience and be transformed by the love of God and friendship of Jesus.
This reading from John is part of what is called Jesus’ farewell discourse, his parting words of wisdom, comfort, and instruction to the disciples. In John’s Gospel, this is uniquely placed in the context of the Last Supper, following on the heels of the prediction of Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. As one preacher writes, “It is as if time stands still for a moment, so that Jesus can prepare those he loves for the life they will lead during and after the events of his hour…He is leaving and yet he is already remaining and will remain with believers” (Gail O’Day)
In John’s farewell discourse – this four chapters of parting wisdom – love is mentioned 27 times. It shows up nine times in the nine verses of today’s reading! It is the defining characteristic of the disciples’ relationship to Jesus and to God, both then and now. Four of the nine times we encounter “love” today, the word is a noun – it’s the thing Jesus is talking about, often acting as the object of the preposition ‘in’ while used as an adverbial phrase describing how to “abide.”
Abide in love. I can see some of you glazing over already, but hang with me. I promise the next step is not a white board and diagraming sentences, and there will not be a pop quiz on any of this. (And let the record show, while I am occasionally a grammar nerd, I am never a grammar snob.)
9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
The verb for “abide” can also mean to be held or kept continually. For any of you other grammar nerds out there, it is an active imperative verb – a directive not just for this moment, but one that stretches forth into time. “Make yourselves at home in my love,” is how The Message paraphrases this.
Jesus is our reminder of God-made-flesh. Our faith is a messy, incarnational one; God’s love is embodied. Jesus also reminds us that the relationship of God-with-us is one of presence and mutuality. Abiding in love means we are held continually in the love and presence of God in each moment of our lives, and we are invited into a relationship of total mutuality – where giving and receiving love are both foundational norms. We love because God first loves us. We receive love, abide in love, experience love as a noun – and we are changed – therefore we can love as a verb.
Abiding in the love of God, then, is a kind of holy ride-or-die relationship where everyone knows too much so you’re stuck together for life; one in which there is no need to fix your face or tidy your house or wear anything other than comfy clothes when you spend time together. It’s a relationship in which there is space for doubt and pain, for happiness and joy, for tipsy laughter, colorful vocabulary, and even (perhaps especially) ugly crying.
In the abiding love of God, there is no judgment, only forgiveness and love. There is no secret too difficult to bear or share, no worry too trivial, no details that are TMI. In the abiding love of God, we are invited to bring the fullness of our messy, sacred lives without fear.
In a community that abides in love, then, we are all called to be honest with one another even when it’s hard; we are called to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit even if she beckons us to be uncomfortable and make space for new ways of being that are unfamiliar; we are called to pay attention to one another’s heart wounds and deep anxieties; we are called to celebrate each others gifts and walk alongside one another through doubt.
We are called to be patient…oh, so patient…when we are on each others’ last nerve and when we’re almost sure there’s no reconciliation to be found. It requires vulnerability, trust, and forgiveness.
You see, even as a noun, to abide in love is no small task. But love as a verb… Wheweeee, friends. Buckle up! The other five times Jesus mentions love in this passage, it is the thing Jesus is calling the disciples (and us) to do. He reminds us of his new commandment, given just two chapters earlier after washing his friends’ feet at the Last Supper table.
34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
It is an active, demonstrative love; it is humble, supportive love; it is radical, transforming love. It is a love that is greater than fear. And it is the very thing which defines us as Jesus’ followers. As Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett (Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency) likes to say: to be a disciple of Jesus is to be “love with skin on it.”
Here, we see that Jesus is serious about that call to embodied love:
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. [And the you there is plural; that y’all…y’all weary, confused disciples…love one another as I have loved y’all.] 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
It doesn’t get more embodied than that, and I know how uncomfortable and squirmy it can make us readers. But Jesus knows what’s ahead for himself, and the disciples themselves have seen what’s at stake in following him. To lay down one’s life for one’s friend, then, is not just a metaphor or an expression. Jesus doesn’t let the disciples or us off the hook that easily:
14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from God. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Surely, if we are “love with skin on it” called to lay down our lives for others, then we should be showing up in all the “wrong” places with “wrong” people who need allies…even if we’re anxious about the cost or afraid of the repercussions. Jesus calls us to lay down our comfortable privilege for the faithful companionship of visible solidarity – Jesus’ friends are marching with their black and brown neighbors against injustice. Jesus calls us to lay down our safe emotional distance and take up the transformative pain of proximity to the suffering – Jesus’ friends are supporting transgender siblings who face harassment and discrimination.
Jesus calls us to lay down our own financial gain for the common good and betterment of those whose lives are the most economically unstable – Jesus’ friends are voting for policies that support living wages for communities facing poverty. Jesus calls us to lay down our detachment and offer tangible resources and practical solutions – Jesus’ friends are in relationship with people who need advocates: foster kids, refugee families, those experiencing homelessness.
Friends – Jesus’ friends – that is the call today. To be love with skin on it. To know love as a noun and to show love as a verb. In the transformative love of God, we are measured and held accountable to the life and ministry and friendship of Jesus. We are called to public witness and to real, lasting change. In our hearts and for our communities. Above the noise of anxiety or reluctance or fear, may we hear Jesus say: Go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. Love one another. This day and each day. Amen.