A Vision of Love, based upon John 13:31-35 & Acts 11:1-18

While preparing for this sermon today, I was once again reminded of the very vague nature of the word “love” in the English language. For example, when thinking about the trajectory of this sermon—I decided to call it, “A Vision of Love.” However, as I sat there, I had this strange feeling that somehow, I knew this title from another medium. Before long, a melody came to mind, my fingers were tapping, and the lyrics and dancing soon followed. My millennial mind was taken back to another day and time when life was very different. The moment passed, and I pulled myself together and continued writing this sermon. But for all those music lovers out there curious about the song that came to my mind—it was Mariah Carey’s 1990 hit, “Vision of Love!”[1] Do you remember it? She sings.

Treated me kind. Sweet destiny. Carried me through desperation
To the one that was waiting for me…It took so long, and still I believe that somehow  
the one that I needed would find me eventually…I had a vision of love…

I don’t know about you, but this song takes me back to the roller rink; to the cafeteria dance floors of my youth, and I love it! However, as much as I enjoy this song, it is not where I want to stay for this sermon—but the title—that’s what I want to talk about today.

The Greeks have many words for all the different kinds of love that there are; and here are five:

1.      Eros is the passionate love that is brought together by Cupid—what Mariah was singing about.

2.      Storge is the loving connection among family members, and it highlights the sacrifices families often make for one another. It is a parent or grandparent working hard to provide food and shelter; it is the child who makes and offers meticulous pasta crafts for all occasions of gift giving; it is the first home that a child makes from college after the parents have driven away.

3.      Phileo is the emotional connection of close friendship—the friends who know you and love you regardless of your flaws—the friends you might spend Thanksgiving with to avoid the drama of some family.

4.      Philautia is the love one learns to have for themselves—and can be hard fought for a lifetime.

5.      Agape. Agape is the highest form of love and charity that one can offer the world. It is said that this is the kind of love with which God loves this world, with which God loves us, and it is the love we are called to offer back to God and to this world. It is an affectionate, caring, respectful, and consistent love.

Of all these loves, Agape is the kind of love found in our gospel passage today just on the heels of the last supper. Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Imagine hearing this after you have just dined with someone you love for the last time and these are their parting words. Your mind is everywhere and nowhere at the same time; and while maybe you knew deep down that this end might come to pass, the reality that it is finally here is heavy. Seeing so, the disciples are afraid. They have not the headspace for Jesus’ stories that make us think, that can be quite broad, and yet so very poignant. Instead, in this moment, Jesus got right to the point; he looked at them and told them ever so simply, the way of Christian living.

Just as I have loved you…You ought to love one another.
By this, everyone will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another.

Too often, Christians have messed up this portion of our faith. We have gotten lost in the weeds of arrogance and pride, just as we have academia, scholasticism, and orthodoxy; and we have lost people along the way. We have developed Creeds that while useful in our understanding the story of our faith and highlight some major tenants about it, they do not quite get to the mission of our faith and the work to carry out the mission.

All too often, Christians have gotten fussy about church. They participate in a faith community either through critique of it or those therein. Some believe that their interpretation and practice of the faith is what everyone else ought to aspire to; while others can become persnickety about the selection of hymns, flowers, a misspoken word, or what is preached from the pulpit all the while overlooking the log that is stuck in their own eye. In some Christian communities, it almost feels like a competition to where the best looking and best sounding are deemed masters of the faith. In some parts of the church, the fruits of greed have been labeled as blessing, and the faith of the poor is further hijacked because faithfulness is tied to  this “blessing.”

My beloveds—this is far away from the bottom line that Christ preaches in this gospel today. We aren’t called to live perfect lives according to a creed, or way of belief per se, we are called to love God, to love one another, and to love this world with the same love that we experience in our relationship with our Lord. We are called to be lovers of people, their unique gifts and personalities, and to celebrate God’s genius in their being.

None of this is new to the faith of Jesus. He healed on the sabbath, he broke bread with people he was not supposed to, and he defended the same faith when the misguided actions of faith leaders brought toxicity into the community. His faithfulness was not measured by being orthodox in his practice, but loving and inclusive of the world around him.

This my beloveds, is the way that the world will know we are Christian. It is not only by our practice of faith, and neither is it only by the words that we say about our faith; but rather is it in our loving actions and generous care for one another, and for all of God’s children, that the world will know we are Christian. Everything else—the music, the creeds, the programs—they mean absolutely nothing if first we cannot love one another. 

Beloveds, the reality is, right now, we do not live in a world where we can go without the hope, grace, and peace that love brings. Our world is hungry for love; and it is our gift, our bounden duty, to love all God’s people—which then—is a testament to our love for our God.

In our lesson from Acts today, we come across a story about the first expansions of our faith and the conflict that ensued as a result of a general lack of respect and understanding for another. Surely this is nothing that we see today in communities where people live and work and worship, right?!

Here, Peter has met Gentiles who have taken the message of Christ, which at this point in time followers of Christ were mostly Jewish and were often considered adherents of a branch of Judaism. The conflict in this story is that those who were already part of the faith, were concerned that their leader was breaking bread with people who didn’t practice the same cultural values as the majority of those in the faith—and what might that mean for them? What might it mean when people who live differently than we do, begin to change us?

This conflict escalated and Peter had to defend his actions. In doing so, he tells us about a vision he had—a vision that explains why he was breaking bread with people outside the faith. Among the Gentile people, Peter says that while he was praying he saw a large sheet coming down from heaven. On this sheet were animals—beasts and birds alike—and suddenly there was a voice. This voice was God telling Peter to kill and eat whatever it was he wanted to from all those animals on the sheet. But, Peter refused touting the fact that he is a clean man, and will not eat anything that could defile him in any way. However, the voice came back, and tells Peter that what God has made clean, can make no one profane.

What Peter came to experience, through his love for the Gentile people and his attempts to understand their different ways, was a change of heart. His heart grew, and it grew to include people who lived differently than he did. In fact, the love and care that he offered the Gentiles served as the catalysts of faith in their lives.

Peter had a Vision of Love, and it changed the way in which he went into the world, loved the world, and shared his faith. It is this vision of love for one another that Christ tells us is the greatest commandment of our faith. The prayer of St. Francis, a favorite of many, reminds us of this kind of love, too. Francis prays:

 Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

The historic faith invites us to love the world with abandon, and our visions and dreams can lead us in this way just as they did Peter.

What are the Visions of Love in your life? What are your dreams speaking to you in this season of life?

As a young gay man, I remember wrestling with God as I really believed I had to chose the faith of my heart or the fullness of my humanity. Christian and Gay did not reconcile. Over this period of several years, my dreams were of a place and time where I could live unburdened by shame and guilt and live into faith as an openly gay man. In some of these visions and dreams, I served as a pastor, and in others, I had a family of my own. Perhaps what was so confusing was that the voice of God in the dreams was far more loving and kind than the voice of God I had come to learn about earlier in my youth.

This period of years was spent trying to understand perhaps why I was gay; who it was that I could blame for these feelings, and I spent so much time trying to figure out this portion of my identity and reversing whatever it was that happened to get me to this point. Shame and guilt were the driving forces of my life, and on the inside I was wrecked.

It wasn’t until one hot summer day when an Episcopal priest I met took me to coffee and asked to hear what was in my heart. I shared my story. I shared about the dreams and the visions I had been having for the last several years, and what she said in response to them is something I will never forget. “Andrew,” she said, “the sin of homosexuality is not at all the homosexual; it is the way the church has treated the homosexual.” It was in that moment that the voice of the God in my dreams and visions, seemed for the first time a reality—and it was coming through this priest who knew the wounds I was nursing. I knew by her love for me, and for all the gay, lesbian and trans people in our community—that I was finally home—and that at last—my pain lifted. My heart opened up and grew to have a compassion for the world I did not know prior to that point. This came as a result of someone loving me enough to be a healing balm and raise me from the pits. This was the Christian faith I had always longed for; and it is what we are called to in these lessons today.

What are the visions and dreams of your hearts?
What burdens are weighing down your shoulders and are telling you that you are not enough?
What gift of love are you holding on to that God is patiently nudging you to offer this world?
     Is it the gift of companionship to the dying? Is it the gift of foster care?
     Is it the gift of compassion for people experiencing wounds you know all too well?
     Is it the gift of feeding hungry bellies and curious souls?

Perhaps the vision of love inside your heart is to be a better steward of the relationships you have with those closest to you; to show them love in more tangible ways. Perhaps the vision of love inside your heart is to practice the art of thinking before you speak; to stand up when you might normally shrink back; to lavish love when you might want to conserve it. We all have visions of love---and it is through loving this world—the greatest commandment of our Lord—that we live into them and are ourselves changed by them.

I love you. God loves you. And may we love one another in the same way. Amen.

[1] https://genius.com/Mariah-carey-vision-of-love-lyrics