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"Watching Your Language: On Love" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - April 29, 2018

posted May 2, 2018, 8:15 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

A writer I like once said, “theologians are people who watch their language in the presence of God.”  Normally people think of “watching their language” as avoiding swear words. And indeed, I regularly have people apologize for using an off-color expression.  People use a swear and then look at me, “Oh, sorry Pastor.” It happens so often that I’ve realized I never get called Pastor as much as when people swear.

But swear words don’t really offend me.  And, honestly, I know how to use them too.  Still, I like the reminder to watch our language in the presence of God.  Yet what language ought we watch? Swear words? No, the words we ought to be careful about are those that can become banalities and trivialities: words like love and friendship.  

Our Gospel lesson this morning uses these very words, words we ought to watch very carefully.  “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”  Jesus used the very words we need to be careful about: love and friendship.

The need to watch our language comes out in hymns.  Bryan Sirchio, a pastor and musician in our Christian movement, once wrote about the hymns which drive him crazy as a progressive Christian, those hymns that he can’t stand, the ones whose words seem as jarring as swearing in church.  And he decided he wouldn’t sing such hymns anymore. So, he adopted three rules:

  • No more bloody Jesus

  • No more Rambo Jesus

  • and No more boyfriend Jesus

(and of course no bloody Rambo boyfriend Jesus)

These rules addressed three concepts that Bryan Sirchio wanted to be careful about.  First, the glorification of violence, especially the violence done to Jesus on the cross.  Second, the celebration of Jesus as hero who kicks butt, the guy who triumphs over others. And finally, the romanticizing of Jesus, which turns his command of love into the sweet nothing whispers of beau.

Each of us might have favorite hymns that break Bryan Sirichio’s rules.  (I know I couldn’t imagine Good Friday without singing “Sacred Head Now Wounded”.)  Still, I get his point when I think of other hymns, ones that speak of Jesus in harlequin ways, hymns which could just as easily be about a human lover as they could be about Jesus.  We might call such songs theo-erotica.

Hymns like “He Walks with Me in the Garden.”  This is full on Boyfriend Jesus.

And he walks with me and he talks with me

And he tells me I am his own

(I think of it as the Tinder hymn, after the popular dating app.  Swipe right on Jesus).

And the joy we share as we tarry there

None other has ever known.

(I’ve known men arrested for that in the park).

The temptation to swoon for Jesus distracts us from the challenge of his words; romanticizing Jesus makes it harder to hear the ways he wants us to change our lives.  

How would we experience Jesus’ words about love and friendship if we didn’t filter them through the image of him as boyfriend, bloodied, or a Rambo?  This morning I want to think with you about love and friendship without getting caught up in romance, blood, or victory.

The Gospel of John centers around a long description of Jesus eating and drinking with his disciples on the night before he died.  Because we live so removed from this cultural moment, we could easily overlook the way this meal evoked the kinds of philosophical discussion over meals people often had in his day, a tradition most famously captured in Socrates’ Symposium.  In that story, Socrates gathered with his friends to drink and eat and discuss love, too.  And yet, the ways Socrates and Jesus talked about love differ greatly.

Over dinner, Socrates told his friends what he knew of love.  He described the way that we first love one person, a particular love, a particular beauty.  And then, as we mature emotionally, we go on to love people more generally: from loving one particular person to loving lots of people, from one beauty to lots of beauties.  (I’m not sure what his first lover thought about this.) Socrates said that we go from loving lots of people to a universal kind of love, a pervasive appreciation of beauty itself.  Socrates advocated a kind of romantic ladder: from one lover, to many lovers, to love itself.

Though more than two millennia separate us from Socrates, this kind of universalizing still shapes our ideas of love; we talk of love as a universal emotion, something one can feel abstractly, grandly; love for humanity.

But Jesus spoke in a different way about love.  His love kept bringing him back to the present, to the here, the now.  Love sent Jesus into particular relationships; “For God so loved the world, that he sent his only son…”  Jesus didn’t move from particular people to abstraction; love made him see particular people ever more clearly and deeply.  Jesus loved Lazarus; he didn’t move from Lazarus to love other people and then to just abstractly think about humanity. No, he loved; and when his friend died, he wept.  And so, when he sat at dinner and talked about love, Jesus didn’t look up to the heavens to speak abstractly of love, but he looked at these particular friends and said, “I have called YOU friends.”

But the thorniest issue concerns Jesus anticipation of his own death.  He named it in our lesson, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  The tradition of bloody Jesus hymns celebrates this story line.

Too often the bloody image of Jesus puts the emphasis on the fact of Jesus’ suffering and not the reason - on the gore of blood instead of his purpose - in ways that make it seem as if God wanted or even delighted in Jesus’ pain.  Biblical scholar Barbara Reid helped me think about the ways we can tell the story of Jesus’ violent death without perpetuating and even condoning violence.

First, I want to make clear: we misuse the story of Jesus’ death whenever we use it to keep someone locked into abusive situations; “Just bear your cross.”  It happens all the time. Just yesterday, I heard the story of immigrant Amanda Agana, a star of her college track program. Amanda started life in Ghana; but life got complicated when her mother became ill and died.  Amanda’s father felt overwhelmed caring for all his children, so he sent Amanda to live with a relative in the capital city. Amanda’s aunt treated her like a slave, even beating her; even now her legs bear the scars of all the whippings.  But the psychological abuse affected her even more. Amanda explained, “[My aunt] kept telling me that it’s what I deserved because I had killed my mom. She said this is how you repent in the eyes of God — by serving other people. So, I thought it was fair, like I deserved to suffer because I took that light away from people.”  Amanda’s exploitation only ended when her father rescued her and brought her to America.

Jesus didn’t simply suffer for the sake of suffering; a pointless endurance.  Instead, as scholar Barbara Reid interprets the cross, “Jesus is the friend who goes to calamity’s depths [to save] his friends.” And so, Jesus on the cross did not demonstrate endurance but fierceness, not suffering but service, not pointless but persistent.  The old Nicene Creed captures this when it explained that everything Jesus did was “for us and our salvation.” Not as satisfaction of the anger of God, a hunger only quenched with blood; but as an expression “of the length to which God would go to restore broken community.”   

And Jesus calls us to go to those lengths too; not to suffer for its own sake but because transformation requires a fierce commitment.  The kind of commitment a neighbor showed in rescuing a girl held in bondage in Texas. A young girl from Guinea came to America; she thought it was to live with relatives but instead it was to be a slave to the son of the first dictator of Guinea. One day she managed to flee to a neighbor’s house.  The neighbor became her support and advocate; helping her build the courage to confront her enslavers and walking with her through the justice system so that she could get asylum.

“I do not call you slaves,” Jesus said.  And he engaged in the fierce work to make sure we could become free and he sends us out to do the same work: “Just as the father sent me, so do I send you.”

Christianity often presents Jesus as the triumphant warrior, what Bryan Sirchio called Rambo Jesus.  But conceiving of Jesus as a warrior, as a Rambo, turns the world into an “us versus them” place.

It can be appealing to shape our lives by a like-minded clubbiness.  And, in fact, many scholars commenting on this passage look to Aristotle’s definition of friendship.  Aristotle thought good friends, real friends, could only arise when similar kinds of people shared similar kinds of goals; friendship depended on similarity for Aristotle.  

And yet, Jesus sought the opposite.  In the most famous moments of his life, Jesus went out of his way to form friendships with people utterly unlike him.  Born into poverty, he befriended wealthy Nicodemus. He gathered around himself common labors and the financial elite, sinners and soldiers, women of ill repute and men of no repute.  When traveling through hostile territory, his friendliness so shocked a Samaritan woman that she asked, “Why is it that you, a Jew, a man, speak to me, a Samaritan, a woman?” And yet, that is who Jesus was: a boundary crosser.

The French philosopher Jacque Derrida asked important questions about friendship that point to the difference between Aristotle and Jesus.  We most often base friendship on values like equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. These are all good in and of themselves; but as a basis for friendship these values push us towards sameness and conformity.  Instead, Derrida suggested, we could base friendship on inclusion, curiosity, and solidarity. Importantly, these values encourage us to seek out and befriend those who are different than us. Philosophers use a great word to speak of our openness to those who are different from us: alerity.  Do we form our friendships on the basis of similarity or alerity, those just like us or those with a heart open to difference?

Perhaps I’ve gone too deep into philosophy.  So, let me pull back to say how I hear Jesus teaching us to love and befriend.  Jesus teaches us to love actual, particular people; to love them fiercely; and to open our hearts in love to those who are different than us.

I think Jesus commanded us to love this way.  And we have an opportunity to live out this commandment on Tuesday by participating in a march with Voces de la Frontera.  Remember: love isn’t abstract; we’re meant to love in particular and concrete ways. Immigrants, especially Latino immigrants, need us to show our love because the Sheriff in Waukesha is planning to implement a policy which would turn his officers into ICE agents, empowering sheriff deputies in Waukesha to stop and demand papers of anyone they suspect of being here undocumented.  Voces needs fiercely courageous supporters. And they need us to be friends, not because we’re the same but because our hearts open to include others.

I want us to watch our words before God; and in fact, to learn to love like Jesus: loving particular people, with a fierce persistence, that makes room for difference.  Jesus called us to love like this so that Jesus’ joy may be in us, and that our joy may be complete. Alleluia and Amen.

Sources in addition to Feasting on the Word:

  • Flynn, Meagan, “Texas couple kept Guinean girl enslaved for 16 years until she escaped, feds say,” Washington Post, April 27, 2018.

  • Maese, Rick, “She ran from years of abuse in Ghana. Now she runs for the U.S. Naval Academy,” Washington Post, April 27, 2018.

  • Uriah Kim and Ahn, Ilsup, “The Post-National Responsibility Toward Undocumented Immigrants: The Practice of Hesed and a New Ethics of Friendship,”

  • Reid Barbara, “The cross and cycles of violence,” Interpretation [serial online]. October 2004;58(4):376-385. Available from: ATLASerials, Religion Collection, Ipswich, MA. Accessed April 28, 2018.