Freezing a Fire, Bottling a River, & Catching the Wind in a Net

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

The text is John 15:9-17.

Have you ever tried to freeze a fire? How about catching the wind in a net? How about bottling a river?

If you have, my guess is that it didn’t work very well. If you try to freeze a fire, it goes out and ceases to be fire, because it is in the very nature of fire to burn.

In the same way, you can bottle the water from a river, but you can’t bottle the wind or the river itself because it is the nature of rivers to be in motion. A river that doesn’t flow is a lake.

The comedian Mitch Hedberg once remarked that he really liked escalators “because they never break down… they just become stairs. You’ll never see a sign that says ‘Escalator temporarily out of order’; it’ll just say, ‘Escalator temporarily stairs’.” Just like fire, wind, and rivers, it is the nature of an escalator to be in motion.

Jesus said the same thing is true about love. It is in the very nature of love to be in motion.

John Mayer says, “Love is a verb; it ain’t a thing.”

But we treat it like a thing, don’t we?

We talk as if love was a noun, not a verb. And like any other good noun in this capitalist society, we try to package love and sell it like a consumer product. We advertise love as an experience: a higher high and a bigger rush than anything you’ve ever experienced before. And they tell us that we’ll know when we’ve found true love because that experience, that high, that feeling, will never ever diminish or go away.

But if you ask anyone who’s been married for longer than fifteen minutes… or if you ask any of the moms in the room (on this Mother’s Day), they’ll tell you the truth: that the feeling does go away, but love carries on because love is not a feeling. Love is a choice. Love is a verb. It is the nature of love to be in motion: if it stops moving, if we try to bottle it and keep it just for ourselves, it’s not love anymore.

Jesus talks about this kinetic nature of love in today’s gospel. He starts by naming the source of love itself: “As the Father has loved me…”

If we look at this sentence grammatically, we notice right away that love is neither the subject nor object, but the verb. The subject is God the Father; the object is Jesus Christ, God the Son. What flows between them is love.

Already, we have here the beginning of Christianity’s core concept of God: the doctrine of the Trinity. As Christians, we say that we believe in one God who exists eternally as three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And these three persons exist in a state of perfect, unending love for one another. It’s worth noting that this doctrine of the Trinity is a paradox and a mystery; Christians don’t claim to understand how this works, we can only trust in our hearts that it does.

What the doctrine of the Trinity reveals to us about the nature of God is that God is a community. God exists as a relationship between persons. This is why St. John is able to say, in his first epistle, that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

God is love. God is a community. God is Trinity. This is the most central teaching of our faith. Everything else we believe is based on it. This is why we are able to say with a straight face that we believe the heart of the universe is love. Coming from anywhere else, that would sound like New Age pop psychology, but we mean it quite seriously. The Trinity is the womb from which the cosmos is born. Everything we see, everything we have, and everything we are has its origin in this network of perfect love.

And love, as we have already noticed, by its very nature, refuses to sit still. Love must be in motion, constantly spilling over its own brim, or else it is not love.

This leads us directly to the next thing Jesus tells us about love:

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you”.

Love spills over. Love is a perpetual motion machine. The love that has its source in God’s own being refuses to stay there: it rushes out into the entire universe – continually creating, redeeming, and sustaining it. The entire universe is constantly being soaked, immersed, and flooded with the overflowing love of the Trinity.

This, by the way, is where we get the word baptism. In Greek, baptism (baptizo) literally means, “to immerse or submerge.” In the Church, we baptize one another “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” In this sacrament, we are symbolically soaked and submerged in the love of the Trinity. I think our brothers and sisters in the Baptist Church may be onto something in this regard, because they don’t just politely sprinkle you… they dunk you all the way under until you are literally soaked in God’s love, floating away on it like an ocean current.

This overflowing love of God comes to us freely and unconditionally. The only thing required of us is that we keep love’s momentum going, we keep the river flowing, we pass it on, we pay it forward. As Jesus said, “Freely you have received, freely give.”

In today’s gospel, he says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

And how exactly are we supposed to do that? Jesus tells us: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

What commandments is he talking about here? Moses’ Ten Commandments? All 617 ritual commandments in the Torah? Jesus tells again right here: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

He brings us right back to where we started: with the overflowing, perpetually moving nature of love. We take this love that we have so freely received from Christ and pass it on unconditionally to the ones with whom we come into contact. “Love is the fulfilling of the law,” St. Paul said in his epistle to the Romans.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

At the end of today’s gospel, Jesus tells us one more time, just to drive the point home, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

Jesus gives us this command, not as a proviso or prerequisite to earning God’s love, but as a description of love’s very nature. A fire that does not burn is dead. A river that does not flow is a puddle of stagnant water. Love that is not passed on is a lie.

You and I are invited this morning to participate in love’s nature. We are baptized in love’s name. We are fed at love’s table in the Eucharist. We are blessed and sent out into a world that has forgotten how loved it is. Our task is to remind them.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to heal the sick, to open eyes that are blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to bring new life and hope where there is only death and despair among your fellow creatures. Your task is to proclaim, in your words and your deeds, the infinite, overflowing, overwhelming, unconditional love of God that has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

That is all love asks of us.

Let us be on our way.

2 responses to “Freezing a Fire, Bottling a River, & Catching the Wind in a Net

  1. Years ago, a friend was planting flowers around his house and one type had the name “baptisia”. We were curious about the name and when we looked into the origins, found that the plant was also known as “false indigo” and got the name baptisia from the same Greek word from which we get “baptism” — but this source said it could also mean “to dye, as a fabric”. I was struck by the idea of being dyed as being related to baptism.

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