Love.

John 13:31-35

The New Commandment

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 

33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 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.”

Nothing you can know that isn’t known
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be
It’s easy

All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need

The Beatles sang this back in the 60’s.  We all know it, yet it’s hard for us to understand it.  Love is a word that gets thrown around a lot.  But, at its core, it’s a relational term.  I believe it is embodied fully in Jesus’ actions and attitudes with each of us.

What does Jesus’ love look like?  Oftentimes I’m asked at weddings to read the “love chapter” found in 1 Corinthians 13.  It has beautiful poetry, but it’s not about love between two persons…no one can love that way except for God.  It’s a chapter describing perfect love, sit back, close your eyes, soak in some of these words as if God is speaking directly to you:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Wow.  And, this is what Jesus is saying to us.  Live, or abide, remain in my love.  As my spiritual director reminds me, it is abiding love with us..Jesus isn’t going anywhere, as a matter of fact, Jesus is present with us in this room, right now, and is chasing after us…won’t give up on us.

Jesus was and is present with each of us.  It’s hard, I know, but when we begin to move towards understanding ourselves, asking the really hard questions and confronting the things in our lives that prevent us from experiencing the abundant life that we talked about last week, in knowing who we are and who God, we can begin to truly be present with ourselves, others, and God.  We begin to experience love.  

A couple of years ago, on my birthday during a COVID surge, I gathered with close friends from all over the world for a birthday celebration on Zoom.  It was fun, and then it got serious…one of them asked me what I wanted out of life, I simply said “presence”.  Apparently they wanted something more tangible in their minds…I’ve since realized how important presence really is…it allows me to love myself, others, and to grow in God’s love flowing in and all around me.  

One of the places I go to practice “presence” is the Abbey of Gethsemani as many of you know.  We’ve mentioned this before, but the monks there pray for three things every day:  stability, conversion, and obedience.  Jesus, in this morning’s passage commands us to love God.  An act of obedience is to love, and to love well.  As we do that, we begin to understand deeply that Jesus is truly our friend and that leads to other friendships.

Friendship means a lot to me.  As your pastor, I have made a commitment in my vows to be your friend, to love you.  And, in your vows when you called me here, you committed to be my friend, and to love me. 

As I practice friendship, sometimes in beautifully messy ways!  I find that our friendships leads towards common aims.  Many of my friends in this city and around the world are all working towards seeing goodness happen in communities.  And we are asl well, as our church is partnering with others for that goodness, out of love, like we did with Cincy4Ukraine, with Tikkun Farm, with Valley Interfaith…we are being a place of generosity and momentum towards others and each other.  

Sometimes we may think that we’d like to simply shirk away from friendship, from being present.  Yet, Jesus reminds us that God’s glory is wrapped up in our glory, in our being fully alive.  And that Jesus is in that process with us…there are times when we have to realize that our view of Jesus changes, we don’t recognize him sometimes as he says in this passage today.  

Friends, a practical takeaway from what I’m sharing is this…YOU are loved, God is present with you, cultivate that understanding, and know that God desires for the best for you…and for this church.

I think that’s why I’m so confident about Fleming Road UCC.  We will move towards a great story…we are on the crusp of amazing personal and corporate growth as a church, and as persons!  Believe it…accept it.  Receive this love and bear fruit!

And, remember these words:

All you need is love (All together, now!)
All you need is love (Everybody!)
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need
Love is all you need (Love is all you need)

Jesus embodies this love, Jesus is here, present with you through his spirit the Holy Spirit, that connects all of us and all of this…and ultimately keeps us firmly in the Presence of Jesus even as Jesus is present with us.

May we love one another and our neighbors (which means everyone) well!  And, as we do, as Jesus reminds us this morning, the world around us will know that we are truly Jesus followers!

Voice.

John 10:10-18

10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 

14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

When I was in England in February, I stayed with our close friends, the Kenny’s.  They are great people, many of you have met their daughter, Georgia, who lived with us for about a year or so.  We first met Georgia and her family several years ago when our kids were quite young.  We bonded on a trip to England at a fundraiser for Oasis.  After that night, we spent the next several days together and have tried to visit one another and keep in contact via Zoom.  

On that trip several years ago, through a wild chain of events, our family ended up staying for several days at an English manor house on the Penshurst Estate outside of Tonbridge, UK.  It was an amazing mansion overlooking an even much more expansive mansion/castle, the estate of the Sidney family since 1552.  

Side note:  the Kenny’s have since bought their own English manor house and castle…Embleton Tower.

At Penshurst, and Embleton, there are tons of sheep, all over the UK as you’d imagine…but, at Penshurst, 

like four fields of sheep between our manor house and the estate house below…and Georgia, and her siblings Hannah and Phoebe, and our kids, McKenzie and Brennan, spent the better part of a day and night running through those fields trying to catch a sheep.  They were not successful.

However, during the day, we’d notice someone opening up a gate from one field to the other, and those sheep would follow his voice.

I tell you this because our passages this morning are about sheeps and shepherds.  I read once that you cannot very easily approach sheep…they are sheepish if you will.  They aren’t easy to heard either, unless you are their shepherd.  Shepherds, especially in Jesus’ time, spent a lot of time with sheep.  Shepherds had a way of gathering sheep, by simply calling them out.  Sheep will follow the shepherd because they recognize the shepherd’s voice.  They trust that voice.

In this passage, we are sheep, you and I together.  It’s obviously a metaphor, but much like the beauty of the landscape at Penshurst, we are live together in a beautiful world.  We also produce a lot of smelly and messiness.  Our kids found that out pretty quickly.  Our relationships with each other are filled with craziness at times, we don’t always follow or lead each other well.  There are dangers around us, and sometimes there are other forces out there, thieves such as depression, loneliness, selfishness, pride, or addictions, or folks not being the best version of themselves, or fully understanding themselves or others that come in the middle of darkness as it says in John 10:10 that kill and destroy the lives that we were called to live.

Yet, Jesus tells us that he has come to give us life.  When we slow down, or get caught up in recognition of good things around us and the origin of that goodness, we can recognize the voice of the true shepherd, the voice of Jesus who has entered in the fields of our lives, who walks with us and towards us…walking through the messiness to call us towards new fields, new adventures.  

We often recognize the voice of Jesus through others.  Maybe we literally hear words from Jesus through others such as a speaker, or maybe even a preacher.  Or maybe we recognize the voice of God through something we read, or a song we hear.  Maybe it’s listening to our neighbors. Or, maybe it’s seeing someone else practice charity through actions or giving themselves away.

We know it when we see it and hear it though, especially as we train our eyes and ears to see and recognize the true shepherd and the voice of that shepherd.

Friends, we have said it before, we are living in a new place with church.  The old forms simply don’t work anymore.  The world is crying out for us, the church, to be an example of goodness, of the good shepherd, to be reflections of Jesus’ actions and to reflect and amplify the voice of the Shepherd who is calling us towards him, towards abundant life, towards being one flock.  This shepherd has laid down his life for us, yet in doing so, has overcome all of the messiness in our lives and is creating something new and beautiful as he leads us into new fields, filled with beauty and relationship.

So, let’s listen to the voice of the Shepherd, let’s love each other well, and let’s play in the fields of our neighborhoods, and the world and be the diverse, yet unified flock God’s marked us out to be…we can do this, we can believe in each other as my grandfather did with me and God does with us, trusting each other, loving each other, and changing the world in the process.

Conversion.

John 21:1-19

Jesus Appears to Seven Disciples

21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Jesus and Peter

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Acts 9:1-10

The Conversion of Saul

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”

I grew up fishing with my dad.  I have to admit, I wasn’t good at it and didn’t particularly enjoy it.  I think it was because it was something my dad loved, and really wanted me to love it…but, I just didn’t.  It seems like a lot of times growing up, I had passions for some things like adventures in hiking mountains or sports, where as my dad had other passions such as fishing, carpentry, and people watching.

As I grew older, I had some deep friendships with folks who were great fisherman.  I began to realize that fishing can be a fun exercise.  It’s peaceful, strategic, and there is an art to it.  I have been amazed at some of my friends with a gift for fishing.  They simply know where to put their lines in the water, and the patience and talent to lure fish onto their hooks!

There was a gradual change within me towards fishing…a conversion if you will!

Our gospel lesson this morning finds the disciples after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  They are near the Sea of Tiberius, they have heard rumors about Jesus’ resurrection, Peter has even seen evidence as have others, but the new reality is still sinking in.  They have been living under a perception of what faith meant, they had put their hopes and dreams in a visible earthly kingdom, and the Jesus that they followed…well, even though he may have risen, the images of him being crucified, and their shame in deserting Jesus was almost too much for them to process.

So, what do they do.  They go fishing.  They grew up around it, it gave them fellowship, a source of income, and they were good at it.  

The fished all night.  They knew the right places, they had the right technique, they had the correct bait to attract fish, yet, they caught nothing.  All night, nothing.  

The next morning, they see this guy on the beach yelling something to them.  It’s interesting that our text says “children”.  Some texts use the word friends, but children could apply.  They had not reached a point of change or growth in their understanding.  Their faith was still maturing.  But, I also like friends.  Both work here.  Calling the disciples children wasn’t saying anything about their character, I think it was a term of endearment, as well as a desire for growth.

What else does Jesus tell them?  Throw your nets on the other side!  I’m sure they are thinking, how would that help?  We know these waters, we know how to fish…moving our nets a few feel won’t do anything.  Yet, they had fished all night with no results.  They were doing what they always did which got them something in times past, but nothing on this day.

So, they take a risk, trusted this guy on the beach, and throw their nets on the other side.  What did they have to lose?  And, what happens?  We all know, they caught more fish than they could pull in!  153 to be exact!  Now, here’s a think about biblical numbers, this says nothing about goals.  I used to be on staff at a church that said we wanted to go out and “net 50” new families in the church during a fall.  It didn’t happen, nor was that biblical.  We can read too much into numbers, but essentially it a reporting of something that happens out of obedience and deep, loving, honoring and unashamed relationships.

We see that happening here in this gospel lesson.  When Peter realizes that its Jesus, when his eyes are opened to his friend, he puts on his clothes and jumps into the sea to swim to Jesus.  Now, I’m not sure of the custom at that time about fishing without clothes, and I’ve read a lot of commentaries on this passage, and I’m still not sure on why you’d put on clothes to swim even…yet, that’s in the passage…and it shows Peter being Peter, impulsive and passionate…and a leader that others would follow.  

Which they do, they get to shore and Jesus invites them to cook breakfast together.  He doesn’t hand them the food, they pull in their haul, start a fire, and cook together.  

After breakfast, they have this wonderfully awkward and hard dialogue.  Jesus asking Peter 3x if he loves Jesus.  I believe that Jesus is restoring Peter.  Peter denied him 3x on the night before he was crucified, so he asks Jesus 3x.  It must’ve been somewhat hard for Peter as evidenced in the passage.  Yet, he eventually catches on, and Jesus gives him the charge to build up the church.

Friends, this passage can speak to us in our personal lives and in lives together as Fleming Road UCC.  There may be things that we’ve done for a long time in our lives that simply are not working anymore, we need a fresh perspective, a resurrection even, maybe we need to put our nets somewhere else, maybe even right outside our church doors.  We certainly need to slow down, and listen to the voice of God calling us to jump out of whatever boat we are in and swim towards this Jesus who continues to beckon us towards deeper relationship with him, ourselves, and others.  

As we do this, we will find ourselves in the midst of conversion.  Conversion is a lifelong process.  The Benedictine monks that I hang out with when I go to the Abbey of Gethsemani, get it, they pray for Stability, Obedience, and Conversion daily.  

I believe in this process of change and growth.  One of our other scripture lessons this morning is the story of Paul’s conversion.  It was dramatic, on the road to Damascus, a blinding light, and the voice of Jesus.  It was also dramatic when you consider that Paul persecuted Christians, killed them, separated families, instilled fear in the early church.  Yet, love penetrates even the most darkest of places when we come before the light of God’s presence and hear the voice of Jesus calling us towards the other side of the boat, out of what we’ve become used to, and into the wide open spaces of God’s expansive love.

This church, our lives, we are in the midst of conversion.  All of us, myself included, are moving towards new chapters in our lives.  That is good news for me, for us, and for all of those around us.