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Sunday Sermon: Easter People Love

By Michelle Phillips 

04.28.24 @ Community of Christ, Salt Lake City

Good Morning! Welcome to the Fifth Sunday of Easter. (Yes, it’s still Easter here! Settle in, we’ve got two more Sundays of Easter after today!) So far in our Easter journey, we’ve talked about how Easter people witness, believe, and act.  Our theme today is “Easter People Love.” 

I have a complicated relationship with the word “love,” as I suspect many of you do as well. It’s such an expansive, nebulous word, encompassing so many concepts as to almost render it meaningless. What does the word “love” even mean when I can use it to describe how I feel about the taste of oranges and in the next breath use it to describe the commitment I have to my children? What does it mean when that word has been used to hurt me and people I care for deeply? What do we mean when we say, “Easter people love?” 

In contemporary Christianity, several types of love are commonly understood and discussed, drawing from both biblical teachings and theological reflections.

In contemporary Christianity, common types of love include:

Philia emphasizes friendship and mutual support

Eros signifies romantic or passionate love

Storge denotes affection within families

Philautia fosters healthy self-esteem and self-compassion

These loves intertwine, coexisting within various relationships and contexts, offering a multifaceted understanding of love’s expression. Together, they provide a rich framework for understanding the nature of love as it is expressed in Christian faith and practice, culminating in Agape’s selfless and sacrificial nature.

So, today, when I talk about love, I’m talking mostly about agape, God’s love, selfless and sacrificial. But, it’s important to not forget that we experience this type of love mostly through other people. And that’s the rub, isn’t it? Because while we generally conceptualize God, or however you label the divine element, as perfect, people aren’t.  

We fall short of love all the time. We hurt each other, intentionally and unintentionally. We hold on to grudges. We carry the trauma of our parents and their parents, limiting our capacity to experience and provide love that nurtures and nourishes. We put up walls to keep people out or we go the other direction and forget that self-love is vital to our spiritual well being too.  

In one of my favorite novels, Anne of Green Gables, Marilla, who has just adopted the eccentric young Anne, intends to teach her to pray using a little poem, 

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep;

His Love to guard me through the night,

And wake me in the morning’s light amen.

But, Marilla immediately realizes that the prayer “was entirely unsuited to this freckled witch of a girl who knew and cared nothing about God’s love, since she had never had it translated to her through the medium of human love.” 

We most often get God’s love “translated through the medium of human love,” as imperfect and garbled as it can be. I suspect this is some of what Paul, or whoever wrote 1 Corinthians, meant when they wrote at the end of one of the most popular scriptures on love, “For now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, 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.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

So, we’re stuck here on Earth, only knowing God and God’s love in part, a distorted reflection in a cloudy mirror. 

Occasionally, there comes into the world a person who seems to come close to this agape love, though. People like Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, and Mahatma Gandhi, provide a more clear reflection of God’s love. 

I think God knew we would need examples like this. We needed, like Anne, to have God’s love translated through the medium of human love. And so they sent Jesus, who at first glance, was such an unlikely candidate for this type of work; the kind of work that has changed the world. 

In the scripture Andy read today, which we adapted from the Revised Authorized Version to make it more accessible (I hope you don’t mind too much, because I’m very jazzed about our paraphrase), we find a Nephi who is also grappling with these questions about the deep theological implications of God’s love. He’s even got an angel trying to explain it to him.

An angel came to me and asked me, ‘Do you know what it means when others say that ‘God has come into their lives?'”

I answered the angel, “I know that God loves their children, but no, I do not know what people mean when they say God has come into their lives.”

So the angel showed me a vision of a young girl, who gave birth to a baby boy in a miraculous way. And I saw the young girl holding the baby boy in her arms. Then the angel said to me, “Look closely! The young girl you see is the mother of the Son of God. And the baby she is holding is the Lamb of God, the Son of the Eternal Creator.”

And I saw the baby grow up, and he taught many, and healed many, and served many, and through him, the Love of God spread into the hearts of all people. And he loved so fully that others around him became afraid, and arrested him, and he was lifted up on a cross and killed because he dared to love so freely.

Then the angel said to me, “This is what it means when others say that ‘God has come into their lives.”

This is what it means. God comes into our lives and transforms us with their love. This incomprehensible, expansive love. This love that is patient in our weakness, patient when we have such a hard time understanding. This love that isn’t envious, but so generous and abundant. This love that isn’t boastful or arrogant, even when it might seemingly have every right to be. This love that rejoices in truth always. This love that keeps on loving even when it seems impossible, that hopes when others give up, that endures. 

One of the questions posed in the worship helps for today is, “What stands in the way of you loving others?” 

In my experience, what often stands in the way of me loving others most is when love is distorted, misused, abused in one of the other contexts we explored earlier. When friends, romantic partners, other family members, or church leaders, people we trusted to love us, hurt us, it damages our belief in God’s love, our sense of self love, and our ability to love others. 

So, how do we heal? How do we get to a place where we experience God’s abundant love as described by the angel to Nephi?  I don’t know if I can answer that fully, for every person, in every context. I can share some things that have helped me get to a place where maybe, just maybe, the reflection of God’s love is less distorted. 

We are urged to love others and are empowered to do this by first accepting God’s love for us. As my relationship with God has healed, I’ve been able to love myself more, and in turn I’ve been able to love others more fully. We can love because they first loved us. (1 John 4:19) “God’s love is the ground for a new possibility.” (David Bartlett, Working Preacher)

I firmly believe in finding and spending time with people who are safe for me. I know this is easier said than done. Especially since I’ve just explained how we all fall short of reflecting the love of God. (Romans 3:23) But, finding your “tribe,” your people, is incredibly healing. This doesn’t mean you have to be best friends with everyone. Even Jesus, who we’re holding up as the embodiment of agape, had his close friends, the people he turned to when he was exhausted from ministry. These are the people he ate with, partied with, laughed with, and rested with. A careful reading of the New Testament reveals a Jesus that loved the masses in this selfless and sacrificial way, but reserved his most vulnerable self for people who were safe for him. I suspect it was because those were the people who helped him reconnect with divine love.  

I have found other ways to connect with divine love as well. In the lonely years of my dark night of the soul, when I couldn’t read scripture or pray because it was too painful, I read poetry and listened to music. I read and reread so much poetry that it became my scripture, my guideposts. Those words have become part of me, bringing me back to God, to myself, and to love. So much so that I’ve tattooed some of them on my body to be a lifetime reminder of my worth, my beloved place, in God’s heart. When I read Jesus’ words in the New Testament I realize he too had memorized words that were meaningful to him and connected him to the divine. He also sang hymns with his friends.   

Spending time in nature has also been incredibly important in my journey to experience and accept God’s love. It’s good to take time away from the hustle and bustle, to breathe. Jesus did this too. He took time to be alone in nature. We often find him climbing hills, walking the long way around the lake, getting out on a boat, or retreating to a garden. Often, these solitary times were in preparation for continuing his ministry of love. 

When I look around and see how creation, which God called “good” contains all sorts of weirdness and imperfection, I get a little closer to accepting my own imperfection. I look at the mountains, the trees, even the bugs, and get a better sense of God’s timing. I get a little closer to feeling like I could be a reflection of divine love, even if I’m not living up to some artificial and unrealistic definition of perfection. In fact, maybe it’s because I’m broken and a little weird that I can help others see the divine in themselves.  

Another question in our worship helps today is, “How can you more authentically and consistently share God’s love with others?” I would invite you to follow the angel’s instruction to Nephi. “Look closely.” Or in other scriptural words, “come and see.” Look closely at your own life and at the life of Jesus. Are there places, right there in your own life, where you can see or feel divine love? How can you go deeper and connect with that love and accept it into your life and heart? 

“We never get beyond God’s love for us … and how that is lived out in love for one another. We are always drawn back to that central, and centering, claim. We know God’s love, first and foremost, in (Jesus); and we know God’s love because we have witnessed it in love for one another. (Today’s) text may serve as a reminder that we never grow beyond our need to hear again the gospel of God’s love in Christ.” (Brian Peterson, Working Preacher)

If we would really be “Easter people” which I understand to mean, people who are trying to comprehend the strange complex mystery and meaning of Jesus, then we’ll take seriously the central, centering, claim that God is love, that God does love. Yes, you. Yes, me. There’s no “worthy” about this. God first loved us, not because of anything we did or are. They just do. And they sent Jesus to show us what that love looks like. And they ask us to try to accept it and reflect it to others so they can experience it too. 

Like Nephi, we encounter moments of divine revelation, glimpsing the love of God manifested in the life and teachings of Jesus. Through Jesus, God enters our lives, transforming us with their boundless love. Despite our imperfections, we are invited to emulate this love, to become vessels of compassion and grace in a world yearning for healing and reconciliation.

In our quest to be “Easter people,” let us heed the angel’s call to “look closely” and witness the profound reality of God’s love in our midst. As we do, may we recognize that we are beloved recipients of this love, called to extend it to others with humility and compassion. For in the end, our faith is grounded in the profound truth that God is love, and in reflecting this love, we find our truest purpose and fulfillment. Amen.

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