Just ten days after the attacks in Boston, one of the victims gave a chilling testimony to the media about what happened in the moments after the bombs exploded.
She and others standing at the bar overlooking the street were blown off their feet and against the wall. Then, she remembered the smoke and screams which reminded her of 9-11. In an unwavering voice she spoke of how her foot suddenly felt like it was on fire, and she couldn’t put any weight on it.
Everyone started running for the back door of the bar. She called out for someone to help her, because she couldn’t move. She recalled how frightened she felt because no one seemed to be listening to her pleas for help. And then, everything went dark.
Reflecting on the trauma we watched on TV last week, my wife and I have talked about what we might have done if we found ourselves on that sidewalk in Boston watching the race when the bombs went off. Had we not been physically damaged by the shrapnel what would we have done? Started running away, focused on escaping the mayhem? Would we have been primarily motivated by self-preservation?
Or, would we have looked around us? Would we pay attention to where the greatest need was, and offer help? Would we have run against the crowd?
I must confess, I didn’t imagine I would be so altruistic and ready to help. I must confess, I would likely be one of those people running headlong to that back door focused on nothing else but getting out.
And for us Christians who have received Christ’s commandment “that we love one another,” we may be embarrassed, as I have been, at how poorly we put this command into practice.
In the Gospel passage today (John 13:31-35), we hear Jesus’ commandment to love. And what I find remarkable is that Jesus gives this commandment precisely at a time when everything but love was swirling about him. It was the night before his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus was a marked man. A target was on his back. And while Jesus was eating the Passover Meal with his disciples, Judas had just slipped out from the group to carry out his dastardly deed to betray Jesus.
And right after Jesus speaks the commandment to love, Peter falsely predicted that he would always be faithful and committed to Jesus – we know later that Peter denied knowing Jesus three times.
So Jesus command to love is spoken right in the very midst of betrayal and violence. Not an easy situation in which to be preaching or practising love.
But it is precisely at these times when it matters the most. Jesus calls us to do this not in some abstract, ideal, fantasy world when it’s easy to love, but rather in the real world of violence and broken-ness. And that’s not easy.
This is one reason why we need to gather for worship from week to week –
We need to hear over and over again God’s good news in the midst of all around us that is un-loving.
We need to hear once more the story of the resurrection, the affirmation that life and God’s love is more powerful than death and sin.
We need to hear once more God’s undying love for us all, so that we can be strengthened to practice love toward others, when it counts the most.
I find it significant that we read the word “glory” some five times in this short Gospel text. Odd – even counter-intuitive – you would think, that “glory” is associated with the pretext of Jesus’ suffering and death. Perhaps this emphasis on the glory of God is to underscore that love is not just some Valentine’s Day, romantic, warm fuzzy feeling shared between people in a comfortable, safe place.
Love, on the other hand, is in the Christian faith, self-giving. It is something realized, and practiced, for others – especially when the going gets tough.
As difficult as it is, coming to that place of self-giving love often, in the testimony of people’s lives, happens right in the valley of the shadow of death: amidst loss, stress, disappointment, suffering and pain. The transformation people experience towards a renewed sense of God’s love in Christ Jesus occurs usually at their lowest point in life.
For a long time, the accumulation of personal wealth was the single most important goal for Millard Fuller. During the 1960s, making a pile of money was his singular goal from which he never wavered. Amassing a personal fortune, Fuller was the ultimate “success” story.
But he paid a high price for this. Fuller admitted later how it affected his personal integrity, his health, and his marriage. When his wife Linda left him and informed him that his Lincoln, the large house, the cottage on the lake, two speed boats and a maid did not make up for his absence from his family, he realized what he had sacrificed for money.
It was at that moment when a transformation occurred in his life – when he began focussing less on himself and more on others, more on living out God’s great love for himself, and for others.
In 1976, Millard Fuller founded Habitat for Humanity, one of the most transforming forces around the world today, drawing on local volunteers to build houses for those who have need.
From someone who was once only focussed on himself, Fuller was transformed to someone focussed on others, living out Jesus’ commandment to love one another. “I love God and I love people,” Fuller says now, “this is the focus of my life, and that is why I am doing it.”
I like the story of two young boys playing church. One of them was explaining to the other what all the parts of the liturgy were about.
“So, do you know what the pastor does at the end of the service when he does this?” And he made the sign of the cross.
“Yeah, sure,” the other boy chimed in, “it means some go this way out and the others go that way out!”
The boy was right. The cross sends us out and scatters us out into the world with Christ’s command to love, where we would least expect to do so. The really important thing for any church is not how many people the church can seat, but how many it sends out to love in real, practical ways. A self-giving love, in moments of human hardship, is the glory of God.
The victim of the Boston attacks who recently spoke to the media was told some days after her foot was amputated how she was rescued from the mayhem of that smoke-filled bar. She was told of how a couple of people risked their own lives to drag her to safety. Those two people resisted the temptation to run en masse with everyone else. They had the presence of mind to look around to see if anyone needed help. Amidst the chaos, they were able to express the love that Jesus was talking about, whether they knew it or not.
Glory be to God!