6th Sunday after Easter
S. Easter 6.20 “Love Story” John 14:15-21
Someone said: “Pastor can’t you preach an uplifting sermon!?” I was a little hurt. (They all seem uplifting, to me 🙂 I’m like: “Challenge accepted”! Then I thought: “Mmmm… how would I do that?” And it came to me: a love story. Everybody loves a love story, right? There’s one in our Gospel today—though, like the original Love Story, there’s tragedy, too. But fear not! It makes the uplift work, actually…
If you’ve never seen Love Story, good for you, but quick (plot-spoiling!) synopsis (ear-muffs now for no spoilers. I’ll signal when to uncover): it’s a 70’s flick where Ryan O’Neal, a rich jock, goes to Harvard (OK, the hero does make some poor choices) and meets Ali McGraw, a working class scholarship student at Radcliffe. They fall in love. Ryan O’Neal’s 1 percenter father forbids the marriage because Ali is low rent. They marry anyway, get cut off from the Barrett family fortune. Ali gets cancer, dies, and everyone cries. (You can un-ear-muff now!). My point is: tragedy (and worldly obstacles!) are essential to love stories. I mean, if Tom Hanks’ first wife hadn’t died in Sleepless in Seattle how would he ever have met Meg Ryan? And seriously, could his first wife possibly have been as hot as Meg Ryan? Mmm… I think not. Tragedy works… every silver lining has a cloud.
Anyway, where were we? Oh, yes! I promised you a love story—a true life one to boot—with romance, comedy, tragedy, and a fairy tale ending. Here it comes…
If Ali McGraw was from the wrong side of the tracks in Love Story, we (the love interest in the Gospel Story) are more so. Ali McGraw was witty, whip-smart, funny, and smoking hot. But we are… not. We are sinners. There is nothing attractive at all about us. There is nothing attractive about sin. But Jesus, rich beyond measure or imagination as God’s own Son, leaves His Heaven to come to a dark world and be our light, life, and joy. He takes on our sin. Dies of it, horribly, on a cross. Rises from the dead victorious, and humbly, hiddenly, mysteriously (often unrecognized, mistaken for a gardener or Stranger, post-resurrection) walks beside us on our Emmaus roads, in our struggles and failures, and by winsome words, reveals Himself to us, wins us back. There is a Marriage Feast in Heaven (the Lord’s own Supper!) and we, the Church, are bride and honored guests and it ends happily, eternally, ever after. Truly the Greatest Story ever told…
You would think if a sad tale like Love Story is beloved and best-selling, then the Story of Jesus should knock everyone’s socks off and have people lined up around the block to get into the Wedding Feast, here, now. Sadly… not exactly! But, like I said: worldly obstacles to our true love—tragedy, death!—these are essential to the best love stories. When the love is forbidden, hated by worldly powers, scorned, and the lovers have to scrape by on their own, destitute, despised, targeted by tabloids; well then: game on!
I started off with Love Story shamelessly to curry favor. It’s one of my wife’s favorites. But going on I went, “Huh. This is not a bad analogy! This might actually be uplifting.”?!
Our First Reading from Acts shows how it goes when the world hears our Story. Paul is chilling in Athens (after getting kicked out of Thessalonica when opening night of Gospel Story got panned and caused riots). He’s ticked that the city of Athens is given over to idols (Paul hates idols). He’s hanging in the synagogue with the faithful Remnant, also in the marketplace with that same crew. Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (hate those guys!) eavesdrop on their conversation. There’s a play on words in Greek not doable in English…
They come to Paul and Company’s table. “Hey we heard you talking about Jesus and Anastasia,” (that’s the play on words. The Greek Anastasia is both a girl’s name and the word that means “resurrection”). “Does Ryan O’Neal play Jesus? Is Ali McGraw Anastasia? Is it sexy? Does Anastasia get cancer and die? How does it go? Tell us!” Paul’s like “Uh, it’s not that kind of story, actually. You won’t like it.” They’re like: “We will like it! You gotta tell us!” They drag him to Mars Hill.
Paul starts by calling them superstitious and ignorant (in the Greek; English translations all soften it). I think: I’d never start a sermon that way. Well… not intentionally. But Paul’s an Apostle. He knows best. He says “You clowns don’t know jack about God! Your poets say He made us, but you worship idols of wood and stone. We should look to higher things and God has overlooked your ignorance but now commands all to repent because He’s fixed a judgment day and shown He’s serious by raising Jesus from the dead. He will do the judging!”
Our reading stops there because the ending’s not uplifting. They go: “Whaaat? You mean a literal resurrection from the dead? Ali McGraw’s not in it? Jennifer Beals? She’s cute! No movie stars? Not even Scarlet Johansson? That’s trash! You were right. We don’t like it.”
In Love Story, Ryan O’Neal is disowned by his family and he and Ali McGraw scrape by, despised, destitute. And so it goes with our romance with Jesus: there is suffering, scraping by.
But where Ali McGraw sticks with Ryan O’Neal even when it costs them friends, family, favor, the disciples of Jesus falter. They find Him embarrassing, their love grows cold; they slink away, and look for a more socially acceptable Savior—is Science busy? He’s hot!
But, see: Tragedy and Worldly Obstacles are essential features of true love stories! And Jesus overcomes them all. In human Love Stories, both characters have to be strong and committed! In our Gospel Story, only Jesus is strong and committed. And when we get terminal cancer, Jesus swaps places and does our suffering and dying for us, and then rises to renew our love.
He foresees our falling away; yet, treats us as if we’ll never fail Him at all, no; not ever! In our Gospel He says: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments…” The “will” from the ESV follows a better Greek text than the King James’, which leaving out the “will”, leaves us with: “If you love me, keep my commandments” which sounds more like a threat. “Prove you love me by keeping my commandments!” But that’s not what Jesus is saying!
Jesus promises that if we love Him, even though our love falters in the face of death, grave, hell, worldly scorn and obstacles, He’s still true. If we love Him at all, we will keep His commandments. How? Because Jesus promises to speak to His Father for us (“I love them! You must also, Dad!”). He promises to send Another Helper, the Spirit of Truth, to be with us (even when we don’t see Jesus) to lift us up when we fall, get our feet back on the Emmaus road, the Road to Heaven, help us to believe the Impossible Story, despite ourselves.
The world cannot see Jesus—not risen, victorious. The world, tragically, sees Him only dead—cause of death for millions. A large part of each of us is worldly like that. But, by Jesus’ Word in our ears, His Body and Blood in our mouths, all is forgiven! He dwells in us, we in Him.
The world cannot see this. But we see; and He shows Himself to the world in a wonderful way: by “showing them another me”—making us over in His Image, covering our sins by His Body, Blood, our cowardice with His courage, our dying with His Resurrection, our failures by His faithfulness. His love covers all sin; so, clinging to Jesus for dear life, we’ll see—and the world will know—the true Love Story that brings Peace, surpassing understanding, guarding heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.