Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
The Logic of Love
by Michael L. Lindvall
Preached: May 13, 2012,
Sixth Sunday of Easter, Mother’s Day
Passage: John 15:9-17
Nearly twenty years ago, our older daughter told me that my sermons were improving. In fact many of them were actually beginning to make a lot of sense, she said. Maybe I was finally getting the hang of it. But then it also occurred to her that perhaps the fact that she was growing up had something to do it.
Loving and gracious God, your presence is woven into the fabric of our days, as near to us as our own breath. Open us now to your word in Holy Scripture so that we might sense your great love for us and be transformed by it. And now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and Redeemer. Amen.
Not long after that confession, she came to me and said, “Dad, I’ve got a great sermon illustration for you.” Her great illustration was a riddle that went like this: “Imagine two tables of people eating dinner together, or trying to eat dinner together. The problem is that they have to eat with these forks that are four feet long. Now, one table is in hell and the other table is in heaven. The people having dinner in hell end up starving to death, but the ones in heaven have one wonderful dinner after another together and are doing just fine. How come?”
I pretended not to know the answer, but she saw through me. She asked if I’d heard it before. I told her it was an old preacher's chestnut, the kind of thing you might find in a book called “Helpful Illustrations for the Modern Preacher,” copyright 1928. But even though I’d heard it before, I told her I wanted to hear the solution from her. She answered, “Because in heaven they all feed each other across the table with their long forks, but in hell everybody would only try to feed themselves and they couldn’t get any food in their mouths because the forks are so long. Even if it’s old, wouldn’t that be a great sermon illustration, Dad?”
In the passage from John’s Gospel that Chris just read, Jesus’ subject is love. He’s with his disciples on the last night of his life and he tells them that God's love for him is exactly how he loves them, and how he loves them is exactly how they ought to love each other.
Well, that riddle my daughter presented to me some years ago is a perfect segue into today’s sermon because it invites a huge question about the love Jesus is talking about in this passage. This big question hangs over this Bible passage about love and it also hangs over my daughter’s trite riddle about four-foot forks. “Why did the folks up in heaven choose to use their four-foot forks to feed each other? Did they do it they knew it was the only way that they were going to get fed themselves, or did they do it because they cared about the people on the other side of the table?” The same question in the terms of today’s Bible passage about love would go like this: “Do people love because they really care for other people, or do they love for what they get out of it themselves, because loving makes them feel good or because they might then get loved back? In a nutshell, the question is this, “Is loving other people really just disguised self-interest?”
I had a professor in college, a sociologist I think, who presented us with an argument for what he called “enlightened self-interest.” He began by saying that it’s human nature for people to care only about themselves. People naturally try to maximize their own pleasure and minimize their own pain. He then said that some people do this in direct, even base ways. They go straight for whatever makes them feel good or gratifies their ego. He called this unenlightened self-interest.
But, the professor went on, through education and self-improvement, this natural self-interest can become “enlightened” so that people will see that it is in their own interest to care about other people. It’s in their self-interest because caring about others will make the world a better place, and a better place will be nicer place for you. It’s in people’s self-interest to love because if you love other people, maybe they'll love you back, and that’ll make you happier. But everybody’s just out for themselves, he assumed, and people only love other people out of enlightened selfinterest.
Now, if I told this sociologist my daughter’s riddle and asked him why the folks up in heaven with the four-foot forks are feeding each other across the table, he would have said that they are doing it so that they’ll get fed themselves. Or just maybe they’re doing it because doing it makes them feel good. Whatever, it’s about them and their needs. It’s that simple. Even when I was twenty years old and believed everything full professors said, there was something in his logic that didn’t ring true. It smelled of reductionism. It carried more than a whiff of cynicism.
What Jesus lived and taught about love could hardly be more different. His gospel teaches us that love actually changes people from the inside out. The gospel says that love can actually re-orient human beings. God can turn us from that natural and narrow focus on myself to a genuine love for others that is beyond our selfinterest. People are naturally self-oriented, of course. But my prof didn’t think they could change. All you could do could was make the best of it. The Gospel, on the other hand, insists that, by the grace of God, people can actually change.
The gospel dares to declare that we can love other people because God empowers us to do it – even when it’s not in our self-interest. Being unconditionally loved and accepted by God can transform people on the inside. The love of God can actually work away in us so that we can come to love in a way that mirrors God’s love for us.
In this gospel logic of love, the self, my needs, my hopes, my fears, my passions can come to move off of stage-center. The self is pulled off the throne at the center of my universe. God takes the throne. God moves to the center, and then I can love other people – not for their utilitarian value to me, but loved for their sake. Through this radical reframing and re-focusing of life’s geography there can come what Jesus calls “joy,” not mere happiness mind you, but joy. In the eleventh verse of today's passage, Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
But the joy that comes from loving selflessly is a complicated story. Mother Teresa once wrote: “A living love hurts. Jesus, to prove his love for us, died on the cross.” She went on, “The mother, to give birth to her child, has to suffer. If you really love another properly,” she concludes, “there must be sacrifice.” That’s a truth I know from what I’ve seen of life. Living love brings great joy and, sometimes, some anguish.
This is a truth that every parent – certainly every mother – knows. In loving a child there is great joy and there is great pain. Pity the parents who elect to have children assuming that kids will bring them nothing but unadulterated bliss. What children bring, what any real love for another person brings, is something beyond mere “happy.” Love ushers us into the depths of what it us to be fully human. To love, to love beyond self, to love a child, to love a parent, to love a woman or a man, even to love your neighbor, is to be pulled beyond the cold old logic of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain.
You move into the new logic of love that is inspired and shaped by the self-giving love of God. The joy found in such love is higher and deeper than pedestrian happiness. It’s both more complicated and more wonderful. Novelist Madeline L’Engle wrote a wonderful book about her long marriage to actor Hugh Franklin shortly after his death. She entitled it A Two-Part Invention. A passage that I find sharply true reads like this: “Vulnerable,” she writes, “the moment we are born we are vulnerable... When I married I opened myself up to the possibility of great joy and great pain and I have known both. Hugh’s death is like an amputation. But would I be willing to protect myself by having rejected marriage? By having rejected love? No, I wouldn’t have missed a minute of it, not any of it.”
To love others deeply opens us up to great joy and great pain, but it’s a joy and pain beyond calculation, higher and deeper than self-interest, enlightened or otherwise. To love even vaguely like God loves us pulls us into a new logic, a logic in which “me” and “mine” are no longer the core issue.
I don’t think that those folks at the heavenly banquet who fed each other with fourfoot forks did so just so that they would be fed themselves. I think that in heaven, in the immediate proximity of the overpowering God of love, they had been pulled beyond the old logic of maximizing me and mine. They had been captured by a new logic in which the hunger of the person across the table became their hunger. They had been changed by a new logic in which the joy of another actually became their joy.
My Mother’s Day word to you is this. Know that you are loved, loved by God, loved unconditionally and beyond measure, loved no matter what. When you know this deep inside of you, when you take it in, it can really change a person. It really can.
Michael L. Lindvall was installed as the thirteenth pastor of the Brick Presbyterian Church in the City of New York in the fall of 2002. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and Princeton Theological Seminary, he has previously served as pastor to congregations in Ann Arbor, Mich. and Northport, New York. The theme of this sermon is love is a new logic about the meaning of life that pulls us beyond the old logic of self-interest. Lindvall is also a writer of essays, book reviews, sermons and theological works and has authored two novels, The Good News from North Haven, and Leaving North Haven, a volume of accessible theology entitled The Christian Life: A Geography of God, and a short examination of the life and context of Jesus Christ entitled "What Did Jesus Do?"