(A sermon based on John 13:31-35 for the Fifth Sunday of Easter)
The great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (6th century BCE) said,
“If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
It is, like most pithy sayings, an oversimplification—some depression and some anxiety can have a biological and chemical basis, for example; but it is also, like many such sayings, packed with truth.
It is also a saying that a Christian can affirm, although probably not without some elaboration.
Here is one necessary elaboration: “If you are at peace you are living in the present because you are living in love.” That is a necessary elaboration because living in love is the necessity if a Christian is going to live a life of peace.
The Apostle Paul famously said, “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). For as long as I can remember I have said—and not incorrectly, I think—that love is the greatest of the three because it is the one that will exist all through eternity. We won’t need faith and hope in eternity because we will see and know completely, but, since God is love, we will live in love for all of eternity.
But we need to see that there is more to it than that.
We need faith now because faith can be the remedy for depression. That is especially true for a depression that comes from things that have happened in the past. All of us have hurt ourselves and hurt others through things we have done or have not done; all of us have sinned against God, against others people, and against ourselves. That knowledge can drag us down into depression. But faith—the trust that Jesus did indeed die on the cross for our sins and that we are by God’s grace indeed forgiven—can help to resolve our past so that we can live fully in the present.
We need hope now because hope can be the remedy for anxiety. Anxiety can visit us because we are worried about the future; we are worried about things that haven’t happened but that might happen. Such worries can drag us down into anxiety. But hope—the assurance that because of the resurrection of Jesus our future is in God’s hands—can help to resolve our future so that we can live fully in the present.
So the key to the situation is living in the present. Through the gift of faith we can overcome the paralysis of feeling guilty about the past; through the gift of hope we can overcome the paralysis of feeling anxious about the future. That leaves us living in the present which is, after all, the only place we are and can be. And living fully in the present comes down to living in love that frees us from spiritual and emotional paralysis and sets us free to give ourselves away.
On the last night of his life on earth, Jesus did not cling to his past; while he had nothing to feel guilty about he could have waxed nostalgic about the eternity that he had spent in loving fellowship with his Father and the Holy Spirit but he, in great trust, left his past behind both in reality and in the way he approached life. He also did not think anxiously about the future; while he would pray “Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me” he would also pray “Nevertheless, not my will but your will be done.” He, in great hope, trusted his future to his Father both in reality and in the way that he approached life.
And that left him living in the present. He was fully present in the present, loving his disciples and being open and vulnerable with them until the very end.
He laid down his pride for them, washing their feet as if he was a common servant.
Then, finally, he laid down his life for them, dying on the cross as if he was a common criminal.
And he called us to do the same. He called his disciples, including us, to love like he loved, to love by laying down our pride and our lives for each other. When we do so he lives on through and in us. But we can only live such lives by living in love which causes us to be fully present in the present with each other.
As the twentieth century theologian Emil Brunner said, “And to become a loving heart instead of a worried, self-centered heart meant to become ‘present.’ The man who receives Christ in faith receives presence, because God’s love is presence. By agape he now has become capable of being ‘with’ his fellow men.” [Emil Brunner, Faith, Hope and Love (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956), p. 74. I am indebted to the chapter “Love” for many of my thoughts in this sermon.]
It is so simple and yet so complicated, so easy and yet so difficult.
First, we pay attention to the fact of each other.
Second, we think more of others than we do of ourselves.
Third, we operate from the premise of wanting to give ourselves up rather than of having to do so.
Fourth, we do what we can do.
Fifth, and foremost, we live out the love that is ours because Jesus Christ is present with us. It is only because he is present with us that we can be fully present with each other.
Jesus told his disciples that they could not go where he was going; they were going to have to stay where they were and while they were there they were to love one another.
We’re still here. How will we live? How will we love?