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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Samuel M. Cooper

May 28, 2017

 Loving Jesus

Philippians 2:1-13; John 21:15-19

            Most likely, only a handful of you know how ridiculous it is that I am standing here now.  Todd knows that I don’t exactly chase down opportunities to preach, so when he said he wanted me to preach today, I wondered if he had lost his mind.

            And on Kirkin’ Sunday? As far as I know, I don’t have an ounce of Scottish blood in me. And, with all apologies to Peter Marshall, whose idea this was, and by all accounts a much better preacher than I, I am not sure I really get Kirkin’.

            I get skirts, but women look much nicer in them than men.  And I like bagpipes, they are the only instrument I know with a special word to describe their sound, the skirl, onomatopoeia, if I’ve ever heard it. But you can get too much of a good thing, and sharing a room with skirling bagpipes is a little like sharing the shower with Luciano Pavarotti.

            Thank you, my dear Scots, for taking me in as one of your own and letting me have fun with you on this, your special day.  The irony of my presence doesn’t end here, though.

            Over 41 years ago when I was about to graduate from seminary, I told God that I was open to a call anywhere in the world, though I wasn’t so inclined to be on the staff of a large church. That is what most seminarians want so I figured God would find something else for me, which he did, of course, in the cotton fields of northeast South Carolina.

            It took God about 34 years, but he finally got me.  So here I am ending my ministry doing what I have claimed I don’t like to do, at a service that I don’t particularly get, at the kind of church I told God I didn’t ever think I could ever serve. God may not be laughing, but I bet he is smiling.  If I have learned nothing else in my life it is that being the butt of one of God’s jokes is about the most blessed place a fellow can be!

            Many years ago I fell in love with the passage that I read to you from Philippians, the passage that contains the Carmen Christi, or Hymn to Christ.  Most scholars believe that Paul did not make these words up on the spot as he wrote to the Philippians but rather that he quoted a familiar hymn to make his point.  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” And then he quotes the hymn which describes the work of Jesus, and the work of God in Jesus.

            Jesus could have spent eternity just being God.  He could have enjoyed his inheritance, living like a cosmic trust fund baby, but he didn’t. He emptied himself.  He let go of his God-ness in order to take on human-ness.  Once in human form, his humility continued. He fulfilled his role all the way to death, death on the cross.

            It is here that the hymn turns and at this point, God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven, and on earth, and even under the earth.  And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  Have this mind in yourselves which you have in Christ Jesus, the mind of humility, the mind of self-emptying, the mind of a servant.

            We all know that what goes up, must come down.  Paul is reminding us that the opposite is also true.  What goes down in submission to God, must come up.  Both these laws of nature are as certain as the law of gravity.

            If you find yourself getting a little too full of yourself, it is probably a good idea to bring yourself down before God does it for you.  And if you find yourself down, just hang on.  God will take care of it in time.  This is the best argument I can think of for staying as close to Jesus as you can and for doing all you can to cultivate your love for him, which is what this sermon is all about.

            If you have attended many meetings of the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee, you may have heard Grudger Nichols ask this question of a candidate: “Do you love Jesus?”  Since Grudger has not been able to attend many meetings of Presbytery lately, other members have taken up the asking of the question, creating a wonderful tradition in which, in the midst of all the high-minded theological questions and answers, with a sigh and a smile, the whole Presbytery asks the most important question any Christian could be asked, “Do you love Jesus?”

            I have loved Jesus since I was a small boy.  I don’t ever remember not loving him. I was fascinated by the stories I heard about him, particularly the stories from his boyhood.  It seemed perfectly normal to me that he would stay behind in Jerusalem doing his father’s business while his parents took off and left him. That same thing happened to me all the time when I was a boy.  I wanted to play with him and often did, in my imagination. It was only when I had children of my own that I thought maybe Mary and Joseph should have been reported for child neglect!

            Unfortunately, as I got older, my innocent love of Jesus gave way to more mature concepts about Jesus. I became convinced that my love was naive and sentimental and therefore inappropriate.  My ready expression of love for Jesus became imprisoned in the forbidding theological system that my brain had produced.  It is not that I stopped loving Jesus. It is just that I became embarrassed to talk about it and afraid to indulge it.

            It took a few trips to India and the chance to step away and look at my faith from a different perspective to help me grow out of what I see now was an adolescent embarrassment about this love, just as I wanted my Mama to stop kissing me at about age 13.

            Indian religious thought recognizes at least three different approaches to God.  There is the way of karma, or the way of good deeds. Live a good life, avoiding bad deeds and doing good ones.  You will meet many of the finest people in the world, including many Christians, along this path.

            Then there is jnana, or the way of knowledge. This would certainly include the scholarly approach, the attempt to figure out and understand God and how we relate to him. Along this path we find those who cling to orthodoxy for all they are worth. These are the solid citizens of the faith who have their minds trained on God and God’s purposes. Our beloved Reformed Tradition is probably over-represented on this path.

            Then there is the way of bhakti, or the way of love and devotion.  It is a path of surrender in which God is the beloved.  Bhakti reminds me of the Song of Solomon.  Bhakti songs are mesmerizing.  And on this path we often run across some really odd ducks, including me.

            Seriously, though, I spend some time on all these paths, as we all should.  But as I have gotten older, it is the bhakti path that feels more like home.  I am a Jesus bhakti.  I love Jesus.  And the older I get and the more my faith matures, the more I love him.  For whatever reason, my more mature faith bears some striking similarities to the faith of my childhood.  Maybe things are not so black and white. And maybe I have lost a lot of innocence but nothing makes me feel better than just talking to Jesus.  Or even better than that, just being with him.

            Ruth Tilley was one of my favorite church members ever.  She was plainspoken, tough-minded and tenderhearted all at the same time.  I had the good fortune of being with Ruth as she lay dying.

            One afternoon, I went in and sat down by her bed.  She looked up at me with eyes that sparkled, smiling as she said in her low country South Carolina brogue: “Jesus came to see me today.”

            “Really,” I said, “what did he have to say?”

            “He ain’t say nothing. Just grin like a Cheshire cat.”

            The Jesus I love grins at me a lot. And it is hard not to smile back, to be honest.  That is the way it is with the risen Christ. Often he just comes and leaves off the words.  We pastors like to talk about a “ministry of presence” but no one has a ministry of presence like Jesus. And he must like cats because that is also the way Anne Lamott describes her first encounter, before she was a Christian.

            “Everywhere I went,” she said, “I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever.  So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my house door whenever I entered or left.”

            Jesus’ presence doesn’t take on any particular form most of the time, and we often can’t even feel it, yet the risen Christ forever offers himself as an object of love.   In offering himself as an object of love, Jesus gives our hearts just what we need to find peace and bliss.

            We read an awful lot from psychologists about the human need to be loved. We don’t read nearly as much about the human need to love.  But the need to love is real. Have you ever felt the burn of love, a ring of fire, Johnny Cash calls it, when nothing will do but put your whole self in it?  When we are full to overflowing with love for someone else, the last thing we think about is ourselves.  We don’t because we can’t! Nothing brings more bliss to the human heart than being in love. When we are truly in love, we hardly think about what we are getting, but only what we are giving.

            I sometimes wonder if the reason Jesus chose Peter for his preeminent position among the disciples is that Jesus recognized in him, in spite of Peter’s many blunders, an enormous capacity to love. We know the story of Peter’s most famous failure well. After telling Jesus that he would follow him anywhere, Peter denies three times, even knowing Jesus!

            Most of the time when someone hurts us, we want an apology.  Sometimes we declare that we must have an apology before the relationship can be restored. If Jesus were an ordinary human, he might have asked Peter to apologize three times, once for each denial. If he were an ordinary leader, he may have asked Peter three times to declare his loyalty.

            Yet, it is not groveling or loyalty but love that Jesus asks for: “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” It is not clear what the “these” are. Some suggest it refers to the boats in the background and the life they represent.  Others suggest the “these” are the other disciples. I’m not sure that it matters, though. Jesus is giving Peter the chance to profess his love, to open the valve to his heart that he had cinched down tight at the point of his great failure.

            I am not talking about a love of Jesus for what he has done for us. I am talking about a love for Jesus himself.

            Let me put it this way.  I love Lily because she is my wife.  I love her because she has supported me through all the ups and downs of 41 years of marriage and ministry.  I love her because she is the mother of our children.  But none of that is the same as loving her for being Lily, the person, the woman who surprises, amazes, frustrates and charms. The woman who bursts the image of who I want her to be in favor of the person she really is.

            I love Jesus because he is the Son of God, because he is my Lord, because he is my Savior, because he is the way the truth and the life.  It is a good thing to love Jesus for all of these reasons.  But it is not the same as loving Jesus as Jesus, the person. There is no more profound theological truth than this: In the person of Jesus, God has shown us that he loves us as we are. So why would we not love Jesus as Jesus?

            So, here, at the very end of the very last sermon of my ministry, I want to ask you one question: Do you love Jesus more than anything else?  Do you?


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