How Longing and Love Go Together
A sermon on Acts 17:22-31 and John 14:15-21
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash.]
As many of you know, my first career was in anti-poverty research and advocacy.
Much of my work was on the research side – analyzing census data and conducting interviews for various qualitative studies.
Being continually immersed in the evidence of poverty’s causes and consequences made the need for anti-poverty policies insistently clear for me. It was hard for me to wrap my head around why it was so hard to get the needed policies actually implemented.
And then, I would step into the advocacy world. I would testify at committee hearings, or meet with legislators or department leadership, and I would be confronted by the push-back.
Sometimes it was about budgets, and sometimes it was about red tape….
Those were technical barriers: to solve them we could dig into budgetary solutions, or the minutia of policy implementation.
But there were more intransigent barriers that had to be addressed in order to even get to any solution-focused conversations:
These were the barriers about what my audience already believed.
It didn’t matter what data, or evidence, or compelling reasoning I had to offer… if my proposal was something that my audience did not already believe and care about, it was infinitely harder to convince them of anything.
Moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt explores this phenomenon in-depth in his book The Righteous Mind.
He details the science of how deep-seated moral foundations shape people’s moral reasoning, and lays out a compelling argument for why we have to START with what people already believe and value if we want to have any chance to convince them of anything.
Haidt’s research was published in 2012, before the more recent polarization in our national climate. If anything, the impossibility of dialogue without first appealing to already-held commitments is even stronger today.
At the same time, this bias has probably always been true of humanity.
From our first reading today, it would seem that Paul is operating from this same understanding of persuasive argument: before you make your pitch, first identify what matters to your audience.
It’s illuminating to consider how Paul does this. He pays attention to the evidence available to him. Specifically, he pays attention to the evidence of longing:
The evidence of longing for religious meaning in the plentitude of altars and gods (which horrified Paul, but he works with it);
And the evidence that even with such an overwhelm of potential objects for religious adoration, there was still a felt need for something more… a belief that there was an ‘unknown god’ to whom to offer worship.
Now, alluding to these observations was a risky strategy for Paul, moral foundations theory notwithstanding, because the Athenians (perhaps like Americans in the 2020s) were not a group known for their willingness to admit what they didn’t know.
Athens was the intellectual capital of the Greco-Roman world, the home of Socrates and Plato, and they had a bit of an attitude about it.
They certainly were not prepared to consider that some back-water “amateur” (as some of the local philosophers called him) had anything to teach them!
In fact, Paul’s efforts at proclamation before the verses we read today got him hauled before the Athenian Council on the charge of introducing a “new” teaching.
That’s where we pick-up the narrative. Paul is being called to account, but he is also being given an opportunity to speak on the most influential stage of the philosophical world.
And he starts out by reminding the folks who think they know everything, that they already know something is missing. He shines a spotlight on their longing.
There are lessons for us in this approach.
There are lessons for our advocacy, as people called to do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, and to respond faithfully to the prophets’ calls to lift up the poor, the foreigner, and the oppressed.
There are lessons for us in our witness, as we are called to share the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ near and far.
But before we can really engage either of those calls, I think we probably need to first consider the relevance of Paul’s message for our own experiences of longing.
We all experience longing, of course. It’s part of our finite human reality.
We long for possessions, and experiences, and foods, and security, and acknowledgement, and relationships. Our longings take all sizes and shapes.
But I think that – just like the altar to the unknown god got mixed in with all the other idols in Athens – the multitude and variety of our longings can blind us a bit to the longing that we most need to pay attention to:
The longing for the kind of love that Jesus commands in today’s gospel.
Back on Maundy Thursday I preached about Jesus’ command to love each other as he loved us – an impossible love that washes the feet of those about to metaphorically kick him in the face.
That is the command that Jesus is referring to in today’s gospel, when Jesus says “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
For us it has been more than six weeks since we heard that command, but for Jesus’s disciples it was just a few minutes. (Not to mention, this is actually the ONLY command that Jesus presents to his followers in all of John’s gospel).
Reflecting on this command, commentator Debie Thomas agrees with me that it feels like far beyond our capacity:
“(Jesus) says, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ As in, for real. As in, the whole bona fide package. Authentic feeling, honest engagement, generous action. Honestly, doesn’t it sound like Jesus is asking for the impossible?”
On Maundy Thursday, I answered that question with an emphatic “yes!” There’s no way that we, as individuals can love that perfectly.
Although, we do need to BE LOVED that way, and it’s important that we remember the command is given to a community.
Debie Thomas offers a slightly different answer. After asking if the command doesn’t sound impossible, she continues:
“At the same time, though, don’t you yearn for what (Jesus is) describing? Imagine what would happen to us, to the Church, to the world, if we took this commandment of Jesus seriously? What could Christendom look like if we obeyed orders and cultivated this ‘impossible’ love?”
What Debie Thomas is reminding us of is our longing… the truth we don’t have to be argued into because we already believe it; we already feel it deep in our souls:
Our self-protective worldviews of reasonable expectations, and limits on our obligations to care about each other, and justifications about looking out for ourselves and our group first… they feel wrong.
They separate us from the fullness of living in God’s love.
They leave us feeling orphaned and alone.
And our longing for things to be different… to actually be able to live that way and love that way… is what we need to tap into in order to hear Jesus’s words of command today as the good news that they are.
Because if we forget that this world-changing love is actually what we want… if we get muddled with all of the pedestrian longings that set-up other altars in our minds and hearts… we will hear Jesus’s words that if we love him we will keep his commandments and it will sound like bad news.
It will sound like law.
It will sound like an accusation that we don’t actually love him.
When it is actually a promise that his commands and our longings go together… and that Jesus knows this… and that we are not alone.
He has given us an Advocate.
He has not left us orphaned.
We live in him and he lives in us.
Debie Thomas has one final word for us. She writes:
“Love me by keeping my commands, Jesus says. These are finally not two separate actions. They are one and the same. We love because we are loved. We obey Christ because we are in Christ. The love we are commanded to share is the love we are endlessly given.”
Or, put another way, Jesus has commanded of us only that for which we most long, and then he promised to do it with us. How could that not be good news?
Thanks be to God
 See Acts 17:18, Common English Bible translation.  https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2640-love-and-obedience