At the risk of sounding like something of a crank, I will confess to you that for a few years now, something has been bothering me… and this is it: the Subaru tag-line that claims “Love is what makes a Subaru a Subaru.” This gets under my skin.
Allow me to state the obvious. Love is not what makes a Subaru a Subaru. Full-time four-wheel-drive, good gas mileage, legendary durability, and good road handling all contribute to what makes a Subaru a Subaru. I know this, having once driven a little green Subaru in a big loop around this entire country, with my old dog, Baxter, in the back seat. It was a great trip. And, yes, I loved it. I’d go so far as to say that I loved that car. But I am using the word “love” here casually and colloquially, not definitively – either for the car or the emotion. It was a great car. But it was not love that made it great. Not in any meaningful sense of the words. Not if the word “love” is going to have any real meaning left at the end of the day. Love does not make a Subaru a Subaru.
I am tempted by the reading from the Gospel of John today to say something that I shouldn’t say. We hear Jesus say, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In light of this statement, I am tempted to counter the Subaru slogan with a slogan of my own. I am tempted to say, you see, that “love is what makes a Christian a Christian.” But would that be wrong of me to assert? What about Muslims, and Jews, and Buddhists, and Hindus? What about Christians whose faith looks very different from mine, and to me, sometimes un-loving? What about people of no faith at all? Am I denying them love? How could love belong only to Christians? Of course it cannot.
But we have in Jesus this unusual figure – God incarnate – whose only real commandment to his disciples is that they should love one another. If it sounds simple to us, we can assume it sounded simple to his first followers too, and, therefore, confusing. What about the rules? they must have thought. What about the law? What about keeping ourselves pure for God? Aren’t there things we shouldn’t eat, people we shouldn’t consort with, items we shouldn’t touch, songs we should learn by heart, secrets we should aspire to learn, complexities of theological nuance you alone can impart to us?
Well, says Jesus, by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. (Was ever another commandment so disobeyed?)
But let’s change gears for a moment. Two children are with us this morning – Lily and Grace – to receive the sacrament of Baptism – a gift of God’s grace. Who can argue that this is not a lovely thing? But the question is, would these children be better off with a Subaru? Is there anything meaningful beyond the rite of passage that this sacrament represents? A Subaru, after all, promises to provide these girls with “longevity, safety, versatility, and adventure.”[i] Aren’t these more useful properties than whatever ineffable gifts these girls will receive from a sprinkle of water, a dab of oil, and a briefly flickering flame?
The answer to that question, I propose, depends on what you think about love. For the baptismal rite is somewhat misleading, in that it tends to suggest that Baptism is a gate through which you may enter, provided you know the answers to a few questions. To make it easy, however, we make it an open-book test, somewhat cheapening the cost of admission. But to see the sacrament of Holy Baptism in this way is to largely miss the point. For although questions and answers have almost always been associated with the sacrament, neither the questions nor the answers are really what Baptism is about. For Baptism is about love. The gift of Baptism is the assurance of the gift of God’s love in abundant supply. It is the act of drawing near to the river of God’s love, wading out into the midst of it, in the vicinity of a waterfall, and holding ourselves and our children out under the cascading flow of grace that is God’s love, until we are drenched with it! This is how Christians are made. Not with questions and answers; not with study and examination, not with spiritual challenges or feats of strength, but just with God’s love: freely given to anyone who seeks it.
But what is love? The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are God’s way of enshrining love in the midst of his people. And the Sacraments (especially Baptism and the Eucharist) are his way of keeping light burning at that shrine for ever.
Healing, forgiveness, welcome to the stranger and the sinner; humility, non-violence, peace; abundant food for the hungry, concern for the poor, a pre-eminent regard for children; appropriate laxity in religious observance, deep prayer, costly giving; power that is made perfect in weakness, the willingness to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, confidence in God in the face of death, and faith in new life beyond the grave. These are the descriptors of God’s love in the person of his Son Jesus. And if you think these are a better foundation for a life defined by love than, say, full-time four-wheel-drive, then you have come to the right place!
The Subaru that I drove cross-country was a gift, given to the church by someone in need of a tax write-off. It had more than 100,000 miles on it when I got it, and it needed a little work, but not much. It was a terrific little car to drive: it was the smallest model, five-speed stick-shift. We travelled west on the southern route, along I-40; and back east from the north, along I-90.
When I got home, I parked the car on the street south of here around 21st and Catherine, and left it there a few days. But when I went to retrieve the car, I couldn’t find it: it wasn’t where I thought I’d left it. I wandered around, on the theory that I’d just forgotten the precise parking spot. Eventually, about a block and a half away, on the opposite side of the street, I found a little green Subaru that looked like mine, and had the same license plate as mine, but this car had its roof crushed in on one side, and its rear windshield smashed in, and there were bricks in the back of the car among the shards of safety glass.
There was a man sitting on a stoop across the street from the car, and I asked him, “Do you know what happened to this car?”
“Oh yes,” he replied, pointing to a pile of bricks just near where I’d thought I’d parked the car, “that house over there fell on it.”
A house had collapsed on top of the car, and police had moved the vehicle across the street to a new parking spot, where, in a minor miracle it had not yet gotten a parking ticket!
Now, I want Lily and Grace to know something about the love of God in their lives. I want their baptism to have real meaning, as they grow into themselves, and become the people God has made them to be. I want them to know the love of their families, and their friends, and I want them, some day, to fall deeply in love with someone who will make them happy. I want the word “love” to mean more to them than brand-loyalty to a car company. And I want them to know healing, and forgiveness, and welcome to the stranger and the sinner; and humility, non-violence, peace; abundant food for the hungry, concern for the poor. I want them, when they grow up, to have a pre-eminent regard for children; and even appropriate laxity in religious observance. I want them to practice deep prayer, costly giving; and to learn that Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness. I want them to know that greater love hath no man than the willingness to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And I want them to have confidence in God in the face of death, and faith in new, resurrected life beyond the grave.
I also want them to know that sometimes houses fall on cars, like a ton of bricks; hat things get ruined and fall apart; that friends and family will disappoint you; that failure is part of life; that there are forces in the world that can crush you; and that sometimes the house falls down on you from the outside, but sometimes it falls down on the inside. This is life, and a Subaru can get you through a lot of it, but you are going to need more than a sturdy car if you are going to be a person who really loves, in the face of all that can go wrong in the world.
So, yes, I do want longevity, safety, versatility, and adventure for these children, as their parents do, and maybe even full-time four-wheel-drive, if that’s what they need when they grow up. But more than that I want them to know God’s love, and know that when the longevity, safety, versatility, and adventure have run out of everything else – as it inevitably will – God’s love will still be burning like a light in the darkness; God’s love will still be flowing like a river, over mighty falls; and God’s love will be the best and truest guide to their lives, and the only commandment worth keeping: to love one another.
The Psalmist, in a moment of supreme poetic license, declares that “there is a river the streams whereof make glad the city of God.” To the untrained ear this statement might sound like nonsense. What can it mean? Where is this river? What gladness flows from its waters? Where is this city of God?
But those who have been baptized know the answer to this question: the streams of the river flow here. The city of God is being built up here! And great gladness comes from following the one, true commandment to love one another!
Now, let’s buckle up, and drive over to and through the waters of love. For it’s love that makes us who we are in Christ, and that makes Grace and Lily Christians on this glad day!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
24 April 2016
Saint Mark's Chruch, Philadelphia
[i] from “How Subaru fell in love and never looked back,” by Tim Nudd, AdWeek, April 8, 2013