Sunday, June 04, 2006

“The Face of Love”[1]

1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

The Face of Jesus. In the 1995 movie, “Dead Man Walking,” Susan Sarandon plays the role of Sister Helen Prejean.[2] She is a nun at a New Orleans convent who begins to correspond with a prisoner on death row named Matthew Poncelet. She visits him at his request and is so disturbed by the cruelty of the process of executing a criminal that she becomes his advocate and spiritual advisor. In that capacity she leads him to own up to his heinous crime, and through his repentance he finds forgiveness.

When he is finally executed, Sister Helen Prejean actually accompanies him throughout the ordeal. As he walks to the execution chamber, she reassures him that “Christ is here.” In the final moment, she tells him, “I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing. I’ll be the face of love for you.”

You may or may not be aware that Sister Helen Prejean is a real-life nun with a ministry to death row inmates. Regardless of how you view the death penalty, it seems to me that there is no disputing the fact that she is a powerful witness to the presence of the risen Jesus! Talk about freedom from fears! Or service to the left out! Or even loving the “unlovable”! I think she clearly embodies the kind of love that our scripture lesson speaks of.

Whose Face Are We? Her story leads me to ask, “Who is the face of love for the people in our world?”—those who are hurting, who perhaps have fallen through the cracks, or have done something terrible that they regret? Who is the face of love for the inmate in Huntsville, or the homeless transient sleeping on the streets in Galveston, or the illegal alien right here?

It is common to acknowledge that we are the only face that some people will ever put to the Christian faith. What that means is we are the only ones who can show them God’s love and mercy and grace. But do we? Are we like sister Helen Prejean, showing love to one who is undeserving solely because God loves him? Or are we like the mob chanting and clamoring for his execution? You know, something like “Crucify, Crucify him!” Are we still crucifying Christ in the “throw away” people around us?

First Steps. How do we do this? We have to start with our first steps; we can’t just walk out the door one day and decide to run a marathon! And Sister Helen Prejean is an accomplished distance runner in this field!

Learning to relate to others with love begins in the family of faith. That’s one of the reasons why we’re called to community—because it’s so hard to relate to one another! It may come as a surprise to you to learn that I’m a human being, with lots of flaws and foibles. But don’t be too shocked at that; so are you! We are called to community so we can learn to “lay down our lives” for one another just as Jesus laid down his life for us.

What does that mean to “lay down our lives” for one another in the body of Christ? Eugene Peterson gives us a hint in his translation of Jesus’ words from our gospel lesson: “I am the Good Shepherd. … I put the sheep before myself, sacrificing myself if necessary” (John 10:11, 15, The Message).

But make no mistake about it—John doesn’t put any conditions to loving one another and laying down our lives for one another. It is a command, right up there with loving God and putting your faith in Jesus! It is the essence of being a Christian! It is indispensable and non-negotiable!

Conclusion. So the question is, can we do that for one another? I know that sometimes we all can be pretty hard to love. But I’m not talking about how we feel towards one another. I’m talking about making a commitment to relate to one another with the love that Christ has shown us. I’m talking about making a commitment to live the Christian life in community with one another.

There are times when that’s not easy. It takes the same kind of commitment that we bring to a marriage or to a family. We love one another through thick and thin, through joy and pain, through fighting and hugging, through hell and yes even through high water! We stick with each other, we forgive each other, we let each other off the hook, we work at seeing things from the other point of view, we support and respect and treat one another with dignity—the dignity of a human being created in the image of God and made the object of God’s love.[3] When we can do that, then the power and presence of the risen Lord Jesus will be experienced among us.[4]

[1] A Sermon preached 5/6/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2]See Frederic & Mary Ann Brussat, review of “Dead Man Walking,” at

[3] Cf. Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice, 84-86, where he articulates that love’s “first task” in relationships is to listen; then it is to give, whether respect or self-sacrifice; then it is to forgive.

[4] See Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, 83; J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 260-63.

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