(a sermon for April 28, 2013, the 5th Sunday of Easter, based on John 13:31-35)
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” I guess that when it comes to living out of our Christian faith, that’s the bottom line, isn’t it – to love one another! I mean, it doesn’t get much more direct than that; one doesn’t have to be wholly attuned to the nuances of scripture or Christian theology to understand that the pathway to righteousness, not to mention the mission of the church, is clear and concise: to love God and to love your neighbor; the rest, as they say, is commentary. And in a life that’s so often filled with “grey areas,” I’ve got to tell you I’m grateful for that kind of black and white simplicity!
And yet, is it really all that simple? I’m reminded of that old Peanuts comic strip, when Linus announces that when he grows up, he’s going to become a world famous surgeon – a regular “M. Deity!” – only to have this dream shot down by his sister, Lucy, who says, “You’ll never be a world famous surgeon – because to be a world famous surgeon you have to love humanity, and you don’t love humanity!” And as Lucy walks away, Linus shouts back, “I do too love humanity… it’s people I can’t stand!”
And that, friends, is where the simplicity of love becomes very complicated!
Because as people of faith, we know the commandment to “love one another;” as believers, we ought to be shining examples of that particular pathway to righteousness! Yet if we’re being honest, we have to confess that all too often the pathways we follow reveal more self-righteousness than anything else; indeed, in the places where love ought be taking root, things like ridicule and scorn, prejudice, derision and false pride – the stuff that chokes the life out of love – ends up spreading through our lives like so much pucker brush.
So, what’s the problem here? I mean, like I said, we do know better; so why don’t we live it? Is it because, like Linus, we’ve become so jaded with people that we’ve stopped believing that love ever works for the good? Is it that somewhere in our lives we’ve been hurt by risking love, and as the saying goes, “once bitten, twice shy?” Or could it be that somehow we’ve lost or forgotten what it truly means to love our neighbor as ourselves?
Well, this morning’s scripture reading offers some real insight into this. As we pick up the story today from John, we’re back to the night of betrayal and desertion; Jesus is together with his disciples, and these are in fact some of the very last words that Jesus will say to them, the last of his teachings, as it were: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”
What’s interesting here is that this isn’t really a new command, because the edict to love one’s neighbor dated back to the Old Testament; part of the Torah and as such, familiar to the disciples and anyone else who’d grown up in the Jewish faith. But what was new is what Jesus adds to it: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” In other words, love’s shape, form and function will come from Jesus himself: if you love one another in the same way that I have loved you, he says, all people will know that you are my disciples.
I would submit to you this morning that this is precisely what we’ve forgotten! In a culture where love gets reduced to shallow sentiment on the one extreme, and mere physical gratification on the other, here’s Jesus to remind us that real love has to do with living out of his love! For the Christian, you see, there is a gold standard of love and that standard is Jesus. If it’s true, as the song says, they’ll know we are Christians by our love, then it’s also true that everything we need to know about love, everything we have to do regarding love, and everything we should avoid because of love comes to us through Jesus, and by the example of his love.
Or to put it biblically, we love because he first loved us!
So the question becomes, how does Jesus love us? What exactly is the example we’re called here to follow? Well, that’s a big question with more answers than can easily be contained in a single sermon! But for our purposes this morning I would like to offer up something of an overview: four spiritual truths about Jesus that not only tell us a great deal about how he loves, but also points us in the right direction in how we should love one another.
The first is this: Jesus loves us both universally and uniquely.
By this I mean that the same Jesus who took upon his own shoulders the burden of the world’s sin is also the Jesus who throughout the gospels never failed to focus on the particular and the unique in every person he encountered, from the Samaritan woman at the well, to the thief who was crucified beside him on the hill of Golgotha. It’s interesting to note that Jesus once compared the people of Israel to a brood of chicks in need of God’s love, and yet he never yielded to the temptation to lump people into categories, or classes, or cliques; instead he always sought out the genuine and God-created uniqueness in every single person before him.
Likewise, that’s how we ought to be approaching others: in the knowledge that we are each and all God’s children, each one created to bring something unique and special to God’s kingdom on earth. If I’m going to love you as Jesus has loved me, I’m going to recognize that you are the same as me in every way that really counts; that you are created and loved by God, that you are claimed by the Christ who died to save you, and that you have a place beside me in the community of God’s people. And it’s wonderful, all those things that make us one; but I also need to acknowledge that in a whole lot of ways you’re very different from me, and if I’m to truly love you as Jesus has loved me, then I want to know you for just exactly who you are; I want to find out what makes you tick, what fills you with joy, what challenges you and what the Lord has done for you.
In one church I served, there was a little boy who every single Sunday after worship would come through the line and ask me if I knew his name! At first, it was because quite honestly I was having a hard time keeping these kids’ names straight; hey, there were a lot of children in that Sunday school, and I get so bubble-headed sometimes I’ve been known to call my own kids by the wrong names! And I got this little boy’s name right… eventually… but that didn’t stop him from asking week after week, and soon it became our own little private joke: “Of course, I know who you are, Irving! Or is it Schwartz? Don’t tell me, it’s Fred Flintstone!” It was important to him, you see, that I truly knew who he was; and it’s no different for any of us. Each one of us, deep down inside, yearns to be known; not in a generic, nameless, faceless kind of way, but for exactly the unique and special person God has created us to be. That’s how Jesus loves us, and as he has loved us, so we should love one another.
Second spiritual truth about Jesus: He loves us without limit and without condition.
If you want proof about this in Jesus’ life, simply consider the people who were part of his inner circle: tax collectors and sinners, men of low estate and women of lesser repute, people who were in every sense on the outside looking in. By worldly standards, not exactly the cream of the crop, but the point is Jesus loved them all, and what’s more, he urged them (and us) to love in the same way: love your enemies, he said, pray for those who hate you. Do not let your love become limited or exclusive, or contingent on some narrow set of criteria.
Simply put, if we’re to love as Jesus has loved us, friends, then quite simply, that love is going to have to extend beyond those who are easy for us to love; even to embracing those who at first glance seem far removed from our own experience and comfort level, not to mention sometimes our so-called “Christian” sensibilities! ( Actually, I’m reminded here of the adage that to be a Christian, one requires an eleven-foot pole; because you’re called to love people that you wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole!) But it’s precisely this kind of inclusiveness that is truly “Christ-like,” and that’s the example we need to follow as Christians, and, dare I say, what makes us the church we should be.
This having been said, however, we also must add a third truth about Jesus’ love, and that’s that Jesus loves us honestly.
Maybe it has to do with a life endeavoring to be at least somewhat sweet, kind and gentle in all things (something that admittedly has yielded mixed results!); but you know, the older I get the more I appreciate the fact that Jesus wasn’t always so kind and gentle! Jesus never pulled any punches, and I love that about him; he spoke the truth in love, and at the heart of that truth is the reality that to follow him involves our very transformation as persons and as a people. Jesus never sugar coated the gospel: it was good news, but good news that required radical change in us: metanoia, the Greek calls it; which means turning completely around from where you are now.
To put it another way, Jesus’ love is big enough to accept us and embrace us exactly as we are and where we are in life; but it’s a love bold enough not to let us stay that way lest we miss God’s purposes for our lives and living. Our love of one another ought to be marked with the same kind of boldness; acknowledging and seeking to empower the gifts of God in those around us.
And finally, one more, and related: Jesus loves us in community.
Remember in this passage from John, Jesus is also preparing his disciples for the time when they’ll have to carry on his work, and he’s saying to them, if you go out and show all people the love that you have seen and heard and experienced in me, then everyone will identify you as my disciples! In other words, our Christian faith is not meant to be internalized, and love isn’t love unless it is shared!
We need to remember that we are sent into the world to be the church of Jesus Christ! As Kevin Harney has written, “Jesus calls us into community and fellowship with each other in a way that blesses us and shows the world he is alive! The way we love each other is the greatest sign of his power and presence to a world that looks on and wonders if there is anything to the Christian faith; for the sake of God’s plan, the church, and the world, it is time for us to see just how important it is for us to be part of a local body of believers.”
For us, you see, love means dwelling in community. This is not to say that we’re a community of perfectly loving people; far from it! In fact, I’m also realizing the older I get that being a part of the church requires not only an abundance of patience, but also a spirit of forgiveness and a hearty sense of humor! That’s because so often our human frailties get in the way of living and loving as we should; and love isn’t automatic, after all; it requires from us true commitment and hard work, day in and day out. But when we work at it, following the example of Jesus, many times we get it right, so that the kind of transformation that’s happened in us can start to heal a hurting world.
Love one another as I have loved you: it’s a simple truth of faith that requires everything we’re given; and yet makes us everything we are. And it’s where everything we seek to do together begins, beloved. It’s true, you know; they will know we are Christians by our love… and, might I add, through his.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry