“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.” Jesus, John 13:35
In this short verse Jesus says “Love one another” three times. It is his last evening with his band of friends, and so time is short – he has to get across to them one final time before the crucifixion the core of his legacy to them – and that core is love. He qualifies this repetition of “Love one another” by saying that it is his new commandment to them; and by saying he wants them to love one another just as he has loved them; and he lastly wants them to do so as a witness to the world, to show that they are his disciples. But if they forget all those qualifications, at least they will remember that he said this three times, “Love one another… love one another… have love for one another!”
In commenting on this Gospel passage in The Women’s Bible Commentary, Gail O’Day writes that while this commandment seems simple, Jesus must have known that “there are many circumstances in which it is easier to love one’s enemies than it is to love those with whom one lives, works, and worships day after day.” (p.302) So this is a simple but not easy commandment that we keep imperfectly. Yet Jesus must also have known that even our imperfect efforts at loving one another as sisters and brothers in his name will give off a light and a glow that will attract others to his way. Our love for one another is a potent manifestation of the risen Christ alive and among us.
Our first lesson for today from the Acts of the Apostles, which chronicles the life of the early church in the days following Christ’s resurrection – gives us a marvelous example of this sort of love in action among those original disciples. Here in Acts we read about a confrontation between Peter and the leaders of the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem followers’ understanding of Jesus was deeply rooted in their Jewish faith and practice, and Peter was very much one of them. But word had gotten to the Jerusalem followers, that while on a visit to the city of Joppa, Peter had eaten dinner in the house of a Gentile. Given the strict dietary laws of the Jews, these fellow followers of Christ were astonished and confronted Peter on his return to Jerusalem.
Peter’s response to their strong questioning of his actions is a wonderful illustration of living out the new commandment to “love one another”. Peter is non-argumentative. He does not enter into a debate and does not quote scripture in his defense. As Acts puts it, “Peter began to explain it to them, step by step.” (Acts 11:4). Peter built a bridge to his critics by sharing his personal experience of God’s Spirit moving among the Gentiles. His conversion through this experience is strong and his telling of the story of it opens the hearts of the other Jerusalem followers to this new avenue of God’s grace at work in the world. With open hearts the first followers of Jesus were able to let the Spirit lead them to share the power of resurrection with Gentiles - people they would not likely have reached out to so easily without the Spirit’s prompting. But it was only through having love and respect for one another - even in a difficult and potentially contentious conversation that they were able to be open to that prompting together!
The same has been true for the church in every age and place since. As I said in my sermon last Sunday, I feel the Spirit of God moving us to think, pray and discuss together how it is that we can shape our live as a church, in all its facets to reach more people with the power of healing and resurrection that we find in Christ Jesus. This is work of the church which is unending – in fact the church will only die if it stops seeking to open itself wider to the world in Christ’s name in each time and place – in each generation. We will be engaging in this sort of prayerful vision building over the coming months, and so I encourage us to take Peter as our mentor – to speak with conviction about our God inspired vision and to listen closely to those of others that we might weave a vision for our congregations that will bring others to join us in this life changing enterprise we call faith in Christ.
And aren’t we are so much stronger, wiser and able to share the power of resurrection woven together in the mystical body of Christ than we are able to do separately? That said, our loving of each other is often not easy. When in disagreement we may not think very loving thoughts about one another – but as my 12 step sponsor says, you are not responsible for your first thought, but you are responsible for your second thought. So we might have to work ourselves toward loving thought and action at times. And if we act on a first, unloving thought, we might have to circle back and make amends, and together practice that radical forgiveness that Jesus has shown us. None of this is simple, and often it is championed by dominant messages of our culture which scream at us about winning at any cost.
But as difficult and uncomfortable as having love for one another might be at times, it is a powerful witness to the One who loved us first. And that is a major theme of the theme of the Gospel of John. Again, Gail O’Day, in The Women’s Bible Commentary writes this:
“The language of Love [in John’s Gospel] is a different ethical language from the language found in the Synoptic Gospels [of Matthew, Mark and Luke]. It is a language for fullness rather than of emptying. One will give one’s life for one’s friends as an act of love[15:3], not as an act of self-denial and sacrifice as it is understood in the Synoptic Gospels [e.g., Mark 8:34]. In John, one gives out of the abundance of one’s love, not out of denial of one’s self.”(p.302)
So try as we can we cannot of our own power manufacture this sort of authentic love for one another. Rather we must first experience God’s outlandish love for us in Christ and then let that love flow into our thoughts and out into the world through our words and actions. Disclaimer: a life time of practice is ahead of anyone who attempts this! But that should not deter us, for through even our half- baked efforts God can work amazing wonders and can reach others through our strivings toward loving witness to Christ.
I want to end with by reading an excerpt of a story that we will be reading and discussing during our Adult Forum next Sunday. It comes from the book My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories foe Interreligious Encounter, Growth and Transformation, (Edited by Jennifer Howe Peace, Or Rose and Gregory Mobley). It is a story written by Rita Nakashima Brock about her life of faith. She was born in Japan to Japanese parents and her early spiritual life was shaped by the Buddhist and Shinto religions. After her mother remarried an American Army Medic, they soon moved to the US where during her middle and high school years the family lived on various army basses and Rita became acquainted with Christianity as represented by a number of different protestant Army Chaplains. In candor she writes:
“I found it strange and dull, and I associated it with the anti-Japanese hostility I experienced from classmates.”
In her early adulthood her perceptions of Christianity changed when she met another young woman who became a close friend. This young woman was the daughter of a fundamentalist Baptist minister. Brock writes that unlike the Christians she had encountered earlier:
“…they eschewed the solemn piety of the chaplains I had known. Instead they enjoyed life with open-hearted joy grounded in the unshakeable confidence in the love of God. Fundamentalist faith was never a good fit for me, but that did not seem to matter.”
They genuinely loved her anyway and matter what. It is clear from the way she writes about their relationship that this family was significant and transformative to her life. Through their loving witness she found a connection and relationship with God in Christ that looked very different from theirs. But their love for each other transcended their differences. Years into her adulthood, in her final conversation with the father of this family she affirms the powerful witness of Christ’s love that he had been to her. Brock writes that she told him:
“When I was a member of your church, you gave me a solid grounding in faith. I am glad you were the one to baptize me. I want you to know that you led me to confidence in my relationship to God. I trust that relationship and always will. And I’ll see you in heaven.”
May the love that we have for each other in this congregation be as strong a witness to Christ Jesus. In his name and for his sake. Amen+