Saturday, April 27, 2013

New and Improved Commandment?

John 13:31-35 
When Judas was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.

“My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. 

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

In the film, 42, which is the story about Jackie Robinson, the baseball executive, Branch Rickey, is played by Harrison Ford.  Rickey was the man who spear headed the effort to bring an end to racially segregated baseball and in the film he gives different reasons as to why he makes that effort.  In one scene he makes the observation that his faith is why he is doing this because the Bible tells us eight times to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I’m not sure that Rickey is right about that.  In one way or another, that command to love others shows up time and time again.  In the New Testament alone, one source says it shows up 11 times, and multiple times in the Old Testament.

Way back in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, we are told (19:18), “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Love is the key to the Christian faith.

There is a tradition in the history of the church that the Apostle John, when he was an old man living in Ephesus, had to be carried to the church in the arms of the younger Christians.  Once at the church worship, John was often asked to preach.

I mean think about it – here is John, the last living Apostle.  Here is a man who walked with Christ, ate with him, saw the crucifixion, was there for the Resurrection.  Of course people wanted him to preach.

John could have said something like, “Well you know I remember one day Jesus and I were walking along the beach and he told me this parable that nobody ever wrote in the Gospels, so I’ll tell it to you now.

Or John might have said, “Besides the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus also taught these other prayers, let me share them with you.”

Or John might have said, “Rabbi Jesus, preacher Peter and I walked into a taveran one day and Jesus turned to us and said, “You know, that reminds me of a joke.”  How cool would that have been if John had told some joke, parable or prayer that Jesus had spoken?

But John never did that.  Whenever he was asked to preach, it was always the same old sermon, word for word the same, without change:

“Little Children, love one another.”
As the tradition goes, after a time, the younger Christians became tired of always hearing the same words, asked, "Master, why do you always say this?"

"It is the Lord's command," was his reply. "And if this alone be done, it is enough!"

Now this is a story that comes from St Jerome, one of the early church fathers, but whether it is true or not, what is clear is that Christians are to love others.

Why do we love others?  Because first of all Christ commanded it.  Here in the New Testament lesson for this morning in what amounts to a farewell address, Jesus is telling his disciples that they must obey a new commandment: "Love one another.”

Love is active and real and difficult.  Douglas John Hall of Canada's McGill University notes that the law of Christ makes tolerance not enough:  "It may be good enough, legally and politically, but it is not good enough for the one who did not say, 'Tolerate your neighbor', but 'love your neighbor."

Why do we love?  Not just because Christ commanded it, but because we are loved by God, even though we do not deserve it.  St. John wrote in I John 4:19, "We love, because God first loved us,"

Why do we love?  Because it is a way of life that, while difficult, works.

James Kegel  tells of a story about a young woman named Sarah.  “Sarah came from a family where there was little love. Criticism, fighting, ridicule and violence were the rule. Never spoken were the words, ‘I love you,’ or ‘I am sorry, forgive me.’ Then Sarah found a new self in faith through Christ. She met Jesus and she began to act differently at home. She would stop in the middle of a fight and ask to be forgiven. She began to say, ‘I love you, Mom. I love you, Dad.’ She began giving hugs. She began returning blessings for curses, compliments for ridicule, forgiveness when wronged. Over a period of two years of giving blessings to parents and siblings, the entire family met Jesus and gave themselves to His love. Jesus commands us to love because it will change our lives and the lives of others.”

OK, we get that love is commanded by Christ, practiced by God, and works in our lives, but this command to love is all old news.  Jesus, in the New Testament, says it is a “new commandment” but it feels familiar and old.

Love.  Love, love love love love love.

We’ve heard this in sermons so many times.

It’s old stuff.

Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Yada yada yada.”

It was old news when Jesus gave his farewell address to the Apostles in our New Testament lesson telling his disciples, “I give you a new commandment…”

You ever buy one your brand of shampoo or soap or pizza or whatever and see on the label, “New and Improved.”  You buy it, take it home, use it, and it turns out to be the same old stuff.  You can’t tell the difference.

Is this commandment like that?

Is Jesus saying, “New and improved commandment here, buy ‘em while they last.”

Love one another?

Same old stuff we’ve heard before.  Love love love love. Yada yada yada.

Nothing new here.

Or is there.

Elsewhere we are told to love others, “as we love ourselves.”

Now Jesus as saying for the first time, “love as I have loved you.”

The bar is being raised. 

It is not just that we are to love others as we love ourselves, now we are being told to love others as Jesus loved.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is approached by a teacher of the law.  "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

And that is what we want to know.

We are perfectly willing to love others, as long as they deserve our love.  We love good people.  We might even love evil people as long as they are behind bars at the time.

But when Jesus loved others, he never asked if someone deserved his love.

He loved freely, and abundantly.

We are to love as Jesus loved.

The person who is nice and pleasant to us – yes, we need to love that person.

The person who is rude to us and says something that hurts us – yes, we love that person, just like Christ loves that person.

The person who breaks into our neighbor’s home – or even OUR home.  Yes, we love that person just as Christ loved and died for the thief on the cross.

Those two brothers in Boston?  The one who is dead and the one who is under arrest for the bombing?  Yes, even them. 

This new and improved commandment is not easier – it’s harder.  To love others like we love ourselves is one thing.  We might justify ourselves and make excuses.  We might say, “terrorists are not our neighbors.” 

But this new commandment says we have to love each other – as Christ loved us.  And that raises the bar considerably.  We have to love everyone – AND we have to love them as Christ did.

Not easy.   And there are those times when we don’t like it.  There are times we would like to justify why we should NOT love specific people.  

But this is not debatable.  We love, because Christ said so.  We love because God first loved us.  We love others just like Christ loves them.

Ernest Gordon was a Presbyterian minister who died just a few years ago (2002).  Before becoming a minister he was an atheist. During World War II he served as an officer in the Pacific Theater.  He was captured and held prisoner by the Japanese army.  During the Second World War, history shows that Japan treated their prisoners of war with extreme cruelty.  The death rate was quite high, and at one point Gordon was placed in the “Death Ward” where fellow prisoners took care of other prisoners who were expected to die. 

While in the Death Ward, Gordon was treated by two fellow allied soldiers, both devout Christians.  One of them, Dusty Miller, never met the cruelty of the enemy with anger or discouragement.  Two weeks before the end of the war, a Japanese guard who was so frustrated with Dusty’s sense of calm in the face of hardship, crucified him.  The guard literally put together a cross and nailed the prisoner to it and watched him slowly die.  

In his book, Miracle on the River Kwai, Ernest Gordon described how the Allied soldiers not only cared for their own, but for the guards who were so vicious to them.  Gordon’s book tells of a very moving incident in which British prisoners of war tend the wounds of injured Japanese soldiers and feed them. The Japanese are encrusted with mud, blood and excrement. Their wounds are badly inflamed and infected.  Their own army had left them uncared for, because there were simply not enough resources.  When the British prisoners saw them, they took pity on them, bathed their wounds, and shared with them a little food to eat.

Think of that – these soldiers were caring for their enemies who had starved and beaten them, killed their comrades. God broke down the hatred and conquered it with love.  

The natural thing to do would have been for these POWs to hate their enemies.  But these prisoners loved those guards, as Christ loved both groups.

The natural way to respond to people who hurt us is to hurt them.  Christians, however, respond to the world with Christ-like love.

The natural way to respond to people who cheat us is to strike out against them.  Christians, however, respond to the world with Christ-like love.

The natural way to respond to how things are in this world is to be like the world.  But we are called upon to respond to the world with Christ-like love.

In Boston two brothers responded to their world with homemade bombs and with the killing of innocent people.  They accomplished nothing for their cause.  They accomplished nothing of value.  Their own uncle said it best when calling them losers.  Imagine what would happen if those brothers had responded to their world with acts of love?  It’s true that the world would probably have never heard their names, but it is also true that these two would have made great differences in the lives of those around them.  
And now we are called upon to love those two brothers and their families.  

Because our ability to love as Christ loves is what makes us different from those two brothers.  

The ability of those British POWs to love their enemy guards is what made them different.

It is not easy.

It is hard.

It is Christ’s command, not suggestion.  “Love one another.”

 Copyright 2013 Maynard Pittendreigh