a sermon for the 5th Sunday in Eastertide
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. (John 13:34-35)
hile it is important for people who seek to follow Jesus to pay attention to all four of the gospel accounts – and to read each in light of the others – it is sometimes a really useful thing to pay attention to the particular vision and message of an individual gospel writer. Tonight, for instance, as we read the words from the Gospel according to John – the new commandment given to the disciples to love one another as they had first been loved by Jesus – most of us have teachings from the other three gospels rattling around in our memories, so it might be easy to miss just how central this is to what John wants us to know about life in Christ.
You see, while John offers us extended pieces of Jesus’ teaching – long conversations with the disciples, with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, and even with Pontius Pilate – there is virtually none of the ethical teaching that is contained in the accounts of Luke and Matthew. As Reynolds Price observes, “if John’s were our only report, not even Christians could claim that Jesus was a moral teacher.” In the Gospel according to John, Jesus places only two demands on his people: “Love one another,” and “Believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14:1b).
In other words, “trust that I am,” and love those who are attempting to do the same. This isn’t even the same as the command to “love your neighbour as yourself,” which stands as the launching pad for the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel according to Luke, because in that instance “the neighbour” is everyone and anyone. Here in John, the command to “love one another” is issued to the disciples, “in order that everyone will know that you are my disciples.” When outsiders see how you love one another, they will know something about who you follow, and maybe even be drawn to become followers.
Well, it may seem an awful lot easier to do that than to love everyone, or to follow all of the ethical challenges contained in the Sermon on the Mount, and it seems a much simpler path than attempting to follow the 600+ commandments contained in the torah. It seems pretty straightforward, that is, until you start trying to do it. For to “love one another” in the manner in which Jesus first loved us is likely to cut against the grain of just about everything that keeps us happily in our comfort zones.
Love of this sort is a choice and an act of the will, having no necessary connection whatsoever with how I happen to feel about all of you, who I am called to love. You see, I am a fairly high level introvert at heart, which on some days can render me an all but anti-social creature. I’ll happily sit and write a sermon about loving all of you; just don’t bug me while I’m doing it.
Ever heard of a church that got scrappy? Divided? Maybe developed opposing factions, that ended up splitting the congregation, with a group heading out to start a new one? I’m not sure there is anything uglier than the kind of fighting that can take place in a church community; a community that in the eyes of John is to be most characterized by a love that is chosen.
Ask Simon Peter how easy it was to love the others who are on the Way of Jesus, when he’s just discovered that the Spirit of God has just thrown every single cultural, social and religious assumption of his upbringing into disarray. That’s what has happened in the section we read from the Book of Acts tonight.
Peter is hit by the Spirit with a classic one-two punch. First in a dream-like vision, he’s told that all of the dietary laws that he’s been raised with are now null and void. We don’t completely get the force of that, in that these laws were not only about what kinds of foods were culturally ingrained – it is more than being told that we can begin to dine on dogs and cats and hamsters – for following these food laws was part of what defined religious fidelity; to not eat shellfish, for instance, was understood as a way of remaining clean and faithful to God. And that is all gone now? What defines clean, then? Well, apparently God does, but that isn’t quite as easy as a rule book.
And then comes the second punch. “At that very moment three men” – three gentile men – “sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” (Acts 11:11-12a) “The Spirit told me… not to make a distinction between them and us.” But how is that possible? We’ve been making a distinction between them and us for 1000 years, and they have been our foes, our captors, our overlords, our persecutors. In this instance, they include a man named Cornelius, who is a Roman centurion of all things. Of course we have to make distinctions… even if lobster tail and bacon are no longer unclean, surely these people are… well, the enemy; the other.
Again, we can have a hard time finding the parallels in our own context. In 1969, at the height of the civil rights movement in the United States, Clarence Jordan – a Baptist, a writer and a founder of an interracial community farm – found a parallel in his context. This is from his “Cotton Patch” version of the Book of Acts:
Now the news spread to both preachers and laymen throughout Georgia that other races were responding to the word of God. So when Rock returned to Atlanta, some who believe in segregation tore into him. “You went home with folks who aren’t white,” they shouted, “and you were eating with them!” Rock then got going and laid the matter out for them just like it happened.
This is followed by the section on the lifting of dietary laws and of the arrival of Peter’s gentile visitors (Acts 11:5-14), and then it continues:
“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came over them just as it had over us at the beginning. It reminded me of something the Lord had told us: ‘John did dip people in water, but you all will be dipped in Holy Spirit.’ Well, then, if God’s gift to them was exactly the same as ours when we put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, what right did I have to argue with God?” Upon hearing this explanation, they came down off their high horse and started praising God. “Then it’s a fact,” they said, “that God has given to the Negroes the transformed life.”
Here in Jordon’s version, we can catch a glimpse of what it might have meant for those early Jewish Christians to have to come to grips with the new Spirit-driven reality that said, “there is no distinction.” Period.
But even for them, it wasn’t a seamless transition. We see lots of signs in the epistles of Paul that it remained a challenging issue for decades, and that even Peter backed down a bit and at least for a time stopped sharing meals with Gentile Christians. “Love one another” a simple command to follow? Not so much.
It is so easy to look at Peter and say, “what were you thinking, bowing to the pressure to stop dining with Gentiles?” It is easy to look at the deep south of 40 years ago, and stand in judgment of racism and segregation. Or to shake our heads at the history of violence between Irish Catholics and Ulster Protestants.
But what of us? Who is not here? Who has a hard time keeping company with us, on account of feeling only provisionally welcomed or conditionally loved? Is it on account of a failed marriage or sexual orientation or a disastrous failing in life or being a single mom or having deep doubts or depression or a struggle with addiction or, or, or… ?
I don’t know, frankly. But we’re foolish to think that we, as a people together, haven’t failed someone – some brother or sister in Christ. We’d be fools to think we haven’t turned away some stranger at the door, or that we haven’t inadvertently turned our backs on somebody who needed to be with us as we seek to live out this strange thing; this love that Jesus mandates.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” So we’d better get on with it.