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Just As I Have Loved You

  • May 19, 2019
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for 19 May 2019 (Pascha 5 Year C)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Revelation 21:1-8 REV; Psalm 148; John 13:31-35

Title:               Just As I Have Loved You

Alleluia! Christ is risen.     The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

“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).

My friends, who do we define as lovable? And who is unlovable?

You may remember that this new commandment comes right after the Lord washes the feet of his disciples on the night of Maundy Thursday.

He sets us the example that we are to follow, and then he gives us this new commandment, built on that example of loving service, which will mark these disciples as different, as a unique community.

But what exactly makes this commandment new? It is very similar to other commandments that grow out of the Torah, such as the commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

And it is similar to the Lord’s own expansion of that norm when he explained that we are to love our enemies and to pray for them.

So the call to love others was certainly not new at all. What, then, makes this to be a new commandment?

It is the context that is different, and it is the context that makes it new. “Love one another.” Here, for the very first and the very last time, the Lord applies the rule of love to the community of his disciples.

Now, some have perceived this as a softening or a lessening of the commandment. Meaning that this particular iteration is easier than the others. But is it really?

Love your neighbor. Love your enemy. Love one another  – within the Christian community. Which one is the easiest? Which is the most difficult?

I do not think this is an easy question to answer, and history surely tells us that Christians have done a particularly poor job of loving one another.

Clearly, loving one another must not be the easiest of these three.

And the difficulty always seems to arise from one challenging aspect of community life that has always muddied the waters: who can rightfully claim to be in the Christian community, and who is outside of it?

What are the lines that we can rightfully draw to delineate the community of disciples? Another way to say this is, who do we define as lovable? And who do we define as unlovable?

You see, nowhere does Jesus ask his disciples to BELIEVE in love. He is telling them to ACT in love, to BEHAVE in such a way that any casual observer could watch and say, Yes, those people truly love one another.

I mean, who cares if you believe in love? Recently I heard someone say that they believe in the universe.

What?! What in the world could that possibly mean? And who cares? What are you DOING with your life? THAT’s what matters!

Because the truth is that people make all kinds of claims about faith, about what they believe it or what they do NOT believe in. And yet how is it that people who can claim the same faith can behave in ways that are so remarkably different?

It is because our true life, what we actually do, is not governed by our public professions of faith, but by our core convictions. Here is a good way to think about these different levels and how they govern our behavior.

The first level is public statements. These are things I say that I believe because it is expected of me, it is socially advantageous to believe this. Think of Herod saying to the Magi that he also wanted to worship the new king, or think of any politician who talks about their faith in God.

The second level is that of our private convictions. Things that I THINK I truly believe, but which have not really been tested. Think of Peter saying that he will never betray Jesus and will follow him to his death. He probably did believe this, but it was hypothetical; it had not yet been tested in reality.

The third and deepest level is that of our core convictions. Things that I believe which are entirely non-negotiable, lines which I will never cross, no matter what. Core convictions are my default settings in a time of crisis.

God really does not care at all about those first two levels – about our public statements or about our private convictions. Because the intention of Jesus is to transform us at our deepest level, at the level of our core convictions.

Jesus gave them a new commandment that was intended to take root at the deepest level of their lives. Now, think for a moment about the context and how difficult this is.

These people were not family. They were thrown together by divine fiat, like spices tossed in together to simmer in a pot of soup. They did not choose each other. Rather, they were chosen.

It is easy to be with our friends, to be with our loved ones, and to say “I love you.” And to feel it, and honestly to mean it.

But, let’s face it, that is easy. And that is not the kind of love of which Jesus speaks in this new commandment. We must go much deeper than that.

“The one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Within the realm of this new heaven and new earth, love is the rule. Love is the core conviction of each person which governs all behavior.

In that realm, there can be no more mourning and crying, no more deception, no more murder, no more lying, no more breaking of promises.

The Revelation of John gives us a vision of this new realm where all of these painful things are swept away for good, burned up in a lake of fire and sulfur.

Now, if you are troubled by this image of the lake of fire and sulfur, you are not alone. This final verse is intentionally left out of the Lectionary, even though it is clearly the last sentence of the paragraph. It was my decision to put it back in, because it belongs there, and because we should not be afraid of it. So you can blame me, if you wish.

But you should know that this is clearly symbolic and poetic language. It was never meant to be taken literally. Immediately preceding this passage, the Revelation explains that both Death and the Grave are thrown into this same lake of fire, which is the second death.

I hope you see that this has no literal meaning. Death is a process of recycling energy and matter. It is how everything in the universe functions in constant cycles of motion.

And how can the Grave be thrown into a lake of fire? Clearly this is symbolic language that invites us to trust in God’s eventual victory over all the forces of violence and evil.

Besides, there is a bigger challenge in this text. Time and time again, both the Gospel of John and the Revelation to John envision clear distinctions between who is in the community, and who is out.

Or, we might say, between who is lovable, and who is not.

But you know the problem with these kinds of distinctions, don’t you? In this world, in this old earth, they are truly impossible to make.

Until Christ’s work of transformation is complete, until the new has come in its fullness and the old has passed away, it is often the case that I am among the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted. If I am honest, it is rare that I find the strength to love others just as Christ has loved us.

Who then is lovable, and who is not? Who is in the community, and who is out?

There is another well-known passage in the Gospels where this kind of line is drawn. It is toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel and it is called the parable of the sheep and the goats.

You remember it! The sheep acted in loving, caring, compassionate ways and so are designated to be rewarded, while the goats failed to act in those same ways and so are sent to a place of fire – very similar to what we see here in Revelation.

But long ago, one of the elders in the deserts of Egypt was confronted by a possessed man who demanded to know the answer to one question: “Tell me,” this sick man said, “who are the goats and who are the sheep?” He was referring to this famous parable in Matthew. And the wise elder answered, “I am one of the goats. But the sheep? Only God knows.” And the story explains that it was the humility of this elder that brought about this man’s healing (Apophthegmata Patrum Anonymous N 307).

My friends, who do we define as lovable? And who is unlovable?

At the deepest level of our core convictions, are we convinced that all of us are in need of grace and mercy and divine transformation?

Like that wise elder, I say that we give up the old tired game of drawing lines around the community. Let’s stop defining who is lovable and who is not.

Instead, let us simply ask for grace every single day to love one another and to love everyone we meet, not in words, and not in thought, but in action.

May it always be so among us. Amen.

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