The Holy Gospel according to John.
The New Commandment
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 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.”
The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
I want to begin with a confession…I love power ballads from the 1980s. I really love these songs. Not just because of the cool electric guitars, but also because a lot of these songs explore the concept of love. Songs like:
- Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”
- Whitesnake’s “Is This Love?”
- Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is?”
- Huey Lewis and the News’ “Do You Believe in Love?”
- Poison’s “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn”
These songs (and many current songs) talk a lot about love. They wonder about the relationships between people we call “love.” Some talk about a love that’s unrecognized and unnoticed by another person. Some talk about just how amazing love is. Throughout human history we’ve talked about love, not just in songs, but also in stories, movies, poetry, and other mediums.
But there’s something about these songs which leaves me wondering about the definition of love. Because truly, what is love?
What confuses me is how the word “love” can refer to both deep and meaningful relationships and to things I merely like a lot. How I can use the same word to talk about my intense feelings for my wife and my affinity for tacos? I love my Laura, but I llloooovvvvveeee tacos. But are these loves the same thing? I’m confused about how to use the word “love”… especially when I really mean it.
Well I wish I could say our texts from Acts & John today clear this issue up real nice for us, but I can’t. It does give us some clarity on what Jesus meant when talking about God’s love.
Peter’s vision at Joppa is a very important story to Luke, the writer of Acts; so important that he tells it twice, back-to-back, in chapters ten and eleven. Acts is a missionary story and testimony about people being converted is central to missionary stories, and this event of a sheet full of “profane” food being presented to Peter is key to the conversion of the gentile Cornelius and his family—but the conversion of gentiles in Acts is not the most important conversion here. There are two others; the conversion of Peter and the conversion of the “apostles and believers who were in Judea.”
Of course, the question of what food to eat and who to eat it with was not what was really going on here. As my therapist often says, “The issue is not the issue,” which is shorthand for the reality that the thing we’re willing to talk about is usually not the thing that’s actually bothering us.
Peter and the peeps back in Joppa had a larger issue than diet and etiquette—they don’t think the Good News of Jesus Christ is for everybody, they think it’s just for people like themselves. And the events surrounding the conversion of Cornelius showed that the LORD did not agree.
The vision of the “profane” food was really about people, not food; and about including people completely and totally in your life, not just about a willingness to sit at table with them.
When the dream came to Peter, it really shook him up—he couldn’t figure out what it meant. After the trance broke, messengers from Cornelius came, and Peter went with them and saw whom he had been called to preach to; it was only then that the light bulb went off and Peter realized that God meant the Gospel message for everyone. Peter preached, and people got saved, and the Holy Spirit fell on everybody, and they had a big meal, and a good time was had by all.
Well, of course the good people back at the home church didn’t quite see it that way. They heard rumors that Peter was breaking with all sorts of social precedent and cultural taboo by actually sitting down and eating with “unclean” gentiles. They called Peter on the carpet to explain himself. And Peter did. He told his story, and then added a bit of commentary—after all, he had had a little time to think about it. He reminded the them of the line from John the Baptist, “I have baptized you with water, but the one is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Then he laid this clincher before them, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” And, as we’d say today, he dropped the mike and walked off stage. There was a stunned silence followed by thunderous applause, or at least loud shouts of praise to the Lord God Almighty.
Anyone familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures knows that the commandment to love is not new. It is a central part of the Torah. Or, as illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan the commandment applies as much to the stranger, the foreigner and the outsider as it does among God’s chosen people. Such love is not to be construed as mere sentiment or as some unachievable ideal. It is central to human thriving.
But it’s so hard. For one thing, love is dangerous. It got Jesus killed. Jesus warns us that the same fate may well await those who follow in his footsteps. And even when love is not lethal, it can hurt like nothing else. Nobody is capable of wounding me like those I most love. A stranger can insult me, criticize me and call me all manner of demeaning names and it won’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. But when someone I trust betrays me, someone I admire criticizes me, someone I care deeply about turns away from me—that hurts. Perhaps that is why appeals to blood, soil, race and nation are so appealing to so many. Maybe that is why remarks such as “charity begins at home” resonate with us. By keeping the circle of those we love and trust small and well defined, we reduce the chance of getting hurt.
For most of us disciples, love does not take the shape of martyrdom in terms of a violent death. It is more like being nibbled to death by ducks.
- Church leaders, who thought they were agreeing to a three year term on the council, find out instead that they have been sentenced to life without parole when no one steps forward to take their place when the term ends. And for all that, they frequently receive more criticism than praise for their sacrifice.
- There are plenty of Church musicians who seldom know a Sunday when someone doesn’t complain about the choir anthem or which hymns/praise songs are or are not being sung.
- There are pastors who find themselves held personally responsible for declining membership, sermons that rub people the wrong way and decisions of their national church over which they have little control.
- And of course, there is no shortage of stories about people who have been judged, rejected and deeply wounded by the words and actions of church people.
Church is not for the faint of heart. I can understand why so many people leave it in disgust. Churches are typically not communities in which you find the kind of love Jesus is speaking about.
But I believe we have it all wrong. The church is not the place you come to find love; it’s the place you come to learn love.
- You can’t learn to love people different than yourself if you surround yourself with people like you.
- You can’t learn forgiveness if you surround yourself with people who don’t offend you.
- You can’t learn to love your enemies if you insist on surrounding yourself with friends.
So if you are looking to find in the church the loving, accepting and affirming family you never had; or if you are looking to find in the church a safe place where you can’t get hurt, you are bound to be disappointed. The church has never been such a place. It is, instead, a place where people chosen by Jesus are brought together.
- They might not be people who always like each other.
- They might not be people who always agree with one another.
- They might not always be shining examples of kindness, compassion and dedication to justice.
But if we believe what Jesus is telling us in John’s gospel, the church is made up of people chosen by him. That means, hard as it may be to swallow, everyone in every congregation is there because Jesus called them. Everyone at GSLC has something to teach me that I cannot learn from anyone else.
Once again, I understand why people give up on the church. I have been tempted to give up on it more than once in my life. But just about the time I am ready to throw in the towel, something happens to change my mind.
- The meanest, most bigoted and seemingly heartless person in the congregation knocks my socks off with a selfless act of heroism, courage and kindness.
- A congregation hopelessly turned in upon itself discovers a new purpose and is renewed by responding to a critical need in its neighborhood.
- The young person I thought would never darken the church door again after confirmation expresses an interest in ministry.
- Somebody tells me about how something I said or did that I cannot even remember inspired them in a transformative way.
These things don’t happen very often. But they happen just often enough to convince me that the love released into the world through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is real and active in the church.
Now, before us gentile beneficiaries of this dramatic turn of events in our texts today, begin to sit back in rain down judgment of the Judeans’ prejudice and shortsightedness. It is important that we look not at them, but to ourselves, to the restrictions we place on God’s unconditional love. Most of us think of ourselves as loving, generous people with open hearts and open minds, but are we really?
- Who, exactly do we loathe to sit at table with?
- Whom do we let in or leave out? Not just at church, but in our personal lives.
We have gotten pretty good at public inclusivity, enforced by law and current social mores. I can’t think of any church I have been a part of that would actually turn away someone of a different race or nationality, and many of them have an integrated membership. But—whom do we reject in our personal lives, in our hearts? What barriers still exist there? What racial, political, cultural biases cause us to say, at least silently to ourselves and God, “I don’t see anything I like!”?
No one should ever be excluded from the church or from our personal lives for simply being who they are, who God made them to be, or for telling the truth about that. We are called of God to spread the Good News of God’s inclusive, unconditional love not only in word, but also in deed–by inviting everyone into our church, into our lives, and into our hearts.
I can love Laura with all my heart, but I can also lllooovvveee tacos. There is room enough for both.