The Challenge of Keeping Christ's Commandment

[]This morning's passage from the Gospel of John speaks about Jesus' command to his disciples to love one another. It seems a straightforward and simple command: "Love one another as I have loved you." It follows the story of the vine and the branches and Jesus abiding in God's love and how, when we abide in his love, we also abide in God's love. Jesus promises that all who abide in his love can ask for God's guidance, strength, and power to be with them through prayer and that God will be present. These are very powerful words that we can take to heart. Jesus had chosen the disciples to bear fruit, referring back to the story of the vine and the branches that we read last week. Now Jesus talks about those disciples abiding in his love and bearing much great fruit that glorifies God.

In this passage, Jesus says, "There is no greater love than laying down one's life for a friend." That is an amazing love. There are those who do that every day. We have young men in our congregation who are serving in the military, keeping us safe and putting themselves in harm's way for us and bringing a real sense of justice into the world. We have those who offer parts of their bodies for transplant to save a life. Those who have been recipients of a transplant know how great a love that is when you receive from someone else that gift of life. But those opportunities don't present themselves to us every day.

How easy is it for us to live out Jesus' command to love one another? Hugs, putting an arm over someone's shoulder when they are hurting, grieving or in distress…those are easy ways of offering love to one another. But they may not seem easy to us as adults when we really think about the broad context of that. So what does it really mean for us to love one another as Jesus has loved us? I have been reading a book by Garry Wills entitled, 'What Jesus Meant.' He is a Catholic writer who has wonderful, profound things to say. What he points to in here is what Jesus meant about love and what his ministry was about. And so I read to you a passage from his section entitled, 'Heaven's Reign.' Paraphrasing Luke, it is about how heaven's reign is here on earth, and how part of that is loving each other.

I say to all you who can hear me, love your foes. Help those who hate you. Praise those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who punches your cheek, offer the other cheek. To one seizing your cloak, do not refuse your tunic under it. Whoever asks, give to him. Whoever seizes, do not resist. Exactly how you wish to be treated, in that way treat others for if you love those who love back, what mark of virtue have you? Sinners themselves love those who love back. If you treat well those treating you well, what mark of virtue have you? This is how sinners act. If you lend only where you calculate a return, what mark of virtue have you? Sinners too lend to sinners calculating an exact return. No, rather love your foes and treat them well, and lend without any calculation of return. Your great reward will be that you are children of the highest one who also favors ingrates and scoundrels. Be just as lenient as that lenient father. Be not a judge, then you will not be judged. Be no sentencer, and you will not be sentenced. Pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and what will be given you is recompense of crammed- in, sifted-down, over-toppling good showered into your lap. The excess will correspond to your excess. (Luke 6:27-38)

I think Garry Wills took a bit of liberty with some of those words in interpreting what Jesus said. When we hear the simple words, "Love one another," we think of the different kinds of love that we experience. We have the mutual love of husband and wife. We have the love parents for children, the love that we liken that to the love of God the Father. And then we have God's unconditional love…loving those who can't stand us, loving those who don't want to hear what we have to say, loving those who work deliberately to see us fail in what seems like a reversal of rationality. That is a very radical love, and an uncomfortable love for us to talk about. It is sometimes inconceivable for us to imagine loving someone who is an enemy like that, and yet Jesus' command to love one another encompasses that as well.

I was reading commentaries about the word 'love' in this particular passage, and one scholar translated it as 'charity.' In this church, we work hard at offering that love, that charity to the homeless through awareness projects, in rebuilding houses for those who no longer have homes, sponsoring children in need around the world, bringing food to the hungry, and providing a meal for the hungry in our town. We are pretty good at that kind of charity and love. And I think we could probably hug or embrace one of those people who need our help. But how difficult is it for us to hug or embrace, even just in our minds, those who don't want anything to do with us or who constantly use and abuse us? That is a more difficult aspect of trying to abide in God's love. But that is what makes Jesus' love commandment so radical because it calls us to do those things which do not necessarily come natural to us. I love the way that Garry Wills puts it because he hits at the heart of the matter: '…love your foes. Help those who hate you. Praise those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who punches your cheek, offer the other cheek. To one seizing your cloak, do not refuse your tunic under it. Whoever asks, give to him.'

I don't know about you, but that's pretty hard to live by. I think in many ways we are very good at offering up tough love to those whom we love and telling them how it is, and how it should be, and trying to encourage them back on the road. That is an important aspect of who we are because we are God's people who are looking for a just society. But when the tough love is on the other foot and we're hearing those words from Jesus, to love the people whom we might consider unlovable, that is a hard pill to swallow. I have difficulty with that as well. It is human nature for us to react in ways that are protective of ourselves. It is human nature for us to isolate and distance ourselves from the people who really don't care about us and may want to do us harm. But to be Christ's disciples and to walk in his ways, to walk in his footsteps, means to love one another 'in here' and to love one another 'out there' in the world in ways that may be a challenge.

When we consider the love commandment, it can be as simple as what I said to the children earlier, but it is so much more. There is so much that God is calling us to do. The walk of faith is truly a journey. It is a struggle that will not always be easy. We will not have every answer, and an answer may prove not to be the right answer at some point in the future. But it does not mean we are not abiding in God's love. It does not mean that we are not loving one another as best we can. It does mean that we are simply human, and it means that we too are worthy of the same love that Jesus gave to his disciples, the love of being a servant to them. And he calls us to be servants to each other.

So let us continue in that kind of love and let us also explore what it means for us to love in ways that Christ is calling us but that perhaps we are not willing to go, realizing that there are many things we do not understand or see fully, but that in time may come into focus. In the midst of loving one another, we will experience God's love.

May 17, 2009

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