April 24, 2016, Love Like You’ve Been Loved – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Imagine that there is a big family, and the parents, the mother and father, are preparing to go away on a long trip. And they’re about to give the children the instructions they need to keep things running.
Well, every other time these parents had gone away the instructions went like this: DON’T let the baby go outside by herself. And DON’T stay up till midnight. And DON’T watch TV before you get your homework done. And DON’T forget to scoop the litter box every day. And DON’T fight. And DON’T eat too much junk food. And DON’T forget to make your beds every morning before school. And DON’T leave your dirty socks in the living room. And DON’T let the little ones watch scary movies or they’ll be up all night. And most of all – DON’T fight! There was a lot more, too, but that’s enough to give you the idea.
But this time was different. This time, as the parents were packing their suitcases in the trunk and giving everyone hugs, they said to the children. We have a new rule for you this time. Only one. And that sounded great – just one rule! The new rule is this, they said: take care of each other like we take care of you. And then they drove away, waving to the children out the window until they went around the bend in the road and the children couldn’t see them anymore.
And the children looked at one another, a little puzzled. Take care of each other? What was new about that? Didn’t they always have to take care of each other when their parents went away? But as they thought about it, each one of them realized what their parents had said. Take care of each other like we take care of you. They all stood there quiet and still on the sidewalk in front of their empty house. And one by one they began to understand that even though they had followed all the rules before perfectly – well, almost perfectly anyway – they had never before cared for each other the way their parents did, tenderly, patiently, lovingly, generously. And they knew that it really was a completely new rule, and they understood that it replaced every other rule they had ever had.
Clearly, that’s a made-up story to help us think about the gospel reading today. Jesus, like the parents in the story, was preparing to go away. He was talking to his disciples on the very night he would be betrayed, and arrested, and sent to his death. He was giving them the last instructions they would need to carry on as his disciples in his absence. They were all faithful Jews; they had all known and observed the law from the time they could walk and talk. They knew the Ten Commandments, “You shall not kill” and “You shall not commit adultery” and “You shall not steal” and “Honor your father and your mother.” They kept the appointed feasts, like the Passover, and they attended synagogue on the Sabbath, and they observed all the dietary laws, eating only those foods that were called “clean” in the law of Moses – no pork, no shellfish, nothing unclean.
That’s why Peter was so confused in the reading from the book of Acts; that’s why God had to show Peter the vision three times before he really understood what God was telling him. Peter knew all the rules, every one of those men knew all the commandments. But then Jesus said to them, on that last night. I’m giving you a new commandment: just one. Love one another just as I have loved you.
It wasn’t that love was a new concept in the law. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses wrote this: “Hear O Israel The Lord your God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” And the book of Leviticus, among all the rules and regulations of dietary laws and legal codes, says this: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
From the very beginning, love was at the core of the law of Moses. It had to be, because the law was given to the people of Israel by the God who is love. And that could be the subject of a great many sermons. But still, when Jesus gave his disciples one final commandment, a single rule that would identify them as his own disciples, it was something new. “I’m giving you a NEW commandment – that you love one another as I have loved you.” But what’s really new about it?
What was new was that Jesus had come to teach us how to love – not by a long list of rules and regulations, but by living it out for everyone to see. Jesus came to teach us love – by loving us. Because it was only when we saw real love in the flesh that we could understand what it means for us to obey the commandment to love, not in a fickle, human, on-again-off-again, self-serving way, but unconditionally, sacrificially, infinitely.
One of the most un-human things about Jesus’ love is forgiveness. For the disciples of Jesus Christ, forgiveness is right at the heart of loving one another. When Jesus taught us how to pray, he said, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And he drove that point home: “Because,” he said, “if you don’t forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Forgiveness is an essential part of love – so essential that when Jesus first appeared to his disciples after his Resurrection, and shared his Spirit with them, the very first authority he gave them was to forgive others. “If you forgive the sins of any,” he told them, “they are forgiven. If you withhold the sins of any, they are withheld.” Think about that – the very first power he bestowed on his followers, was the power of forgiveness. And Jesus lived that out for us on the cross, when he said, with almost his last breath, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” On the cross Jesus offered forgiveness to the friends who betrayed him, to the powerful men who conspired to accuse him without cause, to the soldiers who mocked and beat him, to the crowds of his own countrymen who cried out for his death. People of love are people who offer forgiveness.
Jesus also taught that real love makes us whole people, people of integrity. In the sermon he preached on the mountaintop, he said to the crowds: “You have heard the rule, ‘You shall not kill.’ But I say to you, don’t even hate your brother or sister in your heart.” And he taught them, “You have heard the rule, ‘Don’t commit adultery.’ But I tell you, don’t even look at another man or woman with lust in your heart.” Love, Jesus taught us, means that our insides and our outsides are one whole person. It isn’t enough to just make an outward show of good works if our hearts are grumbling and grinching away inside of us, jealous or bitter or lustful or resentful. Loving is something we do as a whole person, inside and out. Any modern psychiatrist could tell you that’s true – that if the thoughts and intentions of our hearts are at war with our outward actions, if outwardly we are smiling and pleasant, but inwardly we are full of hurt and bitterness, it can wreak havoc on our health, mentally and physically. But love opens our hearts to the light of truth, love paves the way for healing, and makes us whole people.
And love brings us together in community. In the story from Acts that we read today, a man named Cornelius, who was a Gentile, had had a vision from God that he was to send for a man named Peter, who was staying with his friend Simon, who was a tanner. God even gave Cornelius the address. And then God gave Peter his vision of the sheet full of unclean animals, three times, so that when Cornelius’s messenger arrived, Peter understood that God was telling him it was OK to go to the home of Cornelius, even though he was a Gentile, because he, God himself, had declared the Gentiles clean, and had poured out his Spirit on them just as he poured his Spirit out on Peter and the other Jews. There was no longer any division because God had loved them equally.
The law of Moses had been a wall around God’s people, setting them apart, cutting them off from the godless nations around them. But the commandment of love was doing something entirely new. Jesus tore down the wall of separation that had divided the Jews from the Gentiles for centuries, as Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians. In his flesh he broke down the dividing wall of hostility, bringing those who were far away near by the blood of Christ. The law separates – even now, when the Church falls into legalism it divides people – but love binds together; love creates community and brings about reconciliation. That’s why we are called Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation, because the law of love bears the message of relationship restored, relationship with God, and relationship with one another.
But the greatest demonstration of Jesus’ love for us was the cross. He told us himself, “There is no greater love than that a man lay down his life for his friends.” And on that very night he gave himself into the hands of those who would torture and kill him – not helplessly, as a victim, but willingly, purposefully, loving us all in the most powerful way that he possibly could – the Son of God giving his life as a ransom for our poor loveless lives.
Our commandment is to live out the love that we have received from him. We forgive those who trespass against us because we have been forgiven. We seek by the power of his Spirit to love from our hearts and not just in our outward actions, to be made whole people, inside and out. And we welcome the people around us into the community of God’s family as his love tears down all barriers, barriers between black and white, between rich and poor, between straight and gay.
What it comes down to, is that we will never learn to love by following the rules – we can only learn to love by following the one who is love, and who loved us while we were still blindly and selfishly going our own way, the one who loved us more than his own life. Love one another, Jesus told his disciples, as I have loved you. We have been loved with a love so great, it is the work of our whole lives to comprehend it. And the one who loved us has given us the commandment to go out and become lovers ourselves, because only then can we show ourselves to be his disciples.