Scripture - Acts 11:1-18, John 13:31-35
Acts 11:1-18 (NRSV)
11 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 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?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
John 13:31-35 (The Message)
31-32 When he had left, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is seen for who he is, and God seen for who he is in him. The moment God is seen in him, God’s glory will be on display. In glorifying him, he himself is glorified—glory all around!
33 “Children, I am with you for only a short time longer. You are going to look high and low for me. But just as I told the Jews, I’m telling you: ‘Where I go, you are not able to come.’
34-35 “Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
If you knew you were about to die, what would you tell the people you love? What cherished hope or dream would you share? What last, urgent piece of advice would you offer? What legacy would you want to leave for your loved ones to carry on?
Our reading from the Gospel of John starts what is known as the “Farewell Discourse” - it’s Jesus before his death and resurrection preparing the eleven disciples (because Judas has already gone out) for life without him, although they at this point don’t fully realize that he will be leaving them so soon. Jesus knows, however, the devastation they are about to face, and so is trying to get them ready - imparting to them his final words of encouragement and advice. The next couple of chapters are full of Jesus giving his final words and instructions to them as they sit around the table and eat together - emphasizing for them the importance of focusing on the mission and outlining the legacy he wants his followers to carry forward - and that legacy is centered around one simple commandment.
Jesus’ words seem pretty simple and straightforward, don’t they? “Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another.”
And then comes the reason this commandment is so important to Jesus. He says, “This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”
There’s nothing ambiguous about them. No provisos, no fine print, no exceptions. Love one another. In the same way that Jesus loved. This is the hallmark of a follower of Jesus. Jesus didn’t say “believe the right things” or “pray this way” or “police each other’s behavior”….there is nothing about what one believes or says or what one doesn’t believe or say….but everything about love.
And for two thousand years, we’ve been adding qualifier after qualifier to what Jesus has said….to the point where the usual interpretation of this passage has been that Jesus was only talking about loving fellow Christian believers - and even further than that, loving only the Christian believers who are in your own, specific “in” group…and even then, it’s amazing to think how much we struggle with it. The irony in this, as New Testament scholar D.A Carson puts it, is that “This new command is simple enough for a toddler to memorize and appreciate, and yet it is profound enough that the most mature believers are repeatedly embarrassed at how poorly they comprehend it and put it into practice.”
“Love one another.”
More than that - “love one another in the same way I loved you.”
As a commandment - not a suggestion or a guideline. A new commandment.
Love - the kind of love that Jesus demonstrated - is more than what we see portrayed by Hollywood and our favorite sitcoms, or might find on Hallmark greeting cards. It’s even more than the kind of love we try to inhabit when we know we should do the kind and compassionate thing but don’t really feel it - like when we’re trying to get two kids to act as if they loved each other by sharing their toys or playing together nicely, or when we collect money for homeless shelters or cards for the sick. Not that these things are bad in and of themselves - but do they fall under the heading of Jesus saying “in the same way I loved you, love one another”?
We talk a lot in the Christian tradition about how love is a choice, it’s not a feeling - and to some extent that is true. We make the decision to love, to live our lives choosing to act compassionately and with forgiveness, even when we don’t always feel it within us. But Jesus’ commandment wasn’t “Act as if you love one another.” It was to actually “love one another - in the same way I loved you.” Which suggests to me that what Jesus is asking for isn’t just a shallow gloss of love over our everyday, ordinary actions, but to love as he did - with deep engagement, genuine presence, and sharing of our authentic selves with one another.
And that’s really, really hard to do - it’s hard to do in our families, in our congregation, among members of our own Christian tribe, or among people who think and act like we do already -- but the command to love one another isn’t limited; as we see in our reading from the book of Acts, God’s Holy Spirit is being poured out among the Gentiles - among the people that the Jews prided themselves on being different from - and now they, too, are part of the fold. The call to “love one another” expanded to include the Gentiles who were previously excluded from Jewish community. The call to love one another isn’t just about loving those who are in….it’s about loving each and every person, no matter who they are. Throughout scripture, God keeps expanding the circle of those we are called to love.
And if we look at Jesus himself - and how he loved those he encountered - he shared and gave of himself to those who were particularly excluded from community, who had been forgotten and cast out, and gave of himself in a way that brought wholeness and healing to their lives - loving them back to life in all its fullness. The blind and lame, the sick and the tax collectors - the disciples had seen and experienced the love of Jesus lived out - both in their own lives and in the lives of those he touched. And so the way of love is found in the way Jesus himself loves. He tells the disciples - follow my example. Do what I do. Love as I love. Live as you have seen me live.
“Weep with those who weep. Laugh with those who laugh. Touch the untouchables. Feed the hungry. Welcome the child. Release the captive. Forgive the sinner. Confront the oppressor. Comfort the oppressed. Wash each other’s feet. Tell each other the truth, even when it’s hard.”
Such love doesn’t just come from charitable tasks or well-meaning words. This love comes from the core of our being - from the compassion that moves in our gut, from hungering and thirsting for righteousness and justice that we feel in our bones, from letting our hearts be broken again and again by the world’s pain -- and rearranging our whole lives to be vulnerable to the brokenness in our world so that we can be led by love to do something about it….all because Jesus commands that we love one another as he loves us….because it is by this that the world will know that we are his disciples.
And friends, the world knows a lot of things about Christians -- but I’m not sure the world really knows that we are disciples of Jesus. All you need to do is pick up a newspaper and read about the hate being espoused by groups of Christians - hate for those who are gay and lesbian, hate for those who are not white, hate for those who have abortions, hate for those who are poor, hate for Jews and Muslims and immigrants and the list goes on and on.
But while we may not find ourselves in those camps, we do our own kind of self-selection, loving people based on our choices and preferences...I know at least this is true for me. I want to keep my boundaries small and safe and manageable, loving those who I want to love, who I like, who are easy to love...rather than loving based on Jesus’ nets-cast-wide commandment. It’s easy to love those who I chose to love….it’s hard and costly to cultivate a heart like that of Jesus.
Yet that is what Jesus wants of us - to love one another as he loves us.
Next week, this congregation has the opportunity to live more fully into that all-inclusive love as we discern and vote together around our Welcoming Statement and around becoming a Reconciling Congregation. We’ve had opportunities to talk about this together, to pray about this together, to study scripture around this together. It’s one step in letting everyone know that this church is a place of belonging for all people - no matter what - and to begin to heal the harm the church has done to our gay, lesbian, bisexal, and transgender friends and neighbors. It is a step forward in loving one another as Jesus loves...and step forward in making real the kingdom in which every single person knows that they are loved deeply and fully by the God who created them.
Because that’s what at stake when we choose to love or not to love - when we choose to keep others at arm's length in safe, charitable ways or when we choose to embrace others as Christ did; when we choose to love based on our own preferences and affinities or when we choose to love in obedience to Christ’s command….what’s at stake is the ability of others to see, touch, hear, feel, sense, experience Jesus alive in and through us. It’s through this love that we are embodying Jesus - literally the body of Christ - making Jesus real in a world that needs true, authentic, self-giving love so desperately….and even in our own island community, that deep loving presence of Jesus needs to be shared.
Jesus gives that commandment to us: Love one another. In the same way Jesus loves you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are his disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”
Go forth this week to love as Jesus loved - with reckless abandon, with generous action, with an all-inclusive embrace that restored life to all. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.