Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
May 19, 2019
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.”
In a classic Peanuts cartoon, Lucy stands with her arms folded and a rather resolute expression on her face. Charlie Brown pleads with her, “Lucy, you must be more loving. The world needs love. Make this world a better place, Lucy. Make it a better place by loving someone else.” With that suggestion Lucy whirls arounds angrily with so much force that Charlie Brown flips over backwards. “Look, you blockhead,” she screams. “The world, I love. It’s the people I can’t stand!”
Pastor Jimmy Gentry shared a survey of 4 to 8 year olds who were asked by child counselors, “What Does Love Mean?” Here are some of their answers:
Rebecca, Age 8- When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toe nails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all of the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That’s love.
Karl, Age 5- Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other.
Terri, Age 4- Love is what makes you smile when you’re tired.
Nikka, Age 6- If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you hate.
Chris, Age 7- Love is when Mommy sees Daddy smelly and sweaty and still says he is handsomer than Robert Redford and Brad Pitt.
Lauren, Age 4- I know my older sister loves me because she gives me all her old clothes and has to go out and buy new ones.
Jessica, Age 8- You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.
This morning’s Scripture lesson is a short text from the gospel of John. Alyce McKenzie calls these words “a glowing candle in the darkness, a command to love one another amid the realities of violence and betrayal as a continuation of Jesus’ ministry in the world.”
The setting of this Scripture lesson may seem a bit strange. It is when Jesus and his disciples were at Upper Room. Maundy Thursday. The betrayal of Judas preceded it and the denial of Peter followed it. We read about it when we gathered in Fellowship Hal around tables for a meal and sacrament on that night five weeks ago. It is a time we’ve already observed and left behind in our Easter celebrations. Why do we return there today? Judas left the table a long time ago. He did what he did and perhaps we’d rather now dwell on it anymore. And Peter seemed to set things straight with the Resurrected Lord during that fishing excursion and breakfast on the beach. Why do we need to go back to hear about his weakness and his failing? Why near the end of the blessed season of Easter does the Church Lectionary take us back to the darkest night of Jesus’ life? Aren’t there better and happier and more positive things to consider?
Perhaps on the fifth Sunday of the Easter season, we return to the scene of betrayal and denial, just to check out whether or not the good news of Easter can survive in such difficult places and times. And maybe that is a good thing to do. By now the good news that the Risen Christ has conquered sin and death been challenged daily by the news of our world and the duties and disappointments of our lives. For resurrection to mean anything, we have to know that it is present in the messy parts of life, in the dark and vulnerable places, in the people who frustrate us, in problems that have no ready answers, and in disappointments that don’t seem to end.
It was one thing to sing “Alleluia” and proclaim Christ Risen! But as the power of Easter seems to lose its grip upon us, we hear these words of Jesus, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I 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.”
There was nothing totally original or brand new in this teaching of Jesus. The law of love was known among Jesus’ followers and by the Hebrew people. The Law of Moses stated that God’s people were to love neighbor as they loved themselves. In his earlier teachings Jesus taught the crowds that they were to love God and to love their neighbor. But here he emphasizes that he is about to teach them something new- a new commandment. Love one another, as I have loved you.
Jesus taught that love was not a feeling. Acting in love to those to whom we are attracted and have much in common is easy. Yet real love is a decision, a commitment to work for the well-being of others even when it means sacrificing our own well-being. This is what Jesus did. This is how Jesus loved. Love others by serving their needs. Love others without concern for your own needs. God will abide in you when you make yourselves vulnerable enough to love others. When love is offered, when selfless concern is released into the world, then good will prevail, and we can know that God has not up and left us.
Love one another as I have loved you. It isn’t easy is it? C.K. Chesterton once said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” We cannot love as Jesus loved. We cannot sacrifice as he sacrificed. We cannot offer the patience and humility and selflessness. It is just beyond us.
Theologian Laura Smits says that when we talk about the characteristics of God, we think it is enough to take our understanding of human concepts and just make them bigger. If we are good, then God is GOOOOOOOD! If we can just put an exponent on human goodness, multiplying our human conception of goodness, then we can approach something of what it means to understand God’s goodness. Yet we can’t be GOOOOOOD! Smits writes that divine goodness is really something different altogether. It is love that is of a different kind and quality. And it is put into us by our desire to follow Jesus and allowed to grow as we gather for worship and prayer and fellowship in community. But it comes from outside us, when we seek the presence of Christ in us. If we lack in love, it is not because we are trying hard enough. If we lack in love it is because we are not seeking the presence of Christ among us sufficiently. The decision to love one another can only be made if we actively allow a union with Christ to settle within us and among us.
I read a story this week about a sermon preached by Juan Carlos Ortiz in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Ortiz knew that his church membership was a loyal one. Worship attendance was good, giving was enough to pay the bills, and many of the church members attended a weekly Bible study. But he sensed that much of the church activity was obligatory. Faith was something learned but not necessarily owned. People came and served out of duty. People really didn’t know each other well. One Sunday, as he stood up to preach, he simply said these words, “Love one another.” Then he sat down. The congregation sat there, waiting for something more. So Ortiz stood again and said, “Love one another.” Now the congregation began to stir nervously. When was the pastor going to begin to preach? So Ortiz stood up a third time and said, “Love one another.” He sat down again. A gentleman in the third row of the congregation leaned over to the man next to him and said, “I think the pastor wants us to love on another.” He then asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” His neighbor admitted that he was a bit concerned about paying his bills that month so the first man opened his wallet and said, “Let me help you.” Soon, all across the sanctuary, people began talking and engaging in conversations with their neighbors. There was laughter and crying and praying. For the next few months, Ortiz preached on the theme, “Love one another.” He asked his people to continue to practice it among themselves. He asked them to make a firm commitment to treat one another kindly and well. Then he asked his people to begin to practice love with the neighborhood surrounding the church, intentionally living out acts of love with those outside the church. Soon the Risen Christ began to be truly alive, not simply a character of history.
In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Gerard Sloyan writes that this Scripture setting takes place on a borderland. On one side is history, practicality, the world of human limits and failings. On the other side is the world beyond, the “being with the Father” of which Jesus speaks. It is the world that Jesus spoke about and exampled, yet for his followers it is the life that is coming to be. For us, it is living life in this borderland, trying to bring unseen realities into being. Jesus teaches us that we can do this by loving one another as God love us. Loving people who are different from us. Forgiving people who have hurt us. Understanding people who see things differently that we do. Seeking the needs of other before chasing our own concerns. In such love we enter a new age in the midst of our present age. In such love we live with the power of Easter in the midst of the darkness and shadows of death.