By This They Will Know You Are My Disciples

Today is my final day with the wonderful folks at First Presbyterian Church of Neenah Wisconsin, and today’s short Gospel was from the 13th chapter of John, where Jesus commands his disciples to love one another, saying this is how people will know they are his disciples.

This Gospel occurs during the Last Supper, the last meal Jesus will spend with his friends and disciples – the last time he will be able to have a real conversation with them before he is arrested.  And what is it important for Jesus to convey in this moment, in his final, intensive conversation with his disciples at the Last Supper?  Judas has just left to betray Jesus, so Jesus knows his time is limited, and he needs to make sure his disciples understand what he has been trying to convey to them.  What does he share?

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples. 

And the this is not whether you were circumcised. 

The this is not whether you do or don’t eat pork. 

And the this is not whether you got divorced several times. 

The this is not about which version of the Bible we read or which creed we recite.

And the this is not any of the myriad ways we try to divide each other up into the good guys and the bad.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another.”  “Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”

How embarrassing it should be for many of us who call ourselves Christians to recall that Jesus wanted to make it easy for us by having us focus on this one thing; yet we have found so many other ways to identify true believers, and we often have a hard time putting this commandment into practice even in our own family lives. Episcopal rector Gary Jones commenting on this passage observed,

The Bible and the creed would become terribly important to human beings over the years, while the one thing most important to Jesus would get lost as Christians wrestled with power and orthodoxy.

I suspect Jesus knew people would fight wars over who held correct beliefs, but that was never his primary concern.

 “Love as I have loved you.” 

People argue about what it means to love God.  But Jesus’ uniting of two disparate in the Hebrew Scriptures into his Great Commandment tell us how to we love God: by loving his creatures, loving our neighbors.  We cannot love God without loving each other.

Fifty-five or so years ago Hal David and Burt Bacharach composed a song titled What the World Needs Now.  The opening lines are “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.  It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.  What the world needs now is love, sweet love.  No, not just for some, but for everyone.”

The sentiment expressed in the song is no less true today.  The love that we are called to share – with everyone – is what our world so desperately needs.  A world groaning in pain. Hate crimes. Separation of parents and children at the border. War. Etc, etc, and so forth.

None of us are actively participating in any of that.  And much of the suffering of the world is beyond our direct control. But we do need to ask ourselves how we are implementing Jesus’ command, both on a micro and a macro level.

On a micro level: We can ask ourselves – who (individually or collectively) do I find it difficult to love?  Where is my heart hardened?  Where is the challenge for me to love the way Jesus did – without regard to merit, without regard to what that person does or does not do for me? And what grace do I need from God to love more expansively?

 On a macro level: Does my life bear witness to the love and fidelity of God?  And part of that is: are we sharing the story of Christian hope – of God’s love made manifest in the death and resurrection of Christ? Because the promise is (to quote the title of a book by Evangelical Rob Bell): Love Wins.  However grim things look there will be a new day when we live face to face with God.  When all that has hindered, hurt, and hampered us will be gone.  What will be left is a life with God, filled with relationships of joy and strength with God’s people.

That is a message our world so desperately needs.

Is this the message we proclaim, not predominantly by what we say, but by how we live our lives?

We Are Sheep and Shepherd

This morning I began a week with First Presbyterian Church of Neenah – preaching at this morning’s services and leading adult faith formation between the services. During the week I’ll lead a Bible study and meet with people individually for spiritual direction, and end next Sunday in the way I began it today.

The readings for today’s all, in one way or another employed the motif of the shepherd and shepherding. Part of my sermon addressed what the imagery in Psalm 23 and Jesus’ identifying himself as the good shepherd teach us about what it means to call God our shepherd.

But we are not only sheep to God’s shepherd. The point is not simply that the love and care and guidance of the shepherd characterizes God’s love and care for us, but it describes what we are asked to be for each other.

At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus instructs Peter – feed my lambs, feed my sheep.  In other words, be as a shepherd to my sheep. And we see this same language used in various of the letters of New Testament – the extension of the good shepherd label to those who would lead it the church.

The question is: for whom is that label intended?  Is it just meant for church leaders?  I shared that my answer to that question is a resounding no – that each and every one of us – is not only sheep, but shepherd.

We have each been given the charge to model our lives after that of the Good Shepherd.  To live lives of love, commitment and sacrifice on behalf of each other. To nourish each other – doing all we can to help each other grow in our relationship with God and flourish as the fully human persons God invites us to be. To look out for each other and protect each other. To be personally, intimately involved with each other – treating everyone with whom we come into contact as the beloved God.

It is a charge that raises the bar for all of us.

Fortunately, we are not asked to do any of this on our own.  I think one of the reasons the Church gives us a long Easter season each year is to remind us that the God who raised Jesus is still active in the world today.

I think that is the reason we hear from Acts every year in the Easter season.  So that we can see what is able to be accomplished through the power of the Spirit alive and present in the world after the resurrection and ascension of Christ.  It shows us that none of the things faced by the early church – persecutions, famines, opposition, violent storms and so forth were stronger than the power of the Spirit.

And, unlike the person who first spoke the words of Psalm 23, or those who first heard it, we can read that Psalm with that knowledge.  Knowing that when the metaphors and images of the Psalm speak in the present, they are truly indicating our present reality.  Today – in our present world – the shepherd leads…restores…comforts….prepares a table…anoints our head.  And in so doing, empowers and strengthens us to do the same for each other.

Yom Ha’atzmaut

This evening begins the Jewish celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Day of Independence, which continues on Thursday. (The modern State of Israel was established in 1948.)  After the World War II, it was thought imperative that the Jews have a place to call their own.

I think it is helpful for those of us who are not Jewish to understand the importance of Israel to the Jewish people.  The history of the Jewish people begins with Abraham, who God tells to leave his homeland, promising him a new home in the land of Canaan.  This is the land now known as Israel, often referred to as the Promised Land, because of God’s promise to give the land to the descendants of Abraham.

Jews have lived in the land now known as Israel continuously for over three thousand years, although they were not always in political control of the land, and, indeed, not even always a majority of the population. A substantial portion of Jewish law is tied to the land of Israel and can only be performed there.  (Some rabbis say that it is a mitzvah to take possession of Israel and live in it; the Talmud says the land is so holy that merely walking there is enough for salvation.  Prayers for a return to Israel and Jerusalem are included in daily Jewish prayers.  That is because living outside of Israel is viewed to an extent as an unnatural state for a Jew; that living outside of Israel is akin to living in exile.

 The Holocaust brought the need for a Jewish homeland into sharp focus; after the World War II, it was thought imperative that the Jews have a place to call their own. Today, approximately five million Jews, more than a third of the world’s Jewish population, live in Israel.  (And they make up more than 8-% of the population there.)

 I do not intend by this post to make any comments about political matters in Israel or between the Israelis and the Palestinians; just to help understand why the land matters to the Jewish people. One can criticize certain actions of the government of Israel without being anti-Semitic, but I do think it is important to understand the fear of Jews of the destruction of Israel and the need to protect against that.