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?