April 24, 2016

Easter 5 April 24, 2016  (Ps 148, Acts 11:1-18, Rev 21:1-6)  John 13:31-35

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Sometimes when I’ve heard Jesus say, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” – my first thought is – what’s new about this commandment? Isn’t love among the oldest of commandments? (As that country song older than Methuselah says – ‘Ever since time began, love has ruled the world – Even Adam set the pace, started it a whirl...’)

And when Jesus is asked what’s the most important commandment, he says‘the first and greatest is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and all your mind”… And a second is like it– “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”’ Here’s Jesus, recycling some very old commandments – quoting first from Deuteronomy, fifth book in the bible, then from Leviticus, third book in the bible. What’s new about this love commandment?

But this week I’ve been reminded by our reading from Revelation that God has always been into recycling the old into something new…New creation is one of God’s specialties… And I’m picking up clues to what’s new in the new commandment Jesus gives… As we hear in the last book of the bible about “new heavens and new earth” – and the new Jerusalem coming down to earth from heaven – and a voice from heaven says “see I am making all things new…”And all that’s new is because of Jesus…Risen from the dead and calling us into new life.

God’s also doing a new thing in our reading from Acts. Breaking down barriers that have kept God’s people separated for thousands of years. The Jewish people, God’s chosen people, have had dietary and worship laws that have kept others at a distance. These rules all had a purpose… But now because of the resurrection of Jesus the rules are changing…

Now here’s God, lowering a picnic blanket from heaven in a vision for Peter – a blanket full of kosher and non-kosher foods mixed together. And when the voice from heaven says “Get up Peter, kill and eat,” Peter says ‘no way, Lord, I’ve never eaten forbidden foods.’ But the heavenly voice says ‘what God has made clean, don’t call profane.’ And this vision repeats three times, making it hard to miss the point. God is doing a new thing.

This picnic from heaven is God’s metaphor for bringing people together across all manner of social and cultural barriers. Gathering us together at a shared table. Letting us know ‘love one another’ includes everyone, everywhere. No one’s left outside the love of God.  And this is part of what Jesus means when he tells us “A new commandment I give to you.”

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And – what’s also new in this commandment – as real estate people say – is location, location, location. The original location for our gospel reading is at the last supper. We also read this gospel reading every Holy Thursday. Jesus has just washed his followers’s feet and told us to do likewise for each other. One of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, has just got up from the table, right after Jesus has served him, and gone out into the dark of night to betray him. Jesus knows this. Yet Jesus continues instructing his disciples…Calling us affectionately “little children,” tutoring and teaching us, all the way to the cross…Which he also knows lies just ahead. And…

What’s very new in the new commandment to love one another – is Jesus saying – “as I have loved you.”

Part of me is still a bit in denial about all this. Can anyone really love like Jesus? Jesus is God in the flesh. His love is the love of God incarnate. Who can love like this? Jesus goes to the cross and lays down his life willingly. As pastor and author Max Lucado puts it – Jesus considers all his options – and willingly chooses the nails… to show the depth and breadth of God’s love.

Nobody else can love like Jesus… At least not naturally, in our own strength, of our own will. This just doesn’t happen.

Yet Jesus tells us we are to love one another – as he has loved us. So I’m wrong. We must be able to love like Jesus, or he wouldn’t tell us to do so. Though I’m also at least partly right. Nobody can love like Jesus on their own, in their own strength. Even Jesus doesn’t do love by himself. He says “I can do nothing apart from my Father.”

And this is how love is. Love is full of real and apparent contradictions… that are only reconciled in Christ, from above, from a higher perspective.

We can’t love like Jesus on our own. Yet when we’re in Christ, living for Christ, incorporated into his body, led by his Spirit… even though we’re subject to all the human failings that Jesus never falls into, still at the same time we have his Spirit, so we are able to love as he has loved us. By his grace, through his Spirit, with his constant help.

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And it would take many more hours than we have in the day to adequately consider all the implications of just the newness and the “as I have loved you” aspects of this short commandment. But there’s also another phrase in this new commandment – as Jesus concludes, saying – “By this everyone will know you are my disciples – if you have love for one another.” If you have love for one another – everyone will know you’re my disciples.

Here’s Jesus’ main sermon on evangelism – his main teaching on how to let people know who we belong to. This is how he tells us how to reach those who don’t already believe in him – and how to refresh and encourage those who already believe. When we have love for one another – people will know we’re with Jesus. And people will know what the love of Jesus looks like… when they see us loving one another.

Love is the measure. Love is the ultimate standard. Jesus doesn’t say people will commit to him because of our excellent preaching or teaching. (Though all pastors,  teachers, and evangelists should of course always do our best.)

Jesus doesn’t say people will know we are his disciples because of our excellent understanding of Christian beliefs and doctrines. (Though we should all of course do our best to know and understand these.)

Nor does Jesus say they will know we are Christians by our excellent moral character and behavior – important as these surely are…

Of course we should always try to give others a good impression of who we are as followers of Jesus any way we can. We try to look pleasant, speak well, behave properly in every situation…

But what really works to let people know who we are and who we belong to, Jesus says – is when our love for one another looks like his love.

Love – real love – love as Jesus loves – this is the most universal of all languages. Even if we’re in a far-off land where we don’t understand the language…Love’s language is understandable. Even little children understand his love when they see it.

And Jesus calls us “little children” today. Because he’s talking to us in a language children often understand better than most adults. Children learn by watching and imitating…And Jesus calls us little children, and tells us to watch him… and imitate how he loves…

And it’s wonderful to watch our children bringing offerings of food for our town Food Pantry to the altar every first Sunday of the month… It’s a joy to watch children of all ages contributing food for the backpacks for school children project…

It’s wonderful to remember the joy we find selling pumpkins to raise money for the Food Pantry…. Preparing health kits for the United Methodist Committee on Relief… Encouraging one another, comforting one another… Visiting one another… Praying for each other… It’s a joy to be reminded anytime, any way, of the truth Jesus speaks as he tells us… When we love one another, everyone can tell we are his followers….

In church, at home, on the job, in school…We learn together watching Jesus…And watching one another when we’re loving as Jesus loves. Watching some preparing food for others… Watching Sunday School teachers giving up time in worship so children can know Jesus better. Watching many of you committing time in the middle of busy schedules to help our church show the love of God at work … And even if the little we are able to do sometimes seems too small to notice… Still it’s these small, persistent, hourly, daily, weekly offerings of love that keeps the world going round…

And…. There’s always more than we can unpack in a lifetime when we’re talking about the love of God in Jesus Christ. But we know –

Jesus loves us enough to wash our feet–

Loves us enough to lay down his life for us –

Loves us enough to rise up from the dead for us – and live forever with us…

Praying for us, coaching us, teaching and nurturing us, giving us new life in abundance… and…

Because his love is always strong enough, deep enough, wide enough…

To include all of us all the time in his love…

Strong enough to equip us to love as he loves us…

This is how everyone will know we are his people –

Because now we are forever looking to Jesus…

Learning to love one another – As he has loved us.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.