May 19, 2019

Acts 11:1-18

John 13:31-35


Despite what many people think, the bible is not a rulebook. Nor is it a manual on life with instructions for dealing with all of the various problems that each of us will encounter as we make our ways. And, contrary to what I’ve learned that many people assume, Jesus did not write a single word of the bible. As far as any of us know, Jesus never took ink to paper. He traveled, he preached, he taught, he healed, he fed, he forgave, he loved, he died, and he rose. Some of his lessons were recorded, but not by him. Some of his stories are written down, but again, not by him.

Sometimes I wish he had written everything down – given us all the answers in black and white. Maybe life would be easier on us all if he had done that. There would be no gray area, no agonizing over what to do or the best way to live a life.

But, alas, he didn’t leave us with instructions. Instead, what he left us with is the Church. Instead of leaving a book, he left a community of people who would embody his Spirit. He left a community of people through whose love his love would live.

What struck me from our gospel reading, which began our service today is the word, “new.” “I give you a new commandment that you love one another.” On first reading that should sound odd to us. Would love really have been a new practice or a novel idea? Did people in the ancient world – Roman, Jew, or otherwise – not love one another? What’s new about love?

No doubt, love pre-existed Jesus’ commandment here. In fact, the ancient Greek of our scriptures knew multiple words for love depending on the kind of love it was, so clearly it was there as a reality and a concept important enough to dwell upon and define. But, there were certainly boundaries to love. You can imagine how it would have been hard for a Jew at the time, living under Roman occupation, to love her oppressor. We also see from our Acts passage how religious and cultural differences were real and strong boundaries to love. The Lord tells Peter to eat with a bunch of gentiles and Peter acts as if God were nuts. “Gross!” Peter Says. “Never!” (It’s like asking my daughter to eat fish, except maybe grosser!)

But, then Peter does it and he finds that the Lord has included those Gentiles into the fold as well. They too are part of the circle of love, and not only that, but now Peter has to go back to the church in Jerusalem and explain to a bunch of people who no doubt felt the same way that Peter originally felt. “What were you thinking? Eating with the unclean?!”

So, maybe there was something new after all about this commandment. Maybe the newness of it had something to do with love’s reach. “Love one another,” was a challenge to love even the “other,” to love beyond reasonable and commonly accepted limits.

But, this “love one another” commandment was also an inward thing; it was a commandment to a group of people whose defining characteristic would be the love with which they treat one another. “Love one another as I have loved you.” It would be a self-giving love, a generous love, a forgiving love, a healing love, a love that would encourage the very best in another.

It would be the kind of love that is, as Paul says, “patient and kind, not envious, or boastful, or arrogant, or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It never ends.”

You know this passage is often read at weddings. This is my standard wedding sermon intro, which I may have mentioned before (and I reserve the right to use again.) At the conclusion of our series of pre-marital sessions with the deacon at her church Deacon Fay summed up his understanding of a recipe for a successful marriage. He said, “Tim and Angela, you two will do just fine in your life together if you simply remember to always keep the needs of your partner before your own.” And, I thought to myself, “always?”

That is actually what I thought. And, that’s because love is hard. To always be patient and kind. To not insist on your own way, to never be irritable or rude… to love with a love that has no end… these are not easy things to do!

But, Paul knew this. When he wrote to the Corinthians he had something other than weddings in mind. He was talking about the life of the church, and more specifically, he was talking about the spiritual gifts that characterized the church. Before love was something we feel or do, it is a gift from God. It is a gift of God. It is the sharing of a power that comes from beyond us. “Love is patient and kind. Love never ends, because God is love.”

John, the gospel writer, knew this too. This is why Jesus calls it a “new” commandment. It is new because it is a sharing of his love. It is new because it is the self-giving love of a holy God, given from beyond us, to dwell within us, and to express itself through us as we live intentionally together in this body of Christ called the church.

I’m not going to give you examples of how this is true because Tom, and Barbara, and Joyce, and Irene have done that in such heartfelt and thoughtful ways. They have shown us how the gift of God’s love alive within the church changes our lives the way nothing else can. All that I want to say now is: thank you for being part of our family here! Your presence here matters. Your participation matters. Your support matters. God is loving you and loving through you, and through that love God is changing lives.