A sermon preached as guest preacher at Diamond Lake Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis on April 24, 2016.
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Risen Christ. Amen.
It is a joy to be among you, and I am thankful for the invitation to preach today as part of the In A Different Voice series. I am a former preaching student of Dr. Karoline Lewis and currently serve as a chaplain for Regions Hospital and HealthPartners Hospice. Thank you for welcoming me into your midst on this Fifth Sunday of Easter.
My sermonating this week has been accompanied by the ever-present song running through my head of “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, they will know we are Christians by our love.” But I find this to be particularly irritating, because quite often Christians are not known by their love for others. Christians are more easily identified not by their love, but by whom they seem to hate the most. This song has been running through my head this week as I observe religious liberty legislation take on a fever pitch in the news. We see people of faith perpetuating hate towards those who identify as members of the LGBTQ community, and calling that hate “religious devotion”. Many Christians perpetuate xenophobia, fear of the other, as they express hatred towards our Muslim brothers and sisters. And progressive Christians often exhibit the same hatred and disgust for more conservative evangelical and/or fundamentalist Christians, I have certainly been guilty of this in my own life.
Most of the time we think we have a pretty good idea of what it is to love one another. We love our spouses, children, parents, siblings, friends, and pets. We might abstractly love people or groups of people, for example, I love people nearing the end of their lives, as well as loving individual patients. Where things get a little more complicated is in loving those who are less loveable.
We find it easy to love those who are like us. Many of us who are married or partnered find ourselves with someone who comes from a similar ethnic, socioeconomic, and religious background. Many of us choose our friends based on similar social and political leanings. It takes work to love someone who is different from us.
And human love is also imperfect because we want our love to be reciprocated. We want it to be equitable, guaranteed, and safe. We want to love and be loved, and we are willing to invest ourselves in it, if there is a guarantee that our love will be reciprocated or at least appreciated. Because to be loved and to love requires a certain amount of vulnerability, and we have learned, through socialization or hard-won experience, that vulnerability is an opportunity to be hurt. We sometimes prefer to love our neighbors from a distance, because then we get to dictate the terms of what it is to love one another. We would rather lift up #BlackLivesMatter in prayer because then we don’t need to have an honest conversation about the ways that racism is still deeply embedded in our church. It really doesn’t cost us anything, and we get to feel good about the ways that we are loving our neighbors.
This text from John’s Gospel is one of those passages from scripture that we have heard so many times that we think that we know what it means. But we owe it to ourselves to look a little deeper. The context of these verses is tremendously important. Jesus has just shared a meal with his disciples. He washed their feet, which would have been filthy from sand and dust. It is an intimate time, the last time that Jesus is gathered together with all of his disciples before his betrayal. Jesus says of the foot washing, “I have set an example for you…that you should also do as I have done to you.” He is saying, “You should demonstrate love and service to one another by literally getting your hands dirty.”
And then Jesus foretells his betrayal. He says to those gathered around him, his closest friends, his confidants, “One of you will betray me.” The disciples are shocked. They look at one another in disbelief. Jesus is their friend, their teacher, their spiritual leader. They simply cannot imagine that this could be true. But Jesus knows that it will be Judas Iscariot, and Judas knows this too, so when Jesus says, “Do quickly what you are doing to do”, Judas runs out of the house. The other disciples still don’t get it, and think that Judas is running out to buy groceries for the Passover meal.
Then Jesus says, “Dear ones, I am only going to be with you for a little while longer, and you will be looking for me, because you have not been paying attention to all that I have been telling you.” He goes on, “I am going to give you one major commandment. Only one, because it is probably going to be hard for you to follow. It is to ‘love one another. Just as I have loved you, love one another.’” Jesus concludes, “Everyone will be able to know that you are my disciples, if you show love to one another.”
We do not get any commentary in the text about what the disciples are thinking or feeling about this commandment. So I imagine a very human reaction from the disciples regarding this commandment to love. OF COURSE they love each other. They are friends. They probably get annoyed with each other at times, but at the end of the day, they are loyal and loving towards one another.
But Jesus is NOT saying, “Everyone will you know that you follow me by the love that you show to your friends.” Jesus shared a meal and washed the feet of Judas, the one who betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver. Judas is decidedly not his friend.
Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you should love one another…by this, everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” ONE ANOTHER is not just Jesus’ inner circle of disciples. It is not just those who were open and friendly to the message that Jesus and the disciples shared.
ONE ANOTHER is not just people who are Christian. Or American. Or churchgoers. Or polite or who are likely to reciprocate that love. The love demonstrated by Jesus is without condition. It is without qualification or justification. It is the sort of love that is demonstrated by washing the feet of the one who would betray you.
This is not the kind of love that we have because we have affection for someone, or a familial bond, or similar interests. It is the kind of love that flows from us because we are first loved by God. But it is hard to love this way. And for this reason, we need an example. God incarnate washes the feet of those closest to him, including the feet of Judas, who will literally turn him over to be killed. Jesus is incarnationally modeling what it is to love. We will at times fall short, but we need not despair, for God is still among us, and within us, and loving us in spite of all of the ways that we betray God and deny God by not seeing the face of Christ in our neighbors. We are loved at the core of our being, because we belong to God. We are made in God’s image. Nothing we can do can ever tear us away from God’s love.
BECAUSE WE ARE FIRST LOVED, WE ARE FREE TO LOVE. THIS IS VERY GOOD NEWS INDEED.
Let us pray,
God, we give you thanks for your love for us, an expansive love for all of humanity and all of creation. May that same love flow through us as we seek to follow you. Amen.