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April 28, 2013
04-28-2013 Sermon I had a long-scheduled dental check-up on my calendar. My husband had just been diagnosed with throat cancer. Because I don’t love to go to the dentist, I knew if I cancelled the appointment, I’d find endless reasons not to reschedule, so I went. And I asked Cheryl, the hygienist, to just do what was needed as quickly as possible so I could get back to Tom. Cheryl responded with, “I’d like to put him in my prayer journal, if that’s okay.” Up to that day, Cheryl and I had talked about dental care and about how each of us was currently treating the eczema we both had. Nothing else. She had no way of knowing if I would welcome her offer of prayer. Or scorn such an offer. But her immediate response was to make the offer. And before I left the office that day, she had gotten her journal and entered Tom’s name.
This is how everyone will know that you’re my disciples: that you love one another.
Jesus and his disciples are gathered in an upper room. They have shared a meal. Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet. Judas has left them, headed to meet with the authorities who will arrest and execute Jesus.
After Judas departs, Jesus begins to speak to the remaining disciples. This section of John’s Gospel is often called the Final Discourse, and it is rich and dense and confusing and compelling.
In the few verses we’ve read today, Jesus speaks of his glory, he speaks of his departure, and he speaks of how his followers are to live when he is no longer with them. He gives them what he calls “a new commandment”. We might wonder about that, because the People of Israel have been commanded to love God and neighbor since their earliest days as a nation. Those commandments have been their defining characteristic as the People of God. What distinguishes this command to love one another is that “a new community emerges from its giving” (Donelson). Those who have been with Jesus through his ministry are to become, in his absence, a community formed by and around and within the new covenant which he has brought. The covenant sealed in his birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection. The covenant sealed in his blood, both as it flows in his veins, and as it is shed on the cross. Augustine of Hippo writes that this love for one another which Jesus commands “renews us, so that we are a new people, inheritors of the new covenant and singers of the new song” (Tractates on John LSV.1)
But Jesus doesn’t simply say Love one another. He goes on to say Love one another as I have loved you. One translation puts it this way: Love each other deeply and fully. Remember the ways that I have loved you, and demonstrate your love for others in those same ways. (The Voice)
How has Jesus loved them? We tend to think of love as affection, pleasure in one another’s company, interest in the other’s activities. In the witness of Scripture, that is not the picture we get of how Jesus loves. Jesus loves people by feeding them when they’re hungry, healing them when they’re sick, teaching them when they’re confused, comforting them when they mourn – again and again, he acts to free those he meets from the oppressions or wounds which keep them from full engagement with life. Finally, he lays down his own life for us, and in that supreme act of love, he frees all of humanity from the oppression of sin and the wound of death. This is love as action rather than emotion. This is love as service, as offering, as covenant.
So obeying this commandment does not call the disciples to feel for one another. Rather, they are called to act for one another. Loving as Jesus loves is “a matter of behavior, of life in community, of social expectation” (Stevick, p. 111). Obeying this commandment brings disciples into a life that is deeply shared.
And loving one another is a matter of witness to the world. This is how all will know that you’re my disciples: that you truly love one another.
“All will know”. Not because we have fish decals on our cars. Not because we wear Scripture reference t-shirts. Not because we hang decorative crosses around our necks or from our ears. There is, of course, nothing wrong with bumper decals and t-shirts and jewelry. But these things accessorize the discipleship we proclaim through loving action; they do not establish our identity as Christians. It is the active, servant love we bear one another which marks us as those who follow Jesus.
The witness of our covenantal love takes particular forms within the church. Weekly worship includes sharing signs of peace; praying with and for one another; contributing our time, talent and treasure to be used within and beyond the congregation. Today’s worship includes, as well, the sacrament of baptism, and the service to ordain and install congregational leaders. In this sacrament and in this service, we remember and celebrate that we are together the Body of Christ, with shared joys and mutual responsibilities. We proclaim that our congregation, like the 1st century gathering of disciples, flourishes in “concrete, face-to-face, long-term relations of persons with one another in local, space-time-specific” interactions (Stevick, p. 116).
Life in Christian community includes promises. We are making promises today, promises that grow out of Jesus’ new commandment to his disciples.
In the sacrament of baptism, we have – as a body – promised to guide and nurture Liliana and Olivia by word and deed, with love and prayer. We are bound by Christ’s commandment to love one another, and in baptism that love is found in our pledge to offer material help, emotional support, theological encouragement, and authentic relationship to all who share new life in Christ.
In the service of ordination and installation, we will – as a body – receive and pray for those who have been called to particular forms of service within the congregation. These individuals – members of the priesthood of all believers — have agreed to put their gifts at the service of the community during their terms as Deacons and Ruling Elders. In just a moment, they will come up here to the front of the church and answer questions about this commitment they are making. One of those questions is, “In your ministry, will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?” By answering “Yes”, they are binding themselves afresh to Christ’s new commandment to love one another. They are promising to live and serve and act and speak so as to proclaim to the world their Christian discipleship. They are entering into a particular form of the covenantal love which is the center of Christian life.
And we, the community they have agreed to serve, make promises as well. We promise to uphold them in prayer, to respect their leadership, to support their ministry. Covenantal love is mutual, reciprocal, encompassing.
Jesus calls us to love one another – not as an abstraction, a theological proposal, an emotional ideal. Loving as Jesus has loved us has everything to do with feeding, healing, teaching, comforting one another as we live together in Christian community.
May our prayer ever be that all will know we are Christ’s disciples through the love we bear for one another.