“As I Have Loved You” (Jeremiah 31:1-6; Acts 10:44-48; John 15:12-17)
We preachers sometimes get cynical about churches. From some sermons I have heard or read, you might think that the main goal of the vast majority of Christians is simply to get to heaven when they die, and what they most want to know is the least they have to do to get to there. I understand the temptation, but it’s not been my experience. I do think that some of us preachers have taught people to read the Bible in ways that are so unhelpful, that, for example, if Jesus says, as he does in Matthew’s Gospel that the job of Christians is “teaching (people) to obey everything I have commanded,” that what we need to do is go through the New Testament with a red pencil and find all the actual commands of Jesus and do them ourselves and teach others to do the same. And we get to heaven.
Well, even if we were able to complete that assignment, how would we know which of the commandments of Jesus in the Gospels are duplicates and which ones are unique? Furthermore, we have no reason to think that Jesus or those who gave us the New Testament knew they were writing a New Testament. That came later as the canon was formed. Yet again, do we really think that every command of Jesus is contained in the New Testament? How do we know? And, even on top of all that, how can we make sure that people actually obey these things in specific situations centuries after Jesus’ life? Such an approach is doomed to fail, choked to death by legalism if nothing else.
As I said, most followers of Jesus that I have known through the years have been serious about what it takes to be his disciples, and are not so obsessed with the afterlife, that they don’t care about the present world. If we are thoughtful in our approach to the scriptures, today’s texts are all complementary and seek to respond to question of following Jesus in helpful ways today.
It’s hard to know where to start, but let’s look at John’s Gospel first. These verses are the latter part of Jesus’ teaching that began with the saying “I am the vine, you are the branches…remain in me.” In order to be disciples of Jesus, we need to “remain” in Jesus, just as grapevines remain attached by living tissue to the that vine, Jesus’ life and teachings are our core, our heart. We are powerless to be Christians, much less to do anything even vaguely Christ-like, if we don’t treasure Jesus’ life and teaching, and nurture a relationship with him.
And, to do that, we need to start with God. Later on in the New Testament, 1 John 4:19 says “We love because God first loved us.” This, of course, means that we are recipients of divine love before we are ever channels of it. This message is nothing new. In fact, our Old Testament lesson contends that God’s people are the recipients of God’s own love, which is neither temporary nor fickle, and does not depend on circumstance. Whether we turn to the most distant past or the farthest reaches of the future God’s love exists, steady and faithful. Jeremiah 31 puts these words in God’s mouth: “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (v. 3). The context in which God’s everlasting love is found is, in a word, wreckage. Hear the words:
…The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the LORD appeared from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built…(Jer. 31:2b-4a)
The situations into which God’s love is poured are difficult (and, sometimes, even the work of God, according to the Bible) but, nonetheless, even in wreckage, God’s love is gracious, provides rest, and is faithful. This is how God chooses to relate to humans. And, if you look at the whole passage, you will find that the term “Israel” in it includes both the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel – bitter rivals that both thought had a corner on the truth. God’s everlasting love is inclusive of differences. Here, the Bible rubs against the grain of the fixation of much contemporary church culture on sameness, conformity and those with the “right” qualifications. God seeks out those who have been uprooted and devastated, and have suffered loss after loss as the ones upon whom to shower everlasting love. That’s true even when people do this to themselves by their own actions.
If we would be Jesus’ disciples, we must understand how God relates to people. Our lives and words as disciples must not be garbled or confused: God loves the people of God. God also loves the world with an everlasting love. It’s the world that is the recipient of God’s loving gift of Jesus (John 3:16). That’s part of what Jesus meant by calling disciples “friends,” or more literally, “loved ones.”
Jesus says, “You are my friends, my loved ones, if you do what I command.” A minute ago I mentioned what I thought was a hopelessly inadequate approach to knowing what Jesus commands. So what’s a better way?
At both the beginning and the end of our Gospel reading Jesus repeated pretty much the same commandment to reflect God’s everlasting love to others. Both of these statements repeat what Jesus said to his disciples when he washed their feet: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another” (13:34-35). What this says to us, is that if we would be “loved ones” who love one another, the standard of love is Jesus’ sacrificial and other-centred love. “No one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for loved ones,” Jesus said. Jesus’ love was not turned inward on himself. Jesus is perfectly plain when he says, “You’re my “loved ones” if you do what I command.” His command is intentional self-giving love. In other places in the New Testament (and the Old), Jesus said much the same. He responded to tell what the Great Commandment was, was that there were two, and they both have to do with love: “Love God with your all, and your neighbour as you do yourselves.
These statements of Jesus are often misunderstood to mean that God and Jesus love people when they obey Jesus’ command to love. That’s backwards. Obedience is not a test of whether one is loved by God or Jesus. Rather loving flows from being loved. So, if you are Jesus’ disciple, take him as your compass and companion, and grasp that you are loved. Then, it is simply normal behaviour for you to relate to other disciples by treating them as loved ones of God in Christ.
All through his ministry Jesus had used another term, both for himself and for his disciples. It was the socially negative word: “servant” or, more accurately, “slave.” Slaves had no rights in Jesus’ day, so they couldn’t claim any. Jesus used the term to describe a mission that was radically “other-centred,” that didn’t concern itself with preservation and with reward, but with the best for the other. Here Jesus says, “I no longer call you ‘slave,’ because slaves don’t know what their master’s up to.” “I have called you ‘loved ones’ because I’ve brought you up to speed on the mission.” Disciples are still servants. They’re just servants who know why they are servants.
Now, we may drink all this in, and even claim to grasp some of it, but the Acts Lesson underlines another point. We come into that lesson at the end of a long story, and, as so often, it’s the author’s intent that we read and understand the whole. In this story, Peter – in those days chief of the Apostles – learned that God wasn’t as closed-minded as he was, and was actually pushing Peter, and the church with him, to open up more to the wideness of God’s mercy and love.
The story is that of Cornelius the Gentile who Peter thought just couldn’t be a loved one of God because, well, he was different. Peter had a dream in which he iwas commanded to eat that which the Jewish Kosher rules wouldn’t allow. The first, and even the second, time this happened, Peter remained Kosher. He followed a time-honoured practice of instructing the deity on how theologically correct God must be in order to meet our expectations. “I have never eaten anything profane or unclean” (14). How many times in my life I have tried to instruct the Almighty about orthodoxy, only to be pointed and then, nudged outside the box of my narrowness.
And God wasn’t about to give up “nudging” Peter. As I said, God is more open minded than God’s followers most times. Here are the words: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” All this happened three times and Peter didn’t know what to make of it, until Cornelius’ servants showed up at his door to ask him to share the good news of Christ with their master – a profane, and unclean Gentile. Peter had been taught that, he believed that. But, even Peter finally got the point. “You yourselves know that it’s against the rules for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (28). Or, even better, “I truly now understand that God shows no partiality…” (34). We then come to our passage when God shows that the Holy Spirit had already included these different folks in the people of God. They didn’t have to get the doctrine right, first.
What does this story – important for the history of the church as a past event – mean for us who are not living back then, but now? First, personally, the Acts story implies that God loves people we might exclude because they’re not very like us. When the text talks of loving others, it’s a broad net it casts. This might show up in a variety of ways today, such as those who are different in gender, in race, in social status, and so forth. We need to remember that there is a wideness in God’s mercy, which is, like the wideness of the sea.
We also need to remind ourselves that loving those “others” is not a statement about having warm feelings toward them, it is a statement about working for their good out in the world where it does some good. It means putting ourselves on the line for their welfare. In today’s world, with its lack of civility, and its polarization, it takes great courage to love in action (which is the only love the Bible really recognizes).
Our scriptures show us that love in action is keeping Jesus’ commandments. Of course, these have to be translated into specific actions in specific situations. The attitude that lays ourselves on the line for others who are beloved of God is the attitude that bespeaks love. The call of God is the missional imperative to get out of the box that we draw around church life, outside the institution, and get busy making friends for Jesus that includes everyone. Even those we don’t think about. As we gather at the Lord’s Table, may it be with the outward looking eye of covenant making with the world.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.