Loving One Another (Isa. 2:2-5; Acts 11:1-18; Jn. 13:31-35)
In John chapter 13, Jesus gave disciples some crucially important words just before they went out to face Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, all of which will, pretty much, change their lives forever. And, in reality, so will the words. In the earlier part of this chapter, John told the story of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet. He said to them that they should do for one another what he has done for them. In our passage, he puts what he had already done into the form of what he calls a new commandment to love as he has loved – and that is with the kind of loving service played out in that foot-washing. He also says that his disciples will be distinguishable by everyone by this very love that they have for one another. The word John used for love refers to the same kind of open, vulnerable love of which Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13.
By the way, these words from John 13:35 are the very ones that inspired Peter Scholtes to write last Sunday’s final hymn: “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” Just before Jesus went where, he said, the disciples couldn’t go, and not long before they went out to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said that it was important for them to act in self-giving love, and for the community of Jesus’ disciples to be known by everyone by their love for one another. The 3rd century Christian lawyer and theologian Tertullian once quoted non-Christians saying: “how these Christians love one another,” even in the context of a world that did not love them.
John’s Jesus thought it indispensable for his disciples to love one another and to be known to do so. Because it’s so easy to get off the track, I want to remind us that, in the Bible, he word “love” is primarily about what we do not about how we feel. To love someone was to treat them as important, to embrace them and include them in our community, not simply to feel or think warmly toward them, or even just to speak warmly about them. Now, there’s no doubt that in John 13:35 “ love one another” refers to other disciples of Jesus, not primarily to those outside that community. It is crucial that those who observe us from outside see that Christian communities treat one another with love, that is with respect, affirmation, and accountability.
Indeed, last week I told you that our first congregation sang all stood, and sang all stanzas of “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love,” every week at the end of the Sunday Worship Service. I did not tell you why. In the Northern Black Hills of South Dakota, two small American Baptist congregations were merged together to form one, but they even didn’t like each other very much, even within one of the congregations. One day I was at a town meeting at which some community leaders were present. The Principal of the local school (at which Maxine would later teach), when I was introduced as the new Baptist Minister, said to me, “O, I’m sorry.” I asked him why he was sorry, and he said, “the way that bunch of yours treats one another, and their preachers is terrible, they’re known to be the meanest church in town.” (As I later learned this man had a reputation much like the Baptist Church, and was also known for his almost total lack of tact.) I remind you that this was my first pastorate, I was still in my 20’s, and I didn’t know better than a lot of things I did. Anyway, as it happened, the next all church business meeting (which I dreaded because I’d been informed by others that they could get unpleasant) was only days away, and I simply told them what the Principal had said about them, and said I that I was surprised that he would have said it, more or less, in public. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen, but there was total silence for what seemed like a long time (I began to think of the verse in Revelation 8, “There was silence in heaven for about half an hour”). After what seemed longer than it probably was, one of the leaders who had been on the search committee, stood up and said, “Pastor, we need to change that and make it right, and I’m starting today.” This was met with several “amens,” and one or two other similar remarks. The other “business” kind of went away and we talked a long time about what we could do to “make it right.” It was clear that these folk knew it meant more than talking, it meant acting. But I knew that reminders of who we were and were trying to be might be important. Enter, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by our Love.” And, I tell you, we did work on it, it did change and the community noticed. But it was a change in how we treated one another that got it started. And then it went out into the community because how we treat one another ought be no different than how we treat others, or so these two congregations in process of becoming one reasoned. And, that leads us to that interesting passage in Acts 11 that we read.
Luke considers the story about Peter’s struggle with, and final acceptance of, Cornelius and his friends, and, with them, Gentiles into the community of faith to be very important. Chapter 10 tells the same story as it happened, and our chapter is a rehearsal of the exact same story by Peter himself (in livelier language) to some of his less broad-minded Jewish/Christian colleagues who questioned his impossibly rash actions. So the story is told twice in a row. Not even Paul’s conversion gets told twice in a row, although Luke eventually tells the story three times in Acts, and Paul, himself, tells it once in Galatians. Peter’s actions were important. Luke was saying, “As you are going out into the world outside the community, where it may not be safe, and people surely won’t have your background, before you go, remember this story.”
The story is, of course, how God called Peter out of his own parochial background, out of where he was comfortable, to embrace people who were very different than he. That this was a big deal is seen by the setting in which Peter retells the story – he’s been called on the carpet by some of his friends for doing something so “outside the box.” As I’ve said to you before, in the world of the early church (after and before, too), what you ate, with whom you did and didn’t eat, were incredibly important things. They were literally matters of life and death.
Peter had a dream in which he was commanded to eat that which the Jewish Kosher rules wouldn’t allow. The first, and even the second, time this happened, Peter stuck with what was Kosher. In the story, he followed a time-honoured practice of instructing God on how theologically correct God must be in order to meet our expectations. “I have never eaten anything profane or unclean,” he says (10:14). “How could you ask me to do that”? God simply replied: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (10:15). We are never told he ate a thing, but, rather, the theory was put into practice when Peter was given the opportunity to embrace Cornelius and his friends with all their differences. Cornelius was one of those folk with whom good, clean folks who kept the Torah did not eat. It was the way to be spiritual. Toward the end of the story in chapter 10, Peter said, “I truly now understand that God shows no partiality…” (34). And by the time he explained it to his colleagues who complain about his willingness to step outside of the tradition in our reading for today, Peter even said, “If then God gave them the same gift that we were given when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (11:17). And they shut up.
It’s important that this story doesn’t say that Gentile disciples became just like Jewish ones (and we know they didn’t), but what united them was more important than those differences. What God had showed Peter was that Jesus’ words had a meaning beyond what he understood when Jesus said them in the Upper Room. Loving one another, and being known as those who do, was widened out to include those who are very different than we are. Does this mean we become alike or even agree with all those we love. No. But it does mean we love one another and are known to do so whatever the differences.
And this is a tough one because it cuts across the grain of our natural instincts to stay in our own comfortable places with those who are just like us, not challenging ourselves to get out into the world and include (that is, love) those whose feet Christ challenges us to wash, and allow them to wash our feet. It’s much more comfortable to content ourselves with making sure we believe the right things and associate with the right people. But it’s not the mandate!
As someone who has spent pretty much a lifetime now teaching the Bible, especially what we Christians call the Old Testament, I have heard just about every knock on it possible, about “but lead me to the cross,” about “we’re not under law, we’re under grace,” and on and on. People find justification for all kinds of hate and violence in the Old Testament. That’s sometimes a convenient place to hang our hats when we want to execute people or justify taking things that don’t really belong to us (like land from native Americans). It can also give people a lot of trouble, because they don’t think we should hate and be violent. So people don’t either understand the Old Testament or read it much today. I’ve tried to help some of that in my lifetime, but the reality is that this massive volume was collected over 1000 years of cultural memory and contains within it dozens of multifaceted traditions of many generations of different people. There is, without doubt violence in it, and even justification (or rationalization) of violence, war, killing, and just about anything else people want to find. It would be surprising if, in a tradition of a whole people, we did not find our own normal, common, tendencies to justify ourselves and claim that God is on our side. But, from time to time, we find a counter-stream there with words that, as I say, cut right across the grain of our common tendency to violence. Such a place is our Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah 2.
In this lesson we find a dream, a vision, that “in days to come,” that is, in the good future of God, that all nations shall come and learn God’s ways. Many people will come of their own free will, and God’s own people will simply be one of those who come. And there we, all together, will learn God’s ways, learn to walk in God’s paths, and listen to God as authoritative for us. When the many peoples learn to take God’s teachings as final what they will learn is to turn instruments and attitudes of destruction into instruments and attitudes of construction, planting, and fruitfulness. We will stop learning ways to major on minors and to tear one another to shreds. Or, perhaps, in those famous words that Jeshua the Carpenter rabbi gave to those who would follow: “By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for one another.” And, this time, one another simply means everyone
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.