Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sermon for May 2nd: John 13:31-35

They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love

Recently in various places in the world there has been a flurry of court cases involving Christians who have been asked to remove ‘Christian’ jewelry from their work clothes; usually what’s involved is a lapel pin or a cross around the neck or something like that. The cases all seem to develop in a similar way. The employing body – in at least one case, it was an airline – says that the wearing of these pins detracts from the uniformity of their employees’ dress, or, in some cases involving chains around the neck, that it contravenes safety regulations. The Christian employee then responds by claiming that their religious rights are being trampled on, and the issue goes to court. In nine times out of ten, the issue that the court eventually considers is this one: is the wearing of a cross around the neck, or a fish lapel pin, a religious requirement in Christianity? And if you can’t wear it, are you somehow practicing your Christian faith?

Personally, I don’t think that the wearing of a cross or a fish is in any way fundamental to my identity as a follower of Jesus. Jesus did not say, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you wear a cross on a chain around your neck”. No – what he did call on us to do was to put the cross into practice by living lives of selfless and sacrificial love for each other. As he says in our gospel for today, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

Let me set today’s gospel reading in context for you. It’s Thursday evening, and the next day is Good Friday. By this time tomorrow night, Jesus will be dead. And so he gathers with his friends in an upper room in Jerusalem and shares a meal with them. The other three gospels all tell us that during this meal Jesus took bread and wine, told his disciples that it was his body and blood, shared it with them and told them to keep on doing this in remembrance of him. But in John’s gospel we don’t have any mention of this.

What John gives us instead is another symbolic action, an action that only he mentions. Forget about Leonardo DaVinci’s painting of the last supper! We must picture the disciples, not sitting on chairs around a table as Leonardo had them, but rather, reclining on low couches around a low table in the middle; each of them leaning on one arm and helping himself to food with the other. Each of them would be quite close to the feet of his neighbour, and in that setting it would be painfully obvious that one particular custom of the day had not been observed. It was the usual practice for a servant to wash the feet of guests as they came in from the dusty roads, but presumably Jesus’ little group had no servant and no one had done this. We might wonder why one of the disciples didn’t just get up from the table and do it, but then, we know from the gospel stories that the disciples were somewhat preoccupied with the question of who was the greatest and most important in their group. If you’re worried about that sort of thing, the last thing you want to do is the servant’s job!

So John tells us that Jesus himself got up from the table, took off his outer garment, wrapped a towel around his waist, took a basin of water, and went around the table, washing the feet of his disciples. As I said, this was the servant’s job, and to the disciples it would be a shocking thing for Jesus their master to put himself in the position of a servant in this way. Most of them said nothing about it; they were probably too shocked to speak up. But Peter protested.

‘He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” ‘Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand”. Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet”. Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me”. Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and head!”’ ‘Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you”. For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean” (John 13:6-11).

When Jesus finished washing their feet he put his robe back on, sat down with them again, and spelled out the lesson for them.

‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for this is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them”’ (John 13:12-17).

This is the context in which Jesus gives the commandment we read in our gospel reading for today:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:34-35).

Now, if you think about it for a moment, this is a very puzzling thing for Jesus to say. He tells them he is giving them a new commandment, to love one another. But the commandment to love is not new. The Old Testament contains the command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, and Jesus himself had certainly told his disciples to love one another before this point. So what’s new about this command?

What’s new is the example that Jesus gives: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (v.34). After all, the word ‘love’ carries many meanings, especially in the English language. We say, “I love my old boots”, “I love my country”, “I love reggae music”, “I love my wife”, “I love my kids”, “I love fish and chips”, and so on. In each of those cases, the word ‘love’ has a slightly different meaning, doesn’t it? So what’s Jesus talking about when he tells us, his followers, to love one another? In what sense is he using the word ‘love’ here?

Well, he’s obviously not talking about romantic love and he’s obviously not talking about a feeling. Despite Dan Brown and ‘The DaVinci Code’, there’s absolutely no concrete evidence that Jesus ever loved anyone in the romantic sense, and at the Last Supper and the cross itself there is no mention of any feeling of love as we think of it today. So he’s not talking warm fuzzies or feelings of attraction or anything of the sort. What is he talking about?

When we think of the example of Jesus, one thing we can say for sure is that he’s talking about sacrificial love. John says, ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’ (v.1). As the old saying goes, ‘I asked Jesus, “How much do you love me?” “This much”, he replied, as he stretched out his arms and died’.

It’s a central belief in Christianity that when Jesus died on the cross, it wasn’t just a meaningless tragedy, but a part of God’s plan to save us. In some mysterious sense, the great barrier of sin that stood in between God and the human race was breached forever when Jesus died. The Bible struggles for metaphors to explain how this could be: Jesus’ death was the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, or the ransom price to set us free from slavery to evil, or the innocent victim offering himself in the place of the guilty so that we could go free, and so on. You may find all of these metaphors helpful, or none of them, but surely the main point is that there were absolutely no limits on the love that Jesus showed for us. He wasn’t just willing to make little sacrifices; he was willing to be a sacrifice, to pay the ultimate price, so that we could receive God’s forgiveness and new life.

One of John’s letters later in the New Testament he says, ‘We love, because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). He says, ‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another’ (1 John 4:10-11). In other words, our love for one another is a response to what God has done for us; it comes because we ourselves have been loved by God in Christ. This is what Jesus means when he tells Peter that unless he washes him Peter will have no share in him. Peter wants to do something for Jesus, but Jesus wants him to know that before we can do anything for God, God first of all has to do something for us; God has to wash us from our sins through the cross of Christ, so that we can then love one another with the same sacrificial love that has been shown to us.

So Jesus would ask us this morning, “Where do you draw the line?” When the gospel calls me to love my Christian brothers and sisters, how far am I prepared to go? In the Roman world there was a saying: “See how these Christians love one another!” The Romans didn’t say that because they noticed that the Christians gushed all over each other and gave each other warm fuzzies; they said it because, over and over, they had seen Christians willingly give their lives for each other. And Jesus said, “By this” – this kind of sacrificial love, that is – “everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35).

Jesus’ love is sacrificial and it is also unconditional. The essential characteristic of the Christian gospel is grace: love that you don’t have to deserve and you don’t have to earn; it just comes to you as a free gift from God, because God is love.

Did Jesus wash the feet of his disciples because they were such a deserving bunch? I doubt it; at the time, they were still consumed with asserting their own self-importance. Did he go to the cross and die for the human race because we were such a deserving bunch? We were not; we were rebellious, and had shown over and over again that we would rather take any other way than the way of love for God and for one another. Paul says in Romans, ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). The God of the Bible is a God who loves his enemies, not just his friends. Jesus not only prays for his disciples but also for those who are busy crucifying him.

People sometimes leave the church because of the failures of the people they find there. They thought that the Christian community would be a place of unbroken love and gentleness and respect and joy, and instead they found people with the same character failings as everyone else. But I ask, “Why were you surprised? After all, you’re here, aren’t you?” I know that I am a seriously flawed person. I do my best to love – some of the time! But at other times I don’t; it’s easier to be lazy, or to retaliate when people hurt me. In other words, I’m a sinner and I need God’s forgiveness and also the forgiveness of my sisters and brothers in the church. And each of us is in the same position; we know that we ourselves have many failings, and so we can be gentle with our sisters and brothers who have their own set of failings too.

So Jesus’ love is sacrificial and it is unconditional. But thirdly, Jesus’ love is practical and unspectacular too.

It’s a pretty dramatic thing to die for someone else. It’s a lot harder to live for them. When I was in the Church Army Training College many years ago, we students had an ironic saying to illustrate this; we used to say, “I’ll die for you, but I’m sure not going to run up to the third floor to get your sweater for you!”

People who die for their friends get medals and glowing obituaries; when people take out the garbage for their friends, no one notices. But the love of Jesus isn’t just about the cross and the nails and the spear; it’s also about the basin and the towel and the kneeling down and washing dirty and smelly feet. It’s not just the dramatic gesture; it’s the daily acts of loving service, even when no one notices it. It’s the person who is willing to go over and spend time with a fellow-Christian who is depressed and, for the five hundredth time, needs to tell someone else about it in exhaustive detail. It’s the person who is willing to put their name on the kitchen roster at church and stay behind afterwards to do the dishes and sweep the floor. It’s the person who commits themselves to being at the soup kitchen once a week, whether they feel like it or not, or the person who gives quietly and faithfully to World Vision without telling anyone else about it. This is what our community here at St. Margaret’s is called to be. We’re called to be like Jesus, not just in his dying for us, but also in his living for us.

Where do we start? Well, we could start by learning each other’s names! What does it say about the love in our community when we won’t do that? To call a brother or sister by name is to indicate that to us they aren’t just a number. We aren’t just happy that we had x number of people in church today; we’re happy that Dave was here, and Clare was here, and Joe was here, and Lecia was here, and so on. So look around the church for the moment. When you look at people’s faces, how many names come to mind? Why not take a minute after the service to go up to someone whose name you don’t know, introduce yourself, and try to learn their name? And of course you can wear your nametag, and if you haven’t given us your picture for the photo board yet, do so soon, so that we can learn your name too!

Another thing we could do would be to be willing to tell each other when we have needs. Peter would have found it so much easier to wash Jesus’ feet than to have Jesus wash his feet! Sometimes it’s easier to help others than it is to admit that we ourselves need help; it’s a blow to our pride to admit that we aren’t self-sufficient. But the song says, ‘Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too’. Whether it’s a ride to church we need, or someone to spend some time with us, or snow shoveling or grass cutting, or help with child care, or whatever – we need to be willing to admit that we have needs, and to ask our brothers and sisters in the church for their help.

And of course the third thing is that when we see a need, we don’t walk by on the other side. We walk through our day with our eyes wide open, always on the lookout for ways we can be of practical service to our brothers and sisters. And when we see something we can do, we don’t blow a fanfare or make a fuss: we just do it, because that’s what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

They’ll know we are Christians by the crosses we wear around our necks or the little fishes we wear on our lapels? I don’t think so. Of course, it’s so much easier to wear a cross and then to kick up a fuss when someone tells us we can’t wear it. It’s so much harder to take up the basin and the towel and wash someone’s smelly feet. But Jesus has showed us the way by his love: sacrificial love, unconditional love, practical and unspectacular love. He has told us what he wants of us: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). This morning I’ve had the easy part of this; I’ve been talking about it! Words are the easy part; actions are far more difficult. But it’s actions that are required of us, as John says in his first letter: ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’ (1 John 3:18). So let’s not forget these others words of Jesus from John 13: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:17).

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