Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only Start Doing

Easter 5 – Year C

One of the things I have always found most appealing about Jesus and his preaching is that he almost always taught in simile, metaphor, story, or parable. He knew that there was great depth and richness in a story that cannot be found in a rule. He knew that a simile can sometimes speak more truth than a definition. What is the Kingdom of God some asked Jesus? Instead of defining it Jesus always said, the Kingdom of God is “like.” The Kingdom of God is like a man who planted a mustard seed. It is the smallest of all seeds but when it grows it becomes the largest plant in the garden. The Kingdom of God is like a man who discovers a pearl of great value, or a treasure hidden in a field, and sells all that he has to purchase it. When asked to define who is and who is not a neighbor, Jesus doesn’t give his followers a law delineating the limits of neighborliness, he tells them a story about a traveler, a robber, and a good Samaritan. Or when the Pharisees question his habit of eating with sinners and undesirables, Jesus doesn’t explain to them his rules for whom he will and will not associate with, he tells them a story about a prodigal son who wasted his inheritance and still received the warm embrace and love of his father. In almost every case Jesus wanted to impart wisdom to his followers but not rules.
Yet, in today’s gospel we have the stark exception. In our lesson for today from John’s Gospel, Jesus gathers with his closest friends for his final meal. Shortly he will be arrested, tried, and crucified. He wants to break bread with his disciples and share with them some final words. But here there is no parable, simile, or metaphor. Here Jesus does not paint a word picture but he gives them a very specific commandment. In essence he says to them, make no mistake about what I am about to tell you. I am not giving you a suggestion. No, when it comes to this most important point I give you a commandment, this I demand from every one of you who would follow me. You must – love one another as I have loved you.
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” In these words of Jesus we find the heart of what it means to serve God. The earliest Christians were called “followers of the Way” and to follow the way of Christ means to follow the way of love. Because as Teilhard de Chardin once said, “It is impossible to love Christ without loving others, and it is impossible to love others without moving nearer to Christ.”
In our lesson from Acts this morning we are given a glimpse of what was perhaps the first great church fight in the history of Christianity. And like most church fights, then and since, it all hinged around how one should actually live out Jesus’ command to love one another. You have to remember, the earliest followers of Jesus were all Jewish. Jesus was a Jewish prophet and rabbi, a holy man steeped in the biblical traditions of his people. All of his first followers were faithful Jews. The men were circumcised; they all kept kosher and followed the laws of Moses. Yes they preached and proclaimed Jesus as the messiah, but they did so within the synagogue. They were Jews trying to reform other Jews.
But soon enough the good news about Jesus began to spread to others. Gentiles, meaning anyone who was not Jewish, were attracted to Jesus’ message too and they wanted to be part of this new community. But Jews were not supposed to have anything to do with Gentiles. They were not to talk with them or associate with them. To do so was to make oneself impure, to defile ones self in the eyes of God. After all, Gentiles knew nothing of the great promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They did not appreciate the special covenant between God and the people of Israel. Many had never heard of Moses or the Ten Commandments. Gentiles were impure, unclean, and undesirable. And yet . . . the more the disciples taught about Jesus, the more some of them wanted to be baptized in his name.
And so there was a fight, the first church fight, a big fight I imagine. You have to be Jewish to follow Jesus, some of them said. No you don’t, said others. You may not have to be Jewish, said some, but before you can be a follower of Jesus you have to at least get circumcised and learn to keep Kosher. Love one another as I have loved you, Jesus taught. But certainly, many said, there must be limits to that love; Jesus couldn’t have meant that we should include the Gentiles?
Can you appreciate how radical it was when faithful Peter went to Cornelius’ house and had dinner with him? (Cornelius is the uncircumcised Gentile referred to in our lesson this morning.) Cornelius was a centurion, a non-commissioned officer in the Roman army, a man in charge of 100 soldiers. But he wanted to be a Christian. However, to enter a Gentile’s home, to sit at his table, to eat his food, that was perhaps the worse thing Peter could do as a faithful Jew. But he did it anyway. And I can’t help but imagine that he did so because he could not get those words of Jesus’ out of his mind – love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. The first great church fight was settled. Would Christianity remain a small religion of small-minded people with limited vision? No, love is too big for that. Love would push beyond the comfort zones of Jesus’ disciples and embrace those once thought un-embraceable. Peter would obey his Lord’s commandment.
Well, here we are some two millennia later and we are no less confronted with this commandment from our Lord then Peter was. “Love one another,” Jesus said. But what is the standard for that love? It is found in the clause – “as I have loved you.” How did Jesus love? With reckless abandon, breaking all the rules. He was friends with tax collectors, he ate dinner with prostitutes, he allowed women into his inner circle, he washed his friends dirty feet. He reached out to all kinds, especially to those whom the rest of the world would shun. His love was a love that was risky and uncomfortable, daring and dangerous, and he ultimately paid with his life because of this love.
Margaret Guenther, a great preacher and teacher, once wrote – “We have cheapened love by using the word carelessly. We have confused the sentimentality of the Hallmark card with the deep, dark mystery of love that is manifested for us in the incarnate Christ. Yes, love can be warm, enfolding and sheltering. Yes, love can feel good. But love can also be strong and difficult. It can be an impossible challenge.” To love as Jesus loved is precisely to take on this challenge.
There is a great story about a father who overheard his two little daughters playing church one afternoon. One of them was explaining to the other what all the parts of the liturgy meant. “Do you know what it means at the end of the service when the priest does this?” she asked (making the sign of the cross.) “It means some of you go out this way, and some of you go out that way.” The little girl was right. The cross, and the love which compelled Jesus to hang upon it, sends us and scatters us into the world. Someone has said that the really important thing for any church is not how many it seats but how many it sends. How many it sends out into the world commanded to use a strange looking power, the greatest power the world has ever known, the power of suffering love.
Make no mistake about it, you and I are commanded, commanded to love, commanded to go out into the world and live out the same reckless and risky love that Jesus did. That means the first people we are to love are the ones we think most unlovable. This takes courage, it takes discipline, it requires sacrifice. Heck, it may even start a church fight from time to time. But the love of Christ is too big to be limited and too powerful not to share. Remember, love one another as I have loved you. It isn’t a suggestion, it is in fact the only rule we are commanded to follow. Amen.