By this will they know
A sermon on John 13: 31-35 by Nathan Nettleton, 6 May 2007
Outrageous love is the most obvious characteristic of Jesus, and therefore it is the one thing that will make us recognisable as his followers.
If you ask the average Aussie about how they would identify a Christian, the chances are that you will get one mention of something they do, and probably a bit of a list of things they don’t do. The one identifying thing they do will be “they go to church.” If the person has recently been targeted by one of those pushy street evangelist types who try to force themselves on you if you are walking or sitting alone in public and won’t let you go until they have got through their rehearsed spiel on “the gospel”, then they might add that, with obvious contempt in their voice, but mostly it will probably just be “they go to church.” The list of don’t will vary a bit, depending on who they’ve bumped into recently. Perhaps “they don’t drink”, or “they don’t swear”, or “they don’t have sex until they are married” might feature, but increasingly the strident right-wing Christian political agenda has narrowed the list down to “they don’t tolerate homosexuals” and “they don’t allow abortion”.
Jesus must be heartbroken over this. Being against things is a million miles away from what he wanted his followers to be known for. As we heard in the gospel reading tonight, Jesus told his followers, “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.” Presumably then, the answer that Jesus would wish for his followers to have inspired from the average Aussie Joe in the street is “They bloody well love everybody, those Christians. They’ve got no idea! They treat scum like royalty. They think everyone should be welcome here. They want a second chance for every lowlife loser. They don’t seem to know when to stop. I mean, I’m all for love your neighbour and love your family and all that, but charity is supposed to start at home, and these Jesus followers, they are just fanatical about it, They don’t seem to know when to stop.”
Tragically, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that answer given. It did seem to be given about Jesus himself, though, and I guess that’s the point. The first horizon of Jesus’ words were the period immediately after his departure. That’s clear, even from the context, because these words about the new commandment follow immediately on from him saying “I am only going to be with you for a little while longer.” They are part of his conversation with the disciples at the last supper, and are kind of his parting words, his last will and testament if you like. So in the short term he is thinking about a situation in which people will remember what he was like when he was walking the streets, and so the point is that people will recognise his disciples by their similarity to him. They will say, “These people treat everyone the way that Jesus bloke treated everyone. They must be followers of his, because nobody else would behave like that.”
For that to be the case — for people to automatically make that connection — there has to be this over-the-top, above-and-beyond aspect to the love that is shown. It is quite common for the average Aussie to say, “Yeah, I reckon I’m a Christian; I follow the golden rule, love your neighbour, and all that.” But Jesus is clearly suggesting that what people will notice is something that is clearly abnormal, notably beyond the norm. In another context, that was the point of Jesus offering the parable of the good Samaritan in answer to the question, “who is my neighbour?” Loving your neighbour is not the least bit radical, so long as you can give your own safe definition of who your neighbour is. As Jesus said in the sermon on the mount, “why should you expect any special reward for loving those who love you? Even the gangsters and people smugglers do that.” And so when the person to whom he says “love your neighbour” asks “who is my neighbour?”, he tells the parable of the good Taliban terrorist and says “there’s your neighbour.” No wonder they called him a fanatic and took offence.
Right the way through the gospel accounts, the things that are constantly getting Jesus into trouble with the religious leaders, and sometimes - for example in his home town - with the general public, are things where his words and actions make loving someone a priority over obeying rules, observing social niceties, and maintaining the conventional boundaries of who is my neighbour and who is not.
“This bloke needs healing and I could do it, but it’s the Sabbath and I’m not supposed to do that sort of thing on the Sabbath. Stuff it. I love him. why make him wait any longer. I’ll do it now.” TROUBLE!
“This woman has been caught committing adultery, and the crowd have gathered to execute her by stoning as the law requires. Do I endorse the law and let them do it. No! Love does not stand by and let this woman die. I’ll stick my neck out and point out that she’s no worse than anyone else here and challenge them to claim otherwise. That should save her.” Big Trouble!
“These people are sitting here in the synagogue applauding me for saying that God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, but they are so racist. They hate the Sidonians and the Syrians. I’ll tell them that God loves the Sidonians and the Syrians just as much as them and that God wants them to do likewise.” Big big trouble. This guy is going to get himself thrown off a cliff.
Actually this last example is the same issue we see played out in the reading we heard tonight from the Acts of the Apostles. And it goes to show that the first generation of Jesus’ followers were still struggling with the implications of this boundary breaking love after his resurrection and ascension. They were still caught up in an assumption that to be a follower of Jesus meant being Jewish, but God had sent Peter to speak to the household of Cornelius who was not only a gentile, but an officer in the hated Roman occupation forces. And when God obviously pours out the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his family, Peter and the church leaders have to decide what to make of this outrageous disregard of the boundaries. Are they supposed to love these people? Accept them? Sit and eat at the same table with them? Unthinkable! It goes against everything they’ve been brought up to believe! But they rightly conclude that if the Lord himself is breaking the boundaries and pouring out his love on these people, then they either have to follow suit or get themselves out of step with what God is doing, so they had better love as Jesus loves, no matter what trouble it might cause.
Perhaps then, instead of just saying, “If you love like me then everyone will know that you are my followers,” Jesus could have said, “If you love so generously and extravagantly and outrageously that you stir up scandal and controversy and get denounced as fanatics and lunatics and sympathisers and bleeding hearts, then everyone will know that you must be one of my lot.”
Now at the risk of undermining half of what I’ve just said, I’m going to focus on a couple of examples for us that draw the circles of neighbourliness fairly close to home and ask how we express the love of Jesus here. I am not, for a moment, suggesting that there are not just as many challenges to today’s Christian community in looking at how we love those who are often hated in our society. There are still far too many Christians ready to support more militant border control on the grounds of protecting Australia’s interests, when such nationalistic motives are clearly exactly what God was overthrowing in the house of Cornelius and in Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth. There are still far too many Christians who support the withholding of basic legal rights from homosexual people, although I must acknowledge that the usually vehemently anti-gay Australian Christian Lobby recently offered qualified support to the state Government’s proposal to establish a “relationships register” as a way of redressing such legal obscenities, and they did so on the grounds that, whatever your view on the morality of gay sex, such legal discriminations were an indefensible violation of the call to love all people.
There is still plenty that could be said about such issues. But I want to look at a couple of the issues that we have on our plate right now, and ask how the new commandment to love as Jesus loved might help us understand where God is calling to follow.
What might the call to love as Jesus loved mean for our consideration of what sort of funeral rites we would use when one of our own congregation dies? This is not just a question of getting things liturgically right. It is about how we care for people; how we love them at an especially vulnerable time. How do we honour the loved one who is dying and prayerfully help them to die well? How do we honour the things they stood for when we are burying them? And how do we love those who loved them and are grieving deeply? And this is one of those times when the answer may not be just give them whatever it is they think they want. Any alcoholic will tell you that just giving a desperate person what they want is not always the loving thing to do. In a society that treats death as a big taboo and avoids expressing painful emotions, pandering to that with quick sanitised thanksgiving services with no coffin in sight and nothing but cheerful memories to be spoken. It might be as popular as handing another bottle to a drunk, but it might be at the expense of providing anything that helps people to negotiate the hard roads of dying and grieving in healthy and liberating ways. But it also wouldn’t be loving to try to sort this out the day someone dies. Frances is giving us a real gift at the moment by being open about her impending death and being interested in what sort of funeral rites might be used and how they might balance the needs of congregation, her non-church friends and her family. And the fact that she is someone who is so beloved among us makes it easier for us to focus on it as an act of love.
What might the call to love as Jesus loved mean for our consideration of the place of children in our congregational life? It is probably more common for congregations the size of ours to focus on the need to incorporate the adults into the common life of the prayer and ministry, and to think of the children just as encumbrances that have to be “looked after” in order to allow their parents’ involvement. But following the example of Jesus who placed a small child in the midst of the disciples and said “Here’s the starting point for thinking about how the life of the kingdom is to be lived out,” clearly our starting point is to think of the children as important parts of the congregation in their own right. It is, of course, easy to feel loving towards children at the cute age that most of the one’s here are at, but it is not about feeling loving, it is about putting love into practice. No one here is going to want to destroy the contemplative beauty of our worship in order to ape the “family friendly” model of some of the bigger churches around. There is not only one model of how to make the children welcome and included. We need to find the way that works for who we are, not for who some other successful church is. In our covenant, we commit ourselves to “offering welcome and hospitality to anyone who wishes to share in the life of our church, regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality or life experience,” and “regardless of age” means we are committing ourselves to finding patterns that are inclusive for children just as much as we are committed to finding ways of including other people who might not fit our dominant demographic stereotypes. How will we ensure that these children experience themselves as loved, valued and included here, rather than just “provided for” in order to allow the “more important” adults to do their “more important” adult thing?
Jesus’ call to love as he loved affects pretty much every question and issue we face in life, both as a congregation and as individuals in the other circles we move in. It goes to the core of our discipleship, not just because Jesus issued it with the force of a commandment, but because it was the most distinctive feature of his own life and ministry, of his own way of being. When we gather around this table to offer ourselves to Christ and to his people, love is what that is all about. Loving God; loving one another; loving others. And every time we gather here, we are challenged again to come to terms with just how radically and extravagantly and dangerously Jesus loves us, and with that challenge comes the call to offer ourselves to him, to be remade in his image, as people who love as he loved, for his glory and for the liberation of the world.