The Fifth Sunday After Easter, Year C, April 28, 2013
Acts 11:1-8, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Three weeks ago, the Confirmands and I read this text during our class. I hadn’t looked far enough ahead to see that this was the text they would hear on the day they were Confirmed; I wasn’t that organized. We were reviewing the Ten Commandments, as part of the wrap up of everything they have studied these past two years. I wanted to discuss why we follow them, what kind of life they’re designed to help us live. So we looked up and read many passages throughout scripture, Old and New Testament, where it talks about commandments. And in both Old and New Testaments, we noticed a curious thing. Most of the time, the writer will mention love almost in the same breath. The Bible doesn’t always mention “love” when talking about specific commandments, but when talking about the Commandments as a whole, there is almost always a reference to love in the same passage.
You hear it again in this passage from the thirteenth chapter of John. Jesus is talking to his disciples in the days before his death, and he’s giving them instructions for the kind of life he wants them to live. You’ll notice that he doesn’t spend much time on specifics. There are no “Thou shalt nots” buried in the text. No rules and regulations to quibble over. Just one blanket pronouncement: Love one another as I have loved you. This is how you’ll know someone’s a Christian, if they love their fellow human beings. When I was growing up, my mother used to sing a song she’d learned as a girl. The chorus went like this: “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
In our Gospel for today Jesus calls this a new commandment, but it really isn’t. You see, earlier in his ministry, a lawyer had asked him which of the Commandments was the greatest. This was quite a question, because in addition to the Ten Commandments that we follow, there are over six hundred commands in the Old Testament, mostly found in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Plus, there were by that time centuries of legal wrangling over how to interpret them, and other commandments that were regarded as given by God orally instead of written down by Moses. Just like today, devout followers of God wanted to live good lives in accordance with God’s will, and so they studied the Biblical law. There were whole schools devoted to answering questions like “what happens if your donkey falls into a pit on the Sabbath?” Getting the donkey out of the pit is work, and working on a Sabbath is forbidden by one of the Ten Commandments. Yet letting the donkey die would not be right or just, and another commandment instructs us to preserve life. So which one should you follow? When there’s a conflict between commandments, which one should you choose? That’s why the lawyer asked Jesus which commandment was the most important.
Jesus didn’t respond by quoting particular commandments. Instead, he summarized the whole law with two statements: Love the lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. All of the law—from the Ten Commandments through all the other 600+ ordinances in the Bible plus all the legal judgments that followed, all of it is based on a principle of love. Love God, and love your neighbor.
This seems fairly simple, and yet it’s something that we seem to have difficulty with. Loving one another. Sure, we say we love people, but too often we act without regard for them—especially people we don’t like. Sure, we say we love God, but all too often we forget about God as we go through our daily lives. And so we make decisions based on fear, or hate, or greed, or indifference, and don’t even notice. Our actions and our words are about as far from loving as can be, and we don’t even notice the harm we cause to others.
This isn’t a new problem. After all, like I said, throughout both the Old and New Testaments, there are constant connections between love and the commandments. Yet people fall short. God had to lay out what kinds of things are definitely not ever done in love: killing one another, lying, cheating, stealing. All sorts of things. These commandments lay down the bare minimum of what is necessary to be a decent human being. They are things that should be obvious, but all too often are not. And the problem with them is that all too often we focus on following the letter of the law instead of the spirit. We think that if we hate our neighbors but stop short of lying to their faces, stealing from them, and killing them, we’re doing just fine. No, says God, you’re missing the point. Living a faithful life is not about following all the right rules. It’s about loving one another, even if that means stepping outside of your comfort zone. Living a faithful life means responding with love even to people you don’t like. And when you don’t know how to handle something—or any time something you don’t expect comes up—our guiding principle should always be love for God and for one another.
We try to teach our children and young people many things, and they are all important. We teach them the stories of our ancestors in the faith, and the ways our ancestors experienced God working in their lives. We teach them the songs and worship patterns that have nourished our own faith and that we hope will continue to nourish theirs. We teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, which have been the foundations of the faith since the very beginning. We teach them about Jesus. But the most important thing to teach them, to show them in everything we say and do, is love.
Since the very beginning, the Christian life has been about love. Without that love, our sin and disobedience would have made God wash his hands of us long ago. Instead, he keeps coming to us, calling us to him, guiding back to his paths. Christ came to earth and became truly human because he loves us and wanted to save us from our sin. He showed us what love looks like in a human life, by welcoming everyone who came to him and seeking out those who did not. Jesus showed us what love is by feeding the hungry and healing the sick and teaching everyone about God. And Jesus loved us so much that he was willing to die for us, for all of creation, so that we might have abundant life. Through his love we are made whole, washed clean, redeemed, and set free. Through that love, we learn to love God and we learn to love other people. That’s what new life in Christ is: a life of love.
Our culture today is a very divided one. Too many people believe that the best defense is a good offense, and so they attack anything they think is wrong or anything that might threaten them. Too many people, both inside and outside the church, try to win arguments by demonizing their opponents. Yet if we are truly serious about following Jesus, we can’t fall into such patterns. If we want to follow Jesus, that means letting go of our suspicions and our hatreds, our pettiness and our fears. Following Jesus means opening ourselves up to the love of God, and letting that love pour through us and into the world around us.
The students who are being confirmed today are not graduating from anything. Confirmation is not the end of their journey of faith, nor is it the end of their learning about God. We never stop learning about God; as he comes to us throughout our lives, we grow in faith and understanding. If you will note in your hymnals, the formal name of the rite of Confirmation is “Affirmation of Baptism.” Affirmation means to say yes. When these young people are Confirmed, what they are really doing is saying yes to their baptisms. They are saying yes to the love that God has given to them, and yes to the saving work of Christ Jesus our Lord. They are saying that yes, they will take their place in the community of believers, loving one another in word and in deed. They are saying that yes, they will love God with all their heart and all their soul and all their strength, and love their neighbors as ourselves. Confirmation is not the end of anything, it is the beginning of a new chapter in their faith journey. I hope and pray that they have learned about our faith, but even more I pray that they have learned to love God and one another. And I pray that their journey of faith will keep them growing in God’s love and the love of their neighbors. May our Lord Jesus Christ, who redeemed us all from sin and death, guide them in all their paths and show them his love, that they may learn to better love God and all people. I pray that for all of us who are gathered here today, that we may all follow Christ and grow in love towards God and one another.