BIBLE READINGS: Acts 11:1-18 John 13:31-35
If you ask the average
Aussie about how they would identify a Christian, the chances are they will
mention something Christians do, and a list of things that they don’t do. The
thing that often defines a Christian is... “they go to
church.” What they don't do is endless and will vary - “they don’t drink”, or
maybe “they don’t swear”, or “they don’t have sex until they are married” They
don't like divorced people or homosexuals Muslims, atheists etc.
Jesus must be heartbroken over this. Being against things is not what he wanted his followers to be known for. 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 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.”
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. 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 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 people 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 abnormal, beyond the norm. For example, 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 ISIS terrorist and says “there’s your neighbour.” No wonder they called him a fanatic and took offence.
Right 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 person 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. But... I love them. why make them 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 doesn't 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 and the Romans. I’ll tell them that God loves the Sidonians and the Syrians and the Romans just as much as them and that God wants them to do likewise.” Big big trouble. Saying things like that will get you thrown off a cliff.
Actually this last example is the same issue we see in the reading from Acts. 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 followers.”
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 together 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.
Acknowledgement: Nathan Nettleton