Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Easter – May 19, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
There are few words that have the power to grab our attention like the word “new.” You perk up and pay attention when you hear that your favorite musician has a new song coming out. You notice when your favorite author has a new book about to be released, or when there’s a new episode of your favorite TV show about to air. I noticed this past week that there are some new flavors of Oreo cookies that are coming out this summer. This made me more excited than it should have. Yes, “new” is a powerful little word.
In our gospel reading for today Jesus tells his disciples he is giving them a NEW commandment. “I give you a NEW commandment,” Jesus says, “that you love one another.”
On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything new about this commandment at all. In fact, the commandment to love is one of the oldest commandments there is! It is found all the way back in the book of Deuteronomy, where God says, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” It is found all the way back in the book of Leviticus, where God says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” Love of God and love of neighbor both are among the oldest commandments God has given us. So why does Jesus call his commandment to love a “new” commandment?
Jesus’ commandment is new in two ways. The love Jesus’ followers are to have for one another has both a new shape and a new source. This is evident from what Jesus says next: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” These words make this commandment new! This commandment to love, as old as it is, is given a new shape and a new source.
What is the shape of the love we are called to have for one another? It is to have the shape of Jesus. It is to have the shape of his love for us. It is to have the shape of the cross. Jesus uses a specific word for love here. That word is agape. Agape love is more than a sentiment. It is more than an emotion or a feeling. It is not based on attraction or compatibility. The agape love Jesus speaks of is not a noun, it is a verb. It is embodied in acts of service. It is lived out in acts of sacrifice. It is a love that is steadfast, bearing with others even when it is hard.
Jesus powerfully illustrated the shape of this love just before giving this new commandment as he knelt down to wash the feet of his disciples. Though Jesus had a status and an authority over them as their teacher and their Lord – not to mention his status as the very Son of God and the King of all Creation! – and he set all that aside in order to serve them. He sacrificed his status in order to tenderly wash their dirtiest parts. He loved his disciples with a steadfast love, fully knowing that one of them would betray him, another would deny him, and eventually all of them would abandon him. This is what makes this commandment new – the shape of the love we are to have for one another.
One of the rookie mistakes I made here as pastor at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church happened one Veteran’s Day weekend several years ago. I had encouraged those who serve in the military to wear their uniforms to worship that Sunday. I thought it would be a great way to honor their vocation. I was surprised to find that though we have quite a few service people in our congregation, almost no one wore their uniforms! We had a couple VFW hats, but that was about it! I had a conversation about this later with a Naval officer who has since become a dear friend. He explained to me that people may have been reluctant to wear their uniforms because uniforms immediately open up a gap between officers and enlisted. He told me that uniforms indicate rank. “And at church,” he said, “there shouldn’t be any ranks.”
This is someone who understands the new shape of love between Jesus’ followers. This is someone who understands agape love. Those ranks are crucial in their place, they are essential to a well-functioning unit, but within Christian community there are to be no ranks, no levels of status, just people who humbly serve one another according to their callings with agape love.
Christian community is to be marked above all else by this kind of love, this love that is shaped like Jesus. As St. Paul says in First Corinthians, “If I have prophetic powers and all knowledge and faith to move mountains, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. If I give away all my possessions so that I may boast, but do not have love, I am nothing.” This passage is often associated with weddings, but Paul is actually writing about the church here! He’s saying that if a congregation has the best programs and the best music and the biggest budget, but does not have love, it is nothing more than noise in God’s ears. Who cares if the choir sounds good if they aren’t loving each other and praying for each other? (Which I’m proud to say they do here!) Paul is saying that if a church has the best theology and the best social ministry efforts and the best church building, but does not have love, it is nothing. Who cares if the sanctuary is beautiful if the people inside it are ugly towards one another?
There are many things that are important in the life of a congregation, but what we have to offer the world more than anything else is this new Jesus-shaped love.
At a time when there is so much anger and vitriol and division in our culture, we can show the world a community where people are loved regardless of their differences in age or education level or income level or race or political party. When there are differences of opinion about complex political questions, we can show the world a love that is patient and kind and humble. We can show the world that we can disagree about certain things without hating one another, or accusing one another of being “haters.”
At a time when love is often seen as a commodity, as something you find in order to benefit yourself, we can show the world a love that humbly serves others.
At a time when love is seen as something sentimental, we can show the world a love that is sacrificial.
At a time when love is seen as an amorphous, abstract idea, we can show the world a love that is shaped by Jesus’ obedience to the will of the Father.
At a time when love is often understood as transactional: “I’ll love you as long as you perform as I expect, as long as you are meeting my needs, as long as you make me feel a certain way,” we can show the world a love that is steadfast, a love that bears with others through thick and thin.
We will never do this perfectly, of course. Anyone who has been around the church for awhile knows that! But we are called to strive to live out this Jesus-shaped love here in church. This is where we practice it, so that we can then take that Jesus-shaped love into our homes, into our families, into our community, into our world. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus says, “if you have love for one another.”
If we were left on our own to live out this new commandment, we would never even begin to have this kind of love for one another. But this commandment doesn’t just have a new shape, it also has a new source. We are not only called to live OUT the love of Jesus, we are called to live IN the love of Jesus! “AS I HAVE LOVED YOU,” Jesus says, “you also should love one another.” Do you see what this means? Jesus’ love for us comes first! Jesus’ love for us isn’t just the shape of the love we are to have for each other, it is also the source of that love!
Just as the Lord Jesus stooped down and washed the feet of the very disciples he knew would betray and deny and abandon him, so too does he stoop down to serve us in love. He stoops down to wash the dirtiest parts of our lives clean with his forgiveness. The Almighty and Everlasting God stooped down and came into the world in order to be our savior. On the cross, Jesus took all our failures upon himself. On the cross Jesus took our lack of love for him and our lack of love for each other and absorbed it into his own body – and in his resurrection he has started the work of the new creation, he has started the work of making us new people. His love and grace and mercy come to us new every day, moving our hearts to begin to love one another as he has loved us.
The word “new” pops up a few times in our reading from Revelation for today as well. There we hear the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. It says that in this new heaven and new earth God’s home will be among mortals. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
Clearly that day is not here yet. But God has already begun to dwell among his people. He has come to us through his Son to show us the shape of his great love for us. He continues to come through the Spirit to be the source of that love in our lives, so that it would flow through us into the lives of others.
In following Jesus’ new commandment, we give the world a glimpse of this new heaven and new earth. We give the world a sneak preview of what God has in store when he comes at last to make all things new.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church