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Sunday, May 13, 2012

That's an Order!

“I give you a new commandment,” Jesus said on the night of his betrayal.  As his disciples, chosen friends of the crucified and risen Son of God, we are commanded to love as he loves.  It’s not an option.  It’s an order.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Sixth Sunday of Easter, year B; texts: John 15:9-17; 1 John 5:1-6

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

I remember certain times growing up where my mother intervened in a fight my sisters and I were having.  On more than one occasion she would separate us and send us to our rooms to re-memorize a Bible verse.  It was always the same one.  In those days the Living Bible was popular, which was a paraphrase, not a translation, and we older children had our own copies with pictures and maps.  She would send us off to memorize John 15:17-18, “I demand that you love each other, for you get enough hate from the world already.”  Now I mentioned that was from the Living Bible because you won’t find it worded that way at all in any regular translation, “you get enough hate from the world already.”  But for my mother, it was what she wanted us to know.  That love is not an option for us, it is a command of Jesus, because there is enough hate in the world, and Jesus wants us to be different.

Love.  It’s not an option for us.  It’s an order.  And that might be a problem.

Because we don’t like being told what to do.

It even sounds strange to us: love is commanded of us.  Love shouldn’t be about law and order, we feel.  It should come from the heart, from compassion.  Not from a command.  The elder of 1 John today says that God’s commandments aren’t burdensome.  I think most of us would beg to differ – commandments often feel like a burden to us.

In fact, people these days can get very nervous when they’re ordered to do anything, especially by the church.  We live in a day and an age where people desire to set their own values, make their own decisions.  I’ve said this before, but it’s true, many of us struggle to mature out of the childish attitude which shouts “you’re not the boss of me.”  We don’t like being told what to do.

And churches, pastors I must say, have sometimes fallen into the habit of catering to that.  If the appointed text is one that seems judgmental or commanding – and there are plenty of those kinds of words in Scripture – then you will sometimes hear a lot of dancing around it, to avoid offense to anyone.  The fear seems to be that if we ever say “God commands this” anymore, people will flee in droves.

And maybe today’s Gospel makes you feel uncomfortable this very minute.  If love is commanded by Jesus, not an option, then if we’re not loving, we’re disobeying the Lord God.  Maybe you don’t come here to be made to feel guilty, you want to be lifted up when you come here.  Maybe you didn’t come here today to be ordered around.  Maybe you’d rather just hear good thoughts to carry you through the week.  But in any case, this commandment is far from burden-free.

But maybe you came here today because deep down you know sometimes you have failed to love (many times?) and that hurts.  Maybe you’re looking to hear a word from God about your life that can give you hope even in the failures and sins and wrongs you know are a part of who you are.  Maybe you want God’s guidance, and genuinely wish to do what God commands.  And to hear it.  To be honest with you, all of those, and more, are reasons for me to be here.  Maybe for you, too.

So if we can assume that we’ve all come here today and really desire to hear the Word of God, no matter how difficult, then we must face this truth: Jesus more than once used the word “command” when he asked us to love.

We hear it of course in today’s gospel.  Please notice that Jesus does not suggest that being nice is something we might want to do as his followers.  He’s not suggesting anything.  And being nice has nothing to do with it.

He says this to his disciples on the night of his betrayal:  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  Did you hear?  This is my commandment.  I order you, if you are my followers, to love.  And did you hear?  Love is defined as love in the same way Jesus loved us.
Saying this on the night of his betrayal, the night before his death, his meaning could not be more clear.  And in case it could be mistaken, he goes on to say: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  That’s the love we’re commanded to love.

And remember another time, when Jesus was asked which of the commandments was the greatest commandment?  He didn’t name one of the Ten.  He gave two, which summarized them all. (Mt. 12:37-40 and par.)  The first: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.  The second: love your neighbor as yourself.

Interesting, isn’t it?  For Jesus, whom we name as Lord and master, there is no question.  If we are his followers, we are ordered to love.  Ask Peter, who found this out after the resurrection in his powerful meal on the beach with Jesus.

But doesn’t the value of the love diminish because it is ordered?  We like to play that game a lot.  If we have to be told to do something, it has no value.  No one wants to be loved by another person who’s just under orders to love.

Apparently Jesus didn’t think that was a problem.  There are two things which make me say that.  First, Jesus wouldn’t have ordered us to love if he thought we would do it on our own.

Isn’t that worth considering?  If we could do this on our own, we’d have done it.  If we were faithful enough followers, we’d follow – we’d copy his life, his love, his grace, his forgiveness.  But he knows us better than that, and so he has to make it a commandment.

But second, for Jesus the important thing seems to be that it is done, not that we thought of it on our own.  I remember a story William Willimon once told.  Willimon is a bishop in the United Methodist Church and a well-known preacher.  He tells of a time when he was leaving his church and someone came up to ask him for help.  It happens a lot, here, and where he was.  In a hurry, he said, “I’m in a rush – all I have is $15 – I hope that helps.”  He said that there was probably annoyance in his voice.  The man took it, looked at it, and turned to walk down the street.  As he was locking the church door, the man turned around and said, “I guess you think I’m supposed to be grateful.”  “Well, now that you mention it, a little gratitude wouldn’t hurt,” he replied.  “Well, I’m not going to thank you.  You want to know why?” the man said.  “Because you’re a Christian.  You don’t help me because you want to.  You have to help me because he (thrusting his finger up into the air) told you to help me!”  Then he walked on.

Does it matter that we love because we are commanded to do so?  Not if we actually love.  I don’t know the answer to the question of whether love has less value because it is ordered.  I just know that if we follow orders, love will be done.  That seems to be Jesus’ concern.

So because love is not an option for us, we do it, even if we don’t like it.

In fact, it’s very likely we won’t like it sometimes.  I’m not just talking about loving our siblings here.  Or even a homeless guy on the street.  In general, the love we are ordered to do has a high potential for our dislike and discomfort.

I remember a woman who had made a connection of some kind with my mother.  She has since died and thankfully is at rest.  She had a hard life.  For years she would call my mother all the time with her endless problems.  I suspect my mother didn’t enjoy visiting her, and I know she often dreaded her phone calls.  But I believe Mother knew her orders, because she didn’t avoid this woman.  She listened long hours, and visited.  She was this woman’s only regular visitor, as far as I know.  I don’t know if my mother liked her, she might have.  But she did love her.

And it strikes me that even Mother Teresa, a paragon of Christian love if ever there was one, may not always have liked what she did.  Can we really believe that every day she would rather have gone into the sinkhole of Calcutta, into the filth and disease, and clean up another person, knowing that there would be more the next day, instead of quietly spending her days in a convent meditating with the Lord?  But whatever her feelings were, we know her actions much better.

Jesus commands us to love, not necessarily to like, because otherwise we wouldn’t do it.  Loving those who are lovable is one thing.  Loving those who really need love is a lot harder.  Those who hate us.  Those who offend us.  Those who annoy us.  Those who demand so much of us.

It is all about being connected to Jesus, being a part of his life, abiding in him, as he says.  We are people who have been loved, saved by God in Jesus.  A large part of why you are here today is that sometime, perhaps many times in your life you have known this love of God in Jesus.

But always remember this: you most likely have known it through the love of another.  That’s why it’s critical we follow orders – for all those who do not yet know God’s love.  Christian love defines us, or we have no reason to be Christian.  As one pastor said, “Sierra Club members don’t start forest fires.  It goes with the territory.  Likewise, a disciple of Jesus is someone who, in every situation, tries to respond to people as Jesus responded.”

There are lots of difficulties about life, ethical questions which trouble all of us and may have lots of possible responses and answers.  But here the case is different.  Here Jesus simply, without options, commands us to love one another.  No matter what.

It would be nice if Jesus left us to our own hearts and said, “If you feel compassion, show it.

“If you feel generosity, indulge it.  If you feel concern, do something about it.”  Unfortunately, that option isn’t left to us.  Like it or not we have our orders.  Or we can choose to follow another master.  However, since there is only one Lord and Master who died to give us life and who, risen from the dead, loves and fills us, I think that’s not an option either.

So let’s pray to be given the courage and the grace we need to follow our orders, not because it will make us feel good or even because we want to sometimes.  But simply because they are our orders.  And maybe the more we follow them, the more we will understand what Jesus meant.  We’ll learn God’s surprise, that we actually like this love thing, and our joy truly is made complete.  But even if we never fully experience that, God help us to be obedient anyway.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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