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The Foundation of the Jesus Community

Thomas J Parlette

“The Foundation of the Jesus Community”

John 13: 31-35

4/24/16

 

Once upon a time there was a man who spoke to a group of high-schoolers about the idea of love. “Someone define love for me” he said.

No response.

“Doesn’t anyone want to try?”

Still nothing but crickets chirping.

“Ok, tell you what – I’ll define it, and you raise your hands if you agree. Sound good?”

There were nods all around.

“Alright, here it goes. Love is that feeling you get when you meet the right person.”

Slowly all the hands went up.

That’s how many people approach the idea of love. Consciously, or unconsciously, they believe that love is a sensation or a feeling, based on physical or emotional attraction, that magically appears when Mr or Mrs Right appears. And many people just as easily, since they believe that’s how love works, have found that it can vanish just as quickly. The magic just disappears. You fall in love… and you can fall out of love.

In his famous book The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm noted the sad consequence of this misconception when he wrote, “There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.”

So then, what is love? How do you define love?

In an article called “What is love?”, Gila Manolson says that “Love is the attachment that results from deeply appreciating another’s goodness.”(1)

Love is the topic today as we jump back to one of the darkest moments of Jesus’ time with his disciples. We are back in the upper room on the night of the last supper. Jesus has already washed his disciple’s feet. They have eaten together and Jesus has foretold that one of them would betray him. And then Jesus identifies the betrayer by handing a piece of bread to Judas, and tells him, “…do quickly what you’re going to do.” And Judas slipped out into the night.

As the door clicks shut, Jesus looks around at the faces of the ones who have followed him from the beginning – from the fresh sea breezes and blue skies of Galilee to the bustling dark streets of Jerusalem. This is where the journey ends – at least one part of the journey. So Jesus begins a long speech, known as the “Farewell Discourse” in scholarly circles. Jesus goes on for the next three chapters offering his final words of advice to his disciples before he goes to the cross.

And he starts by offering a new commandment – love one another.

You may wonder – what’s so new about that? We’ve already heard Jesus say earlier in his ministry that we are to love our enemies. Indeed, all the way back in the book of Leviticus, we are given an expanded version of the 10 Commandments that says “…you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

So this commandment to love is really not so new at all.

But not so fast – this command is a little different. As Mother Teresa once pointed out, “Jesus didn’t say ‘Love the whole world”. He said, “Love one another.”(2)

Jesus is not speaking in generalities, he is giving death bed advice to his closest friends on how to live as a new community. “Love one another. You guys – right here, right now, around this table, staring at me in the dark – you guys – love each other. That’s how everyone will know that this whole thing was real – if you love one another, if you deeply appreciate each other’s goodness.”

As Lewis Donelson has said, “The love command is both the organizing force and the sign of the Jesus community.”(3) The church is formed by God in Christ, loving us. It survives by us loving one another. This new commandment, love one another, is the very foundation of the church, it is the foundation of the Jesus community.

But as D.A. Carson writes, “This new commandment may be simple enough for a toddler to memorize and appreciate, but it is profound enough that the most mature believers are repeatedly embarrassed at how poorly they comprehend it and put it into practice.”(4)

That’s certainly a little hard to hear. But in our most honest moments, we know it’s true. That’s why we start every worship service by admitting our sin before God. We are called to love one another, but we all fall short. We don’t always love our family members. We don’t always love our friends. We don’t always love our fellow church members. It sounds so easy. “Love one another.” But in reality, it is so hard.

It’s interesting I think that here in his final words to his disciples, Jesus doesn’t talk about doctrine, or policy, or rules. He doesn’t give his disciples a creed to memorize. He doesn’t say, “Ok guys, here’s what I want you to believe, here’s what I want you to tell people about me, here’s exactly how I want you to think.” Jesus doesn’t do any of that. Instead he says, My little children, I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” This command isn’t about what you believe, it isn’t about what you should know. It’s about how you should live.

In her book The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong notes that in most religious traditions, faith is not about belief – it’s about practice. “Religion,” writes Armstrong, “is not about having to believe or accept certain difficult propositions; instead, religion is about doing things that change you.”

Then she writes about this point became clear to her. It was when she was writing her first book on Islam. Muslims, she came to understand, are not expected to accept a complex creed. Instead, they are required to perform certain ritual actions – such as the hajj pilgrimage and the feast of Ramadan, which are designed to change them. Muslims are also required to bow down in prayer facing Mecca five times a day as an act of surrender. Muslims are commanded to give alms to those who are in need among them, as a way of cultivating the kind of generous spirit that makes them want to give graciously, as God does. Armstrong says these repeated ritual actions are intended to lead to personal transformation. She writes, “The point is that this was not a belief system, but a process. The religious life made people act in ways that were supposed to change them forever.”(5)

This is exactly what Jesus has in mind for his disciples. Jesus gives them the command that will change them forever. Love one another. Appreciate each other’s goodness. That’s how people will now you are my disciples. Not by your beliefs, not by what you say, but by how you treat each other. Love one another – that will make all the difference. People will flock to a community that loves each other.

Ira Gillete was a missionary to East Africa. He worked at missionary that provided education, food and some basic health care. In a trip home, he spoke about an interesting phenomenon he had observed. Over and over again, Gillette said he saw large groups of villagers travel miles out of their way to visit the missionary hospital rather than stop at one of the many government clinics available along the way. Finally he asked one of the groups why they traveled so many extra miles when the same treatment was available at one of the government clinics in their own village. And one man said, “The medicine may be the same, but the hands are different.”(6)

At the missionary clinic, the treatments were done with love. The people noticed that right away. Love made all the difference.

Kathleen Richardson once wrote about the school she attended in Chesterfield England many years ago. “The girls High School and the boys Grammer School were adjacent to each other but separated by a strong stone wall. The large stones of this wall were held together by mortar. When I started at that school, the wall was complete; and by the time I left, the wall was breached in many places. That wall was broken down, not out of anger or frustration and not by our using brute force on it. No heavy instruments were used against it. But over the years, boys and girls on both sides of the wall carefully but persistently loosened the mortar and picked away the pieces in order to pass notes and letters to each to make dates or express their undying love. Before I left, that wall fell down all itself. It was love that brought it down.(7)

Love can do that. Love can bring down the walls that divide us from each other. Love can bring down the walls that build around ourselves in order to protect ourselves or hide from what we don’t want to deal with. Sometimes we are the ones chipping at the mortar to pass a note – and sometimes, someone passes a note to us when we need it the most. Either way – Love brings down the wall.

Jesus knew that. He knew his disciples would face some walls of their own in the days ahead; walls of fear, walls of loneliness, walls of disbelief, walls of despair. As they would continue to tell Jesus’ story and try build the church, they would face walls of persecution, indifference and sometimes violence. Jesus knew that too.

But here in a dark little upper room, Jesus gave them the only piece of advice they would need. Here’s what I want you to do – love each other – and people will notice. Love one another and people will follow.

That’s all you have to do.

It’s still the only thing we really have to do.

Love one another.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Homiletics, Vol. 28, No. 2, p.71.

2.    Ibid…p. 73.

3.    Lewis Donelson, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p. 473.

4.    Gary Jones, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p. 470.

5.    Ibid… p. 470, 472.

6.    Homiletics, Vol. 28, No. 2, p71.

7.    Resources for Preaching and Worship, Year C, ed. by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, Westminster John Knox Press, 2003, p. 117-118.