On 10th May, the sixth Sunday of Easter, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 98, Acts 10:44-48 and John 15:9-17.
I’m sure everyone is familiar with what can happen as someone sets off on a journey. There is that last minute check to see if everything has been remembered. Spare socks? Important documents? Money? If someone is waving a person off there might be last minute instructions too: ‘Call me when you arrive’, ‘Don’t forget to wear sunscreen’, ‘Give your sister a big hug from me’, etc. The hope is that by making what you say ring in the person’s ears as they leave, they may remember it.
In this part of the Gospel of John we have the privilege of listening in to the parting instructions which Jesus gave to his disciples just hours before his arrest. Time was short. Soon they would be parted. Three years of teaching was coming to an end. Jesus knew that as the disciples looked back on that last evening together they would try to capture in memory everything that had happened and everything that was said.
Jesus’ focus was love: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” It’s doubtful that the disciples would have fully understood the second part of that quote at the time but it would have been all too clear when they looked back. Jesus sacrificed his life as the supreme act of love for his friends at that time and for every one of us who now call ourselves his friends. In fact he gave his life even for those who might class themselves as indifferent towards Jesus or who hate the very mention of his name.
Notice that Jesus *commands* the disciples to love one another. Jesus was not in the habit of making many rules for behaviour. In fact he was regularly accused of disregarding rules that his fellow Jews felt it essential to follow. When pressed for an answer on the greatest commandment he said, ‘Love God. Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Jesus makes the point that it is in loving one another that his disciples would demonstrate their friendship with Jesus.
The commandments to love God and neighbour are in the Old Testament, so Jesus was not even saying anything new when he mentioned them. The Pharisees had those commandments, but often didn’t seem very loving. I’m sure they had their good points, but in the Gospels we usually see them trying to trick Jesus, or accusing him, or plotting against him. The commandments about loving God and neighbour didn’t seem to get to their hearts.
Anyone who reads the Gospels comes across the way Jesus takes the traditional way of living by the law and makes it more challenging:
You say don’t murder; I say don’t even get angry.
You say don’t commit adultery; I say don’t even think a lustful thought.
You say love God and neighbour; I say love sacrificially, to the point of losing your life.
It’s not enough to do or say apparently loving things. It’s possible to do that without even having your heart in it. You can just ‘go through the motions’. Other people may be fooled but God is not fooled; he sees your internal disposition. Thinking back to last week when we looked at the picture of the vine and the branches, if we are attached to Jesus the vine, the sap which will run through us is love. Our words and actions may be very much like those of someone who is pretending to love, but our motivation will be completely different. Jesus’ love in us transforms our poor kind of love into the high quality love that Jesus demonstrated through his life and death.
If you think of the encounters Jesus had with people, the quality of his love shines through. Although he would not condone sin, he didn’t condemn sinners. He loved them into the Kingdom of God through compassion and understanding. No one was too small, unimportant or untouchable to be loved by Jesus. That is the kind of love Jesus called his disciples to demonstrate.
As we know, many of Jesus’ followers did indeed give their lives much as Jesus himself had. They died at the hands of those who had hated Jesus and so hated his followers in turn. There were other ways that they loved sacrificially too. They gave up sincerely held beliefs and allowed themselves to be challenged to think differently, as in the case of Cornelius and his household, whom we read about in the Acts of the Apostles.
Jews thought of themselves as the chosen people and Gentiles as people to be avoided. It was certainly not acceptable to enter their homes or eat with them. That rendered a Jew unclean according to the Law. However, Peter and the Jewish believers with him had to rethink when the Holy Spirit came upon that Gentile household. How could those people now be treated as lesser beings? God had shown what he thought of them. Peter and his friends had to let go of a lifetime of prejudice, quite a sacrifice.
What the story of Cornelius demonstrates is the reason that Jesus wanted his disciples to love, deeply and sincerely. He wanted his followers to bear fruit, fruit that would last. Not apples, oranges and cherries, but people brought into the Kingdom of God. Sincere love is so attractive that it draws people into the Kingdom. There is so much insincerity around, so many people seeking their own advantage or lying to get on in life. Those who will give in a sacrificial way without thought to personal advantage have a quality that is rare. They stand out in a crowd.
That was the calling of the disciples. That is still our calling today. We’re assured that nothing can separate us from God’s love, nothing at all, however bad. Secure in that knowledge we can afford to love others as Jesus did.
I really pray that everyone who comes to Epiphany Island is received in that spirit of sincere love, a love that values everyone no matter what their problems, issues, history, appearance or failures in life.
I’m reminded of a Dr Seuss story, ‘Horton hears a Who’ which concerns Horton the elephant hearing the tiny people of Whoville who lived on a speck of dust. He went to great lengths to protect them in the face of ridicule from others who didn’t believe the Whos existed. Often in the book the refrain comes: ‘A person’s a person, no matter how small’. No one is too small to be loved and Jesus loved us.