The Greatest Commandment – May 24, 2020
May 24, 2020
As I said at the beginning, this is the 10th On-Line Worship Sunday for our Church. If you remembered, we skipped the first Sunday, not thinking this could possibly last as long as it has. (Silly us!) And as we began all of this, just before Easter, we decided that we would postpone our Easter celebration until we could all worship together again in our Sanctuary.
In deciding to postpone Easter, I thought we could take this time to look at more of the stories of Holy Week, which we don’t normally get much of a chance to do! We usually focus on the beginning and the end of that week. But a lot happened that week! A lot happened that took us from hearing the praises of Jesus on Palm Sunday, to his crucifixion on Friday.
I hope this has been helpful for you. I know I’ve enjoyed this process. There’s great stuff here! Holy Week was a watershed moment in all of history! The problem we face is that we still don’t know when we will be able to worship together again! We don’t know how many weeks we will continue to do this. Because of that, it’s a little hard to know exactly how to plan the various stories we’re looking at in this “extended Holy Week.” It’s hard to navigate this time in order to arrive on the story of Easter, whenever we actually celebrate that in our sanctuary.
Well, I think I have a plan. However, not knowing when the quarantine will end does make it a little difficult. But we will adapt, and I think this will work. For the next couple of weeks we are going to look at the story of the Upper Room. After that, we’ll consider the dark events of Good Friday and the long day of waiting prior to Easter. That will take us into June, and we’ll see from there.
So, as I said, we’re beginning today to look at the story of the Upper Room. This is the story of Jesus meeting with – and eating with – his disciples for the last time. This was their last supper together. And what better place to look at the story of the Upper Room than the Gospel of John? His is the longest and most complete account of what happened that night. And it’s the longest account of anything that Jesus said!
When I was a kid in church, and I wasn’t getting much out of what the pastor was saying, I would page through the Bible. (Ironically, the least favorite parts of church for me were the sermon – which I now do all the time myself, and the music, which I went on to study in college! Who knew? Right?) Well, in our pews at Carmel Church, we had “Red Letter” Bibles. And I thought that was so cool! Do you know what those are? (I’ll give you a moment to respond on the screen.) “Red Letter Bibles” are Bibles where the words of Jesus are printed in red letters.
So, I remember that I used to try to find the pages with the most red letters. (Never dreaming I would be telling you about it in my own sermon all these years later!) Well, the place that had the most red letters was here, in the Gospel of John – somewhere in the 13th or 14th chapter. And it was the story of the Upper Room. And there were even a couple of pages in a row that were entirely red! So, holding the book open, both pages were all in red!
Jesus said a lot of thing that night. This is what has come to be known as his “Farewell discourse.” And he had a lot of things to say to his disciples. And a lot of what he said was “game changing!” It was “Earth shaking!” For one thing, he changed the meaning of the Passover meal. We’ll talk about that in the next few weeks. But just think about how important the Passover was to these “good Jewish boys!” Well, he took the elements of that meal, that celebration, and he made them about him. We read these words without thinking. But listen to what he said. “This bread is now to represent for you my body. This cup is now my blood. From now on, whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you do show forth the Lord’s death until he comes.” Just imagine how that went over with these Jewish guys celebrating their Passover!
Today we read the place in chapter 13 where Jesus said, “A new commandment I give unto you.” (That’s John 13:34.) Now, think for a moment about that one! Again, these were “good Jewish boys!” They knew their “Torah.” That was their scripture, their writings, their story, their Law! The Torah – meaning “the Law” – was the 10 Commandments. But that word “Torah” also referred to the “Books of the Law,” the first five books of scripture, where the story of the 10 Commandments is central. Those are the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. That’s the story of the creation, the history, the Exodus from Egypt, and the giving of the Law.
So, when Jesus said, “A new Commandment,” he was using a very important word to them! The Law – the “Commandments” – were everything to the Jewish people. Another important word was “Covenant.” And Jesus would use that word that night, too! But when he used that word “Commandment,” he was saying something earth shaking to them! He was saying something audacious! In saying “A new Commandment I give to you,” Jesus was adding to those Ten Commandments! He was giving them “Number Eleven!” That was extremely audacious! How dare he?!
This was an unbelievable thing to them! And to give you an idea of how important it was to the early Church moving forward – a Church steeped in the Old Testament traditions, a church populated by mostly Jewish people – they began to think of this night as “The Thursday of the New Commandment.” In Latin, “The Thursday of the Maundatum.” That’s where we get our word “mandate.” This is “Maundatum Thursday,” or “Maundy Thursday,” as we say it now. Even that name speaks of this “New Commandment” – a “New Commandment” that Jesus had the audacity to give them!
So, all that being said, what was this “New Commandment?” What was this “number Eleven?” “Thou shalt…” what? “Thou shalt love one another as I have loved you!” That kind of sounds like the First Commandment, doesn’t it “Hear, O Israel The Lord your God is one Lord. And ‘thou shalt’ love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first commandment.”
Well, I think this new one frames the others nicely with the first. “Thou shalt love the Lord your God.” “Thou shalt love one another as I have loved you!” And Jesus goes on. And I love what he says next! He says, “That’s how you will be known.” “That’s how people will know you are my disciples.” “When you love one another.” That’ll be the sign!
Tradition has it, that John was the only disciple to die of old age. All the others were martyred for their faith. But John lived a long life, and he lived out his days in a community of believers in the early church. And I once read that, every once in a while, when he was very old, they would ask him to get up and speak to the congregation. And they say that, eventually, he only ever said one thing. “Little children, love one another.”
I don’t know if that’s true. But that’s the tradition. And isn’t it a nice tradition? And doesn’t it resonate with the words of Jesus from the Upper Room – that John himself was there to hear? Isn’t this “New Commandment” that important?
At this point, I think we should ask ourselves, “Do we do that?” Do we follow this new commandment? Do we love one another like Jesus loves us? And according to that last part, “Will people know that about us?” Will they know we are followers of Jesus by the way we love one another? In other words, Will they “know we are Christians by our love”? That’s John’s song, isn’t it? That’s the “New Commandment!”
Think about what the New Commandment means in our world today – our crazy world! Here in the current world crisis, people seem to be appreciating one another more. They seem to be caring for and reaching out to one another more. And I think that’s a good thing. But I’m also thinking that we as God’s people should be “leading that charge.” We should be doing all things, “unto even the least of these,” as unto Jesus. And today, people should know we are his, by the way we love! That should be our “trademark” as God’s people. Is it?
At the risk of repeating myself to my people, I’m going to say what I’ve often said. (Actually, I this is so important I really can’t say it enough!) Love is not a feeling. Love can have wonderful feelings associated with it! But love is a choice of how to treat people. Otherwise, when Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” it would have made no sense! You don’t get “warm fuzzy feelings” for an enemy. But you can choose how to treat them!
The general understanding of justice in Jesus’ day was, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” In many places in that part of the world, it still is. But Jesus gave them a new teaching on that. This is from the Sermon on the Mount, and I want you to hear it as he said, it.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other, also. And if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well. And if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.” That was revolutionary!
But he continued, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,’ so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven… For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:38-46)
That flies in the face of the conventional way of thinking about love, doesn’t it? Well it did to those people, too! “Love your enemies?” That was radical thinking! It was crazy making!
And it only makes sense when we see that love is a choice. It is a choice of action. It is a choice of how we treat people. It is a choice of how we think about people. People will say, “I can’t help what I think!” I say – and I believe Jesus would say – “Oh yes we can!” We can choose what we think about, and we can choose how we act toward others. And that’s what love is. Love is action. How else will they “Know you are mine by how you love.” Because they see our actions. They will know we love, they will know we are his by the choices we make!
Do you see how important this New Commandment is? “Thou shalt love one another.” “Thou shalt choose to act in loving ways to one another.” And let me say one more thing. If we are not intentional with our choices, very often they will be “made for us.” Very often they will be driven by our emotions. And our emotions are very strong things. They can easily overwhelm our “reason,” and make our choices for us, if we are not careful and intentional.
And so, “Little children,” love one another. Choose to love one another. For indeed, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
Eternal God, your love for us is overwhelming. Your call to love, is difficult, but it is all-encompassing. We need your help to love as Jesus loved. We pray for your strength, your compassion, your heart. May the world know your love through us. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.