Sermon 5/19/19: A New (and difficult) Commandment

Pr. Michelle Sevig

Fifth Sunday of Easter

May 19, 2019

A New (and difficult) Commandment

If you were about to die, what would you tell the people you love? When I worked as a hospice chaplain, I was given the rare opportunity to be with people as they prepared to die. Some might find that a bit disconcerting, even awful work, but for me and others called to hospice care, it is holy work. Together nurses, social workers, music therapists and chaplains help keep the dying comfortable and free of pain, but we also help families and patients to say goodbye.

What would you tell the people you love? What hope or dream would you share? What advice would you offer?

For many, the work of Dr. Ira Brock in his book the Four Things that Matter Most, has been helpful. When saying goodbye to a loved one it’s important to say and to hear

1.        Please forgive me

2.        I forgive you

3.        Thank you

4.        I love you

Jesus didn’t have a hospice team caring for him or a book outlining the four most important things to do or say before he died. And yet we hear his goodbye blessing in today’s gospel text. “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Judas has just been identified as the one who would betray Jesus, and the Last Supper continues with Jesus preparing his followers for his upcoming death. He says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Whoa! Maybe the 4 things from Dr. Brock would be better or at least easier. But Jesus gets right to the point. Love one another (that’s not new) just as I have loved you. That’s the new part. And then a promise, by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

He doesn’t say “if you believe the right things, if you worship like this or go to that church, if you memorize the bible or pray every day, if you vote correctly, if you... fill in the blank with whatever you’ve been told is the right way to be a Christian. No; he says love one another. That’s it.

One biblical scholar said, “This command is simple enough for a toddler to memorize and appreciate, and yet … the most mature believers are repeatedly embarrassed at how poorly they comprehend it and put it into practice.

Loving one another is hard. And most of the time I don’t feel up to the task. Sure, I can love my family and my friends. I can love the people I agree with on Facebook or work out with at the gym or worship with at church. But real love? Love like Jesus loves? That’s too much.

Pastor Debi Thomas wrote in her blog, “When I look at my own life, it’s not too hard to name why I perpetually fail to obey Jesus’ dying wish.  Love is vulnerable-making, and I’d rather not be vulnerable.  Love requires trust, and I’m naturally suspicious. Love spills over margins and boundaries, and I feel safer and holier policing my borders.  Love takes time, effort, discipline, and transformation, and I am just so darned busy.”  

It’s easier, she admits, to do good deeds--make a meal for someone who’s sick, write a check, knit a prayer shawl. And those are important ways of living out our discipleship. But Jesus gives us a new commandment to love as he loved.

Jesus loved Judas who betrayed him and Peter who denied knowing him. Jesus loved the criminal executed beside him and loved the ones deemed unworthy of God’s love.  What would Christendom look like if we cultivated that kind of love in the world? 

To be honest, I don’t know how to answer that, even for myself. I know that it means shuffling my priorities and moving out of my comfort zone.

  • Maybe loving as Jesus loved is having so much compassion for someone else who is hurting that you feel your heart breaking too.

  • Maybe it’s going to the clinic, moving carefully through protestors, to be with someone who has just made the most difficult decision of their life. Or maybe someone went with you.

  • Maybe love has pulled you out of your comfort zone and empowered you to say “enough is enough” so you searched your home for markers and poster board and took to the streets with your sign to march with complete strangers and shouted until you were hoarse.  

  • Maybe loving as Jesus loves is holding the one who sobbed as they told you the most vulnerable thing they could ever voice: that they were gay or lesbian, bisexual or trans. Or maybe someone held you and heard your words with deep compassion and love

And I believe loving as Jesus loved was shown this past week as people rallied around Pastor Betty Rendon and her family who are being detained at the Kenosha County Jail.

Pastor Betty is a graduate of our local seminary and has been serving Emaus Lutheran Church in Racine. Wisconsin. On May 8th more than twenty ICE agents raided their family home in Chicago and arrested them. At a prayer vigil outside the jail this past Wednesday, people gathered for prayer; and  though they can’t get in to be with the Rendon family, they anointed the jail’s outer brick wall with oil, reminding those gathered that there is no space God cannot redeem, no space where God’s light and love will not get in.

 Others who couldn’t attend the rally picked up their phones and started writing letters so she would have the asylum hearing she was denied after fleeing violence in Columbia. Those demanding her release and fair hearing have a hunger for justice motivated by Jesus’ love for those who are most vulnerable. Perhaps you are, or will be, among them.

Love one another.” This was Jesus’ dying wish, which means we have a God who first and foremost wants us to feel loved. Not shamed or punished. Not judged or isolated. Loved.

And Jesus follows his command with an exhilarating but terrifying promise, “By this, everyone will know.” The stakes are high. And there are plenty of people bearing Christ’s name whose words and actions don’t reflect the love Jesus commands. But we know what to do. Weep with those who weep. Laugh with those who laugh. Touch the untouchables. Feed the hungry. Release the captive. Forgive the sinner. Confront the oppressor. Hold each other close. Tell each other the truth. Guide each other home. Love one another, even when it’s hard or messy, because it is through this impossible love that our dying world will see, taste, touch and hear Christ who loves everyone.

Make your home in Jesus’ love, which is as abundant as this feast and as free as the water in this font. It is God’s love that we share, because we know there is no person or situation, no prison real or imagined, that God’s love cannot redeem and where God’s love and light cannot get in.