(Note: This post is from the text for a sermon delivered at First Baptist Church in Goldsboro, NC.)
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.
If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’
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.
— John 13:31-35, New Revised Standard Version
The disciple John lived to be a very old man. By the end of his life, John’s followers said that he only ever had one sermon. “Little children,” he would say, “love one another.” We still don’t know whether they were admiring him or complaining.
God doesn’t love us because we achieve great things. God loves us because God is love.
We, on the other hand, seem more interested in being right.
And now I need to talk about the communion table.
It’s a Baptist distinctive. If you look up on the platform, there is no altar. Baptist churches have no altar. Jesus was the final sacrifice, and Baptists see no purpose or reason in continuing to represent or recreate it with the bread and wine on the altar. That’s something that distinguishes us from our Roman Catholic and Episcopalian sisters and brothers. Like baptism — for them, it’s a sacrament representing God’s claim upon us; for us, it is a symbol of our response to God. Two different points of view, and God is not particularly worried about it — such things are for us, not for God.
So we have a communion table. It’s down here, on the same level with everybody, as it should be. Baptists believe that nobody is closer to God, has more access to God, than anyone else. All believers are priests. I am no closer to God than any of you. None of you is closer to God than I. We can draw a lot of conclusions from that idea, but one is that you do not have to accept anything I say at face value. I might be wrong. You might know better. And it’s your task to reflect on what I say to see if there is anything good in it, anything of the Spirit of God. Or not. And to decide whether we can love one another.
Here’s why I wanted to talk about the communion table.
If I’m going to talk about loving people, and what that looks like out there in the real world, you might start to suspect that I’m trying to convert you to my way of thinking on politics and society. That’s not my plan. I’m not even running for President, even though it seems like everybody else is.
We represent a wide range of political and social views. The older I get, the more I read the gospels and the prophets, the more liberal I get.
For you to see where I am on nearly any issue, you’d probably need to look to your left. Some of you would need to turn completely around.
And I don’t want you to sit there and wonder whether I am dancing around some position that would offend you. I’m pretty sure that I’ll offend somebody today.
For instance, I want to see better gun control. I’m sick of seeing children die, anyone die, because some hate-filled homegrown extremist had a semiautomatic weapon.
I want to see global warming stopped. I want to save the whales and the polar bears, though I don’t want to hug a polar bear. They all look too hungry these days.
I want LGBTQ people to have equal rights, and I want them to have a place at this table.
I want everyone to have health care. I want it to be viewed as a basic human right, something decent societies do for everyone — young, old, rich, poor, citizen, immigrant, deserving, undeserving, everybody. And I want to help pay for it. And I want to help find ways to make it work.
So you see, I’m way over there in left field. There are a few of you out there, too, but not very many. Really, to get past me these days, you’ve pretty much got to be a vegan wearing home made tie-dye clothes. Vegans scare me a little. And I’ve been in enough homes to know that “home-made” might be a recommendation and it might be a warning.
So you don’t have to wonder any more about my politics, if you ever did. But none of that is my agenda.
I could make good arguments. Duke University graduate. Seminary graduate, with Hebrew and Greek. I ought to be able to argue my positions well, and I can. And how many people would be convinced?
We don’t change our minds because of an argument. That’s so rare, it would be almost like giving sight to the blind. Raising Lazarus.
We change our minds because we begin to care about someone. Not an idea, but a person.
My purpose is to invite us to think about the words of Jesus of Nazareth. To think about what it means to love one another.
And yes, I know that getting people to think is not always welcome. Getting us religious folk to think is pretty much the definition of what got Jesus killed. He made religious folk think, people like us, and we killed him for it. We can’t blame the Jews or the Romans — pretty much everyone in the story was either a Roman or a Jew, including Jesus. No, the Rolling Stones had it right in ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ — it was you and me.
So I appreciate the thin ice under this pulpit.
And I’ve already given you a second problem. Since many of you don’t agree with my positions, you have to decide what is more important — being right, or loving one another? Being right is by far more fun, but there’s that Jesus thing.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
And here, in this farewell passage, Jesus re-words the commandment. Did you notice?
Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus tells everyone who hears him, disciple or not — Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
But now we get this one — love one another, not as you love yourself, but as I have loved you. So that’s Jesus ratcheting up the pressure.
And neither version is a request, or a suggestion, or guideline. It isn’t optional.
Love the people you know. Love the people on the next pew. Love the stranger out there in the street. Love the people on the other side of the planet.
Really though, watching most Christians, it looks like our Bibles say something different, something like, “they will know you are my disciples because you are right.”
Based on the way all of us act, myself included, I think it must be in there somewhere. Of course, we believe plenty of things that aren’t in there.
There’s a wonderful film called Second Hand Lions. Robert Duvall and Michael Caine. The character played by Robert Duvall says, “Just because something isn’t true, that’s no reason you can’t believe it.”
Well, just because something isn’t in the Bible is no reason we can’t believe it. We Christians prove it every day.
We love our rules more that we love our neighbors. And we love being right more than anything in the world.
Rules can be good, but they’re not very dangerous, because none of us is very good at following them. Telling the truth. Not envying our neighbors. Not cheating on our spouses. Not to mention all the smoking, drinking, cussing.
Yeah. We’re not good at following our own rules. And we got past that whole thing about pork being an abomination, so no worries there.
But being right? Oh, we’ve got that down pat.
Loving someone requires that we stop thinking of how different we are and start thinking of how much we have in common. This kind of love isn’t a feeling. It isn’t sexy. It isn’t driven by hormones or lust or loneliness. This kind of love, any real love, is a choice. True love keeps people committed to one another long after the fire has burned down to embers.
James puts it this way. “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16)
I have told you before that I am an MAWG, Middle Aged White Guy. I ran into that phrase in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition. He’s the writer who came up with the term cyberspace. Brilliant, especially if you like science fiction.
As a Middle Aged White Guy, I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of things I don’t know. And paying attention to what we don’t know can be educational. It can be humanizing and liberating. If we begin to understand other people, if we begin to empathize with people who are not like us, we can begin to love them.
Longfellow wrote, “Every heart has its secret sorrows which the world knows not, and oftentimes we call a man cold, when he is only sad.”
Other people can be puzzles.
As a Middle Aged White Guy, I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. I don’t know what it’s like to have the man beside me paid more for doing less. I don’t know what it feels like for a bunch of middle aged white guys make badly written laws about what I can and cannot do with my own body. I don’t know what it’s like to have men question whether God would call a woman to ministry. As if Mary Magdalene asked permission before she went to the tomb.
I’m not black. I don’t know what it’s like to be a black man in America. For that matter, I don’t know what it’s like to walk down the street with skin the color of Jesus in America — to look like such an average middle eastern man than nobody even bothered to write down a description of his appearance. Four gospels, all those letters, and nobody mentions the color of his hair, his skin, his eyes. I can tell you that if Jesus was blonde and blue-eyed, someone would have mentioned it.
It’s hard to cross the race lines, even today, and especially on Sunday morning, still the most segregated time of the week. There are so many black people who are angry at us Middle Aged White Guys. And there is so much fear and resentment in the white communities.
We can find hope in words from that later letter from John’s community — “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18)
I’m not gay, so I don’t know what that’s like. I don’t know how it feels to have grown up afraid that someone would find out, that I might lose my job, my home, my business. Think about hearing that old “hate the sin love the sinner thing” — when being gay it isn’t something they do, it’s who they are. Did you know that something like 30 – 50% of the homeless youth on the streets are out there because they are gay — and their families threw them out. Lots of them were thrown out of Christian homes.
I’ve never been homeless. I don’t know what that’s like. The homeless people I’ve met are not the people I thought they would be. And their journey into homelessness may have begun with something as simple as a repair bill they couldn’t afford for a car they needed to get to a job they lost.
One of my favorite words is liminal. It means those boundary places where we slip from one thing to another — beaches, twilight, dying. There are thin margins between those of us with ordinary means and those without. People without a place to live, without regular income. People trying to find a bathroom to bathe in before walking to a job interview for work they won’t get.
We talk about freedom in this country. But freedom is an economic principle. We aren’t truly free unless we have the means to live. We aren’t free without the means to support ourselves, our families, the ones we love.
I look at the marginalized people we are supposed to love, and I think of Jesus’ warning. Not the “Well done, good and faithful servant,” but the “Depart from me, for I never knew you.”
Jesus said to love our neighbors and love our fellow Christians. That covers everybody.
So what does that look like? To love one another, I mean. Sometimes it looks like a simple kindness. Holding a door. Helping someone down the sidewalk. Sometimes it looks like social justice. Medical care.
Well, I’ve got some good news. Jesus never said we had to like one another. Love, yes. Like, optional. That’s really good news for me. I’m still with Linus — I love humanity: it’s people I can’t stand.
Anyone with a family understands the difference between liking someone and loving them. It’s nice when you like the people you love. But that isn’t always the way it works.
And as I said, love is not, at least not always, a feeling. Love is a choice. Love is what we do. If you come to me hungry, I feed you. I don’t have to like you or enjoy your company, but I have to feed you. If you find me lying on the sidewalk needing medical care, you help me. You don’t have to like me. You do have to call an ambulance and try to stop the bleeding.
We like to keep things in their boxes. When we sit in church and talk about love it is easy. If our faith and real life never overlap, our faith isn’t worth having.
We can’t keep Jesus in a box.
We say that trying to apply that love thing in real life is complicated. Maybe so. I’ve noticed that when we really don’t want to do something, or admit something, or own up to something, we say it’s complicated.
Life is complicated. People are complicated. Love is as complicated or as simple as we make it.
And there are implications. We can’t separate our Christianity from our participation in society. In each case, with every issue, we know what love looks like and what it doesn’t.
Immigration. We can have a difference of opinion on immigration policy and still be Christians and still be friends. But we can’t let those children at the border come to harm, do nothing, say nothing, and still call ourselves Christians.
Gun rights. Americans love guns. I grew up with them. For several reasons, I have a concealed carry permit. Does that surprise you? I’ve taught my daughter how to handle a gun safely, how to shoot, how to shoot well, in fact. She loves her .22 Browning target pistol. But we can’t love our guns more than we love people, and too many people are dying. That is not what love looks like.
LGBT issues. If a church doesn’t want to support LGBT people, that’s their privilege. That is freedom of religion. When a church refuses to condone or conduct gay marriage, that is also freedom of religion. But when they try to interfere with LGBT people having lives, having jobs, homes, families, that’s discrimination. When they try to use laws to enforce their beliefs on everyone, including other churches, that’s the opposite of religious freedom; it is the entire reason we Baptists here in North Carolina and Virginia worked so hard in the late 1700s for the Bill of Rights to be added to our Constitution, to keep the government out of our churches.
Health care. Many of us believe that people who get free medical care or some other free benefit should work, have jobs, test drug free. That might be great. I do know that the good samaritan didn’t put any pre-requisites on helping the man he found in the ditch. And healthy people are more likely to make good decisions and contribute to society.
There’s an opioid epidemic out there. Crazy synthetics mixed with street weed and heroin. People are dying, children are dying, and plenty of Christians are out there saying terrible things. Those drug addicts don’t deserve our help, they say. They got what was coming to them. No reason to spend our dollars trying to save them.
Imagine standing beside Jesus, or a parent who just lost her child, and saying all of that out loud. It’s a good test for all of our social or political views.
Decent, law-abiding people, people who have worked hard and saved and made the right choices all their lives, are bankrupting themselves to pay for their medicines. That isn’t what love looks like. Drug companies draining the poor to make a handful of very wealthy people much wealthier isn’t love.
There’s nothing wrong with having wealth. There’s plenty wrong with loving profits more than people. It was never money that was the root of evil, it’s the love of it.
Feed the hungry. Tend the sick. Help those who are imprisoned, marginalized, oppressed. Jesus called it tending his sheep. That’s what love looks like in Jesus’ book.
However complicated that is, or however easy, loving people is something we have to do out there. Where people are.
We don’t even have to like them, and they don’t even have to like us, although we might be surprised. Love God, Jesus said. Love the people. And being right will take care of itself.
And now I would like to leave you with better words than mine.
1 Corinthians 13
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
— from the New International Version (NIV)