Easter 5C Sermon (2016)

5th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 13:31-35;
Acts 11:1-18; Rev. 21:1-6


I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

We are familiar with Jesus boiling all the commandments down to love. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he is asked about the Greatest Commandment. His answer combines the two most important Jewish commandments: Love God with all your heart and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Today in John’s Gospel, it’s all about love, too, but Jesus calls it not the Greatest Commandment but a new commandment. It’s not a combo version of traditional commandments about love. It’s a new one. Do we realize just how new it is? Do we realize how much everything changes when Jesus commands us to love like he loves us? Do we realize that that means he is basically asking us to love like God loves? Is that even possible? What does that mean?

Perhaps before we know what it means to love like God, we should spend a moment reflecting on our human love. When it is most wholesome, our love helps us to grow up in safe boundaries. It’s the number one job for parents, to help children grow in a safe, loving place. In fact, in a dangerous world, being nurtured within safe boundaries is crucial. More and more, we are teaching our children at a younger age about “stranger danger.”

Time-traveling back to high school for a moment, it is a time when our love is pushing out beyond the boundaries of home, a time of peer relationships. Yet our friendship love still groups together for a sense of belonging, right? We group together on the basis of somewhat arbitrary things like clothing styles, extra-curricular activities, sports. But we also may group around deeper cultural lines like aptitude for learning, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. Natural in all this is an identity formation that tends to be formed over against other groups. On a normal school day, the students hang out in their cliches — the jocks, the goths, the nerds, etc. And there’s usually the kids that don’t quite fit in with any group, the loners, the kids that all the groups pick on. Except maybe on the day of the big game, right? Around here, would that be Heritage against Arthur Hill? Then all the groups come together on the basis of being over against the big arch-rival — which we call “school spirit.”

Does it change all that much as we get older? The stakes get higher. Labor vs. management. Republican vs. Democrat. Citizen vs. immigrant. Rich vs. poor. White vs. People of Color. Christian vs. Muslim. And at a time of cultural crisis, like the one we are in the middle of, those adversarial identities seem to worsen. Everything seems to come down to beating your opponent. Isn’t that the politics we have right now? It’s not really about the issues that further the common good. It’s all about beating your opponent. If only we could find that school spirit, that patriotism, that common enemy would galvanize us and bring us together. “God bless America!”

So what have we said about our typical human love? The positive side is a spirit of love and belonging that helps us grow together in safe boundaries. But the negative side, the side that falls short of God’s kind of love, is that ours is generally over against someone else — over against what might be dangerous out there, our rivals, our opponents, our enemies. In short, a big part of the way we love one another is to intensify our love by hating our enemies. By abiding in our love for others, we hate those who are outside our group.

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, our Lord Jesus came to help us abide in God’s love, and we find out from him that God’s love extends even to enemies. Jesus came into the kind of polarized social crisis in which we find ourselves. In First Century Palestine, he offered himself precisely the kind of common enemy with the potential to bring folks together. Jerusalem itself was an urban metropolis of various groups and factions, ready to explode in violence at any moment. But on a Friday two thousand years ago, everyone came together for at least a few hours. The Jewish leadership and Roman overlords agreed. Luke tells us that Herod and Pilate became friends that day. The whole crowd agreed. Jesus’ own supporters ran away. One had betrayed him. One denied him three times. Everyone came together. “Crucify him! That Jesus is more dangerous than an insurrectionist like Barabbas. Give us Barabbas! Crucify Jesus!”

More dangerous than Barabbas? Did they really believe that? I think they did, and I think they had a good reason. At least many could understand Barabbas’ patriotism, his wanting to fight for his country. But this Jesus came with something more dangerous. He came with a love from God that crosses our safe boundaries. He came with a love that invites us to risk the safety of our homegrown loves for a love that reaches across boundaries and even risks loving enemies. He invites us to see that it’s the only kind of love that will bring us ultimate safety, the safety that will come one day when all humanity is reconciled into one family, one identity, our Creator God’s identity. He asks us to go beyond school spirit, national spirit, and live by a Holy Spirit — God’s Spirit of truth that goes beyond our human boundaries to be with those we most often leave out.

This all came to a climax on that Good Friday two millennia ago, but his disciples finally caught the Holy Spirit which Jesus came to release on us, and so they told the story of his whole ministry, featuring all the ways in which Jesus’ love had crossed boundaries leading up to his death — to cite just a few:

  • He began his ministry with a manifesto of Good News and blessings for the poor, the prisoners, the outcasts;
  • his stories and teachings, like the parable of the Good Samaritan, show “outsiders” performing the work of God’s Kingdom;
  • he constantly associated with “sinners,” such as tax collectors and prostitutes;
  • he touched and healed the sick, even untouchables like lepers, who, because of their lack of physical wholeness, were denied full access to Jewish worship;
  • he publicly associated with women and let them touch him, which was regarded as taboo.

Do we understand how that constant crossing of all boundaries got him killed? Seen as ultimately more dangerous than someone like Barabbas.

Love one another just as I have loved you. Brothers and Sisters, do we realize how new this commandment truly is? It asks us to go beyond the safe boundaries of our ordinary human love. It represents a love that goes beyond what we usually think of as love of God, family, and nation. It goes beyond loving our neighbor as ourselves. It invites us to love like God loves with a love that crosses safe boundaries, a love that reaches out to the Other, a love that even reaches out to enemies.

Why? Why would we take such a risk? Why love with a love that, in a still dangerous world, is dangerous? We don’t have to, of course. God never uses force. That’s the whole point of such a dangerous love — that God sticks to the power of love even in the face of deadly force. But this dangerous love is also a victorious love. We might be moved to risk such a love because it is the only thing that ultimately will make this world safe. And because it’s God’s powerful love that has already paved the way for us. It never has to be about depending on our human love alone. God’s love in Jesus Christ has already come into the world and begun to turn things upside-down. It came into the world crossing all our safe boundaries to the point of being killed on a cross, and on Easter morning came as the promise of victory. It is this love, God’s powerful and victorious love, which created us in the first place. It is this victorious love that conquered death on Easter morning with the promise of conquering death for us and for the whole creation. It is this victorious love which is even now reconciling all the world into a New Creation, into a place where there will one day be no danger because there will be no enemies, no being over-against someone else. That victorious love is working in this world even now to change it for the better.

The question, then, is where can you and I join in this week? Where in our lives might we be called to risk a love that crosses boundaries? Where might you and I live by this Holy Spirit and be part of God’s changing the world?

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Faith Lutheran, Saginaw, MI
April 23-24, 2016

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