(shared with the people of Friendship Church, May 9, 2004)
Every parent and child can identify with Jesus' words to us in today’s Bible lesson. Spoken just before He went to the cross and His resurrection, they’re a lot like words that parents say to their children as they entrust the kids to babysitters.
In the lesson, Jesus is with the inner circle of His followers, the twelve. He’s about to fulfill His whole purpose for coming to earth. He’s going to be “glorified,” Jesus’ term in John's Gospel for the whole movement through His execution, death, and resurrection. The events of the next few days will see Him decisively destroy the power of sin and death and futility over the lives of all who turn from sin and follow Him. But it will also mean leaving His followers behind.
To reassure the men who form Jesus' core group as He prepares to go to cross and tomb and resurrection and into heaven, Jesus makes three main points.
First: He says that He has to go away. Jesus speaks tenderly to these brawny men. “Little children,” He tells them. “I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and...’Where I am going, you cannot come.’”
Next: Jesus says, basically, that He wants them to be good to each other and not tear each others’ heads off. (Every parent has given these instructions to their children as they leave for an evening out!) “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says. “That you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Finally: Later in their time together, near the end of chapter 14 in John’s Gospel, Jesus will tell these disciples—and us, because He was speaking to us, too—that He isn't leaving them or us alone. "I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in My Name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Jesus is promising to leave us in the care of the world’s best babysitter, the Holy Spirit.
There are times when we may feel that God has left us alone to deal with life. We may feel like the man, going through a horrible time, who once told me: “Mark, I pray and I pray. But it feels like all of my prayers just bounce off of the ceiling and I’m talking to myself.”
But Jesus does something to help us to know that in times like this, we aren’t alone. He gives the new command we hear in today's lesson. He tells us to “love one another.”
You may think: That doesn’t seem new. We all know the greatest commandment, to love God and to love neighbor. But Jesus is telling us something more than that. He’s telling the people who make up His band of followers in the world, the Church, to love each other.
The Church exists not only to share the Good News of Jesus with the world, you know.
The Church also exists to be what I have sometimes called a support group for recovering sinners.
But Jesus created the Church for still another reason. You’ve heard me tell the story of a little boy, in bed, afraid of the monsters he imagines lurking in his closet, calling out to his dad. “Daddy! Daddy!” When dad arrives, he wraps his arms around his boy and asks what’s wrong. “I’m afraid,” the little boy says. “There’s no reason to feel afraid, honey,” the father says. “Your mom and I are just down the hall and remember that Jesus is always with you.” “I know that,” says the little guy. “But I want someone with skin on him.”
The Church is made up of lots of people with skin on them. And the Church is meant to be there to give us all assurance in the times when we feel alone or afraid or filled with grief that the God we know through Jesus Christ (Who Himself is God with skin on Him!) really is there and He really cares for each of us.
And so, Jesus says, we need to cherish this gift of the Church. We need to love it.
But we need to be careful how we love it.
Ann and I once knew a woman who, everywhere she went, spoke of her husband in the most glowing terms. At card club, she told the other women that her Norman was so smart, so kind, so considerate, such a great father. She did the same thing at work and at the ballfields where she watched little Norman and Susie play baseball. She did the same thing at the PTO meetings. You would have thought that Norman was the greatest thing since sliced bread.
The only problem was that whenever this woman got back with Norman, she could hardly stand him. He didn’t seem nearly as intelligent, resourceful, kind, or considerate as she’d painted him as being to her friends and anyone else who would listen. The real Norman wasn’t perfect. He was ordinary. A few years later, that woman left Norman. Why? Because he wasn’t as perfect as she’d dreamed he was or that she thought he was supposed to be.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian, who lost his life because of his opposition to Adolf Hitler, wrote a book about the Church called, Life Together. One of the things he warns followers of Christ about is our penchant for loving our dream of the Church more than we love the Church as it really is.
Christ did create the Church. Christ did give us the Church to be the body of Christ in the world, to put skin on God when the world can be bleak or difficult or challenging...and to give us hints of the joy, peace, and fellowship of heaven here on earth.
But every person who is part of the Church has something in common: We are all ordinary, imperfect, sinful human beings. Jesus commands us to love, not our dream of the Church, but the Church as it really is, with all its imperfections. This is so difficult that, like Norman’s wife who left Norman in order to find the perfect man, many people hop from church to church to church or leave the Church altogether in order to find the perfect congregation. This side of heaven, they’ll never find the perfect church.
And yet, it is precisely this Church composed of ordinary people that we are to love. Quite frankly, there isn’t a congregation I’ve visited yet that wasn’t composed of characters who could populate a sitcom. Every church is filled with quirks and idiosynracies and bad habits.
And, as C.S. Lewis points out in his book, The Screwtape Letters, the devil will work hard to point us to the foibles and faults of the people who make up any church. You’ll look around and perhaps see the pastor who talks too long, or the man—desperate to be needed—who annoys everyone by trying to be helpful, or the woman bathed in some musty-smelling perfume, or the man with the absurd comb-over. And you’ll think: Is this the body of Christ, Jesus’ grand and glorious Church? And Jesus will tell you, “Yes...and you are to love it! Love all who are part of the Church just as I have loved you.”
How? How can we honor Jesus’ final instructions by loving our brothers and sisters in faith?
One clue is that Jesus sends the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to fill us and to help us do what we are incapable of doing on our own.
The other clue is in Jesus’ phrase, “as I have loved you.” When Jesus went to the cross, He didn’t have some fake smile smeared across His face. He didn’t say, “I just adore the way you wince when you pound nails into My flesh.”
The greatest temptation Jesus must have ever felt was the one He faced on that day when the whole world condemned Him and cried for His blood. Then, He must have been tempted to say, “There is nothing to be loved in the people of the world. They’re filled with hatred, sin, and imperfection. I’m pulling myself off of this cross and they can all go to hell.”
But Jesus didn’t do that! You see, Jesus knew a simple truth, of which I have spoken before: Love isn’t always what you feel. Sometimes love is what you do in spite of how you feel. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus stayed the course. Because He did, loving us even when He may not have liked us very much, He won everlasting life for us.
When we love Jesus’ Church—warts, imperfections, sins, and all—the Church can become what Jesus means for it to be: the living reminder that while we may not be able to see Him as He sits enthroned in heaven, He hasn’t left us alone and He still loves us!
There’s a story told of two men, boyhood friends who loved each other very much. A series of unfortunate circumstances forced them to live in separate, hostile countries. One day, one of the friends, now a merchant, traveled to visit his friend. The king got wind of a stranger from an enemy country walking his streets. He had the man brought to him.
Convinced that the merchant was a spy, the king ordered his execution. But the man said, “Your majesty, if I’m unable to take care of my financial affairs before I die, my wife and children will be left destitute. Please let me go back to my country to set things right and then I will return to face my fate.”
The king exploded, “Do you think I’m a fool? Whoever heard of a prisoner returning to the executioner without force?”
But the man replied, “I have a friend here who will be security for me.” Incredulous, the king called the man’s friend in and asked, “Will you be security for your friend? Understand that if he doesn’t come back, you will be executed in his place at nightfall thirty days from now.” The man said that it would be an honor to offer his life as security for his friend.
The king then let the stranger and gave him thirty days to get his affairs in order. On the thirtieth day at dusk, the merchant hadn’t yet returned. His friend was brought to the executioner’s block. Just then, the merchant arrived, pushed his friend aside, and said, “I am ready to assume my punishment.” But his friend wasn’t so easily convinced. “Please, friend, you have been like a brother all these years. I have prepared myself over this past month to die in your place.” They argued like this for several moments while the king and his courtiers watched in disbelief.
Finally, the king ordered the executioner and his sword removed. “I have never seen such devotion in my life,” he said. “Both of you are pardoned.” Then the king called the two men before him. “Deep friendship is a rare jewel,” he said. “I beg you, allow me to join you as a third.” From that day forward the two men became friends of the king.
When the world around us sees the people of the Church loving one another and caring for one another, imperfections and all, just as we have been loved by Christ, they will see that we are companions of the King, Jesus. And they too, will want to be His companions.
Jesus’ final instructions to us are simple. “Love...one another...[j]ust as I have loved you. By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Our simple prayer each day must be, “Lord help me to love others as I have been loved by you.”
[The analogy between Jesus' instructions in John 13:31-35 was created by Laura Jernigan in a message which appears in: The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2004 Edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
[The story of the king and the two loyal friends appears in Stories for Telling: A Treasury for Christian Storytellers by William White (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986)
[The books Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoefer and The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis are widely available in various editions in many bookstores.
[For my understanding of "glorification" in the Bible's Johannine literature, I am indebted to my professor and mentor, the late Bruce Schein. His explanation of John's Gospel, Following the Way, is classic.
[I have also consulted with the web-based exegetical notes of Brian Stoffregen and the commentary of R.C.H. Lenski in the preparation of this message.]