Friday, April 02, 2010

Living Reminders

[This was shared during Maundy Thursday worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, on April 1.]

John 13:1-17, 31-35
In tonight’s Gospel lesson, Jesus prepares His disciples for the events of the next few days and the years beyond.

He knows that it’s time for Him to go to the cross, to be the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world, to die, to rise, and, in time, to leave His disciples as He ascends to heaven. Jesus wants to comfort the disciples and to assure them that however alone they may feel in the coming years, they will never be alone. That’s why later on during this dinner, in a section of John’s Gospel not part of tonight’s lesson, Jesus promises that after He has risen and ascended to heaven, He will send the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to all believers. As believers in Jesus, we have that same promise today.

But Jesus knows how hard it is for us to believe that He and the Holy Spirit are with us right now. He knows how experiential we human beings are, how physical. We want evidence.

When the chips are down in life, it’s hard to believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit we can’t see. It’s hard to believe in the presence of a risen Jesus we can’t see.

It’s to help us believe that Jesus is risen and that the Spirit is with us that Jesus also gives the disciples a new commandment in our Gospel lesson. It’s our commandment, too. “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says, “that you love one another.” This commandment, mandatum in the Latin, mandate in modern English, and, it appears, Maundy in the Middle English of long ago, is what gives this day of Maundy Thursday its name.

But how does Jesus' command that we Christians love each other help us to trust in Christ’s promises to be with us and to give us new, eternal life?

Karen, who I've mentioned to you before, was a member of our former congregation in Cincinnati. Karen died at age 37 after a two-year fight with cancer. Her death came at her home at about 2:30 one morning. Her husband called me right after it happened. He was there with his parents and sister-in-law. They were waiting for the funeral home personnel to come and take Karen’s body, he said. I asked if I could come over for a visit and he said, “Of course.” On the way, at about 3:30 in the morning, I stopped by Krispy Kreme for fresh doughnuts. We sat at the kitchen table, eating, waiting, and talking together. “Oh, I just thought of something,” Karen’s husband Tom said. He ran to another part of the house and returned a few moments later with a note from Karen. It turns out that she had written notes to many people, physical reminders of her faith, love, and friendship, and each note an affirmation of her belief that because of the risen Jesus, all who repent and believe in Christ live with God for eternity.

Sometimes, our faith needs to be bolstered by things we can see and touch, usually by the people we can see and touch. Jesus commanded His Church—you and me—to love one another just as He loved and still loves us. Jesus doesn’t do this to lay a new guilt-inducing obligation on us. He does it so that we can be personal reminders of His love and all His promises.

The most dramatic thing Jesus does at the meal recounted in our lesson, of course, is wash the feet of His disciples, a menial servant’s task done by the Maker of the universe. Jesus does this to underscore His new commandment.

After the foot-washing, Jesus tells the disciples, “I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” Jesus says that you and I are to put skin and life and our very beings into the faith we confess.

Each of us who are part of Christ’s Church are commanded to love our sisters and brothers in Christ so that whenever the faith of that person in the next pew, in the Sunday School class or Bible study, or at the potluck, is challenged or growing faint, your act of Christian love will assure them that Jesus is real, His victory over death and sin is real, His promise to be with us is certain.

A woman Ann and I got to know in our former community joined Friendship not long before we came to Logan. She and her family were going through a lot--so many challenging circumstances at once--and felt the need to connect with God and the Church. They became deeply involved and not long after we moved here, this woman’s husband died. She has written to me several times since to say, “God brought us to the church at the right time. I don’t know what we would have done without it.” The people of the congregation, by their love for her and her family, strengthened her faith in the risen Jesus and helped her to believe in the promises of Christ to be with His people always!

Every person who is part of the Church—including those of us who are part of Saint Matthew—has something in common: We are all ordinary, imperfect, sinful human beings.

For many, this is a disappointment because church people aren’t as perfect or as sinless as they want them to be. When the Church disappoints us—and it does and it will—it’s good for us to take a close look in the mirror. Jesus commands us to love the Church as it really is, filled with people as imperfect, as prone to sin and mistakes, as we are, in as much need of forgiveness, understanding, and charity as we ourselves are.

In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul marvels that “God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Jesus didn’t wait for the disciples to get clean before He washed their feet. And He didn’t wait for the world to repent before He died for the sins of all. Jesus proved that, as several Old Testament passages remind us, God is gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

This is a good thing for we Christians because every congregation I’ve ever been part of or observed is filled with a cast of characters, including the pastors, who could make up a hit television sitcom or drama. We all have our faults. We are all recovering sinners.

But when we love one another where we’re at, as we are, we remind one another of a love so great that not even Good Friday could kill it off. Love like that transforms those who receive it and those who give it. The love of our fellow Christians makes us want to follow Jesus more closely. It incites us to deeper faith and greater self-sacrifice.

Once, I heard the lay member of a congregation who was asked by his pastor to speak for a few moments one Sunday morning about what that church meant to him. He couldn’t help thinking, this man said, of the scene in the movie, As Good As It Gets, when Jack Nicholson’s character tells Helen Hunt’s, “You make me want to be a better man.” The love of Christ he had experienced in his church, that man said, incited the exact sentiment in him.

In each other’s patient love, we experience the kindness of God and, as Paul reminds us in Romans 2:4, it’s the kindness of God—not harsh judgments, not haranguing sermons, not spiritual tongue-lashings, not perfectly-executed liturgies, but the kindness of God—that leads to repentance, that leads us all back, again and again, to the God we know in Jesus.

And when we in the Church share this kind of love for one another, it has an effect on more than just those within our fellowship.

Pastor Bill White recounted the legend of two old friends who, through the circumstances of history, ended up living in two kingdoms that were hostile to one another. But their friendship endured. One of the men visited the other friend in his country, the king got wind of this foreigner’s presence, and ordered the visitor’s execution. The king was sure that the visitor was a spy.

“Your majesty,” the man begged. “Please give me 30 days to settle my affairs in my homeland. When I return, you can execute me.” Naturally, the king didn’t believe him. “A condemned man will return to his execution after he gains his freedom? Do you think I’m a fool?” That’s when the man’s old friend, stepped forward. “Jail me, your majesty. This is my friend. I trust him. But if he isn’t back in thirty days, you can take my life.” Incredulous, the king went along with the plan.

The thirty days were nearly up, when the accused man, having gotten his affairs in order, returned for his execution. His jailed friend said, “You should let me take your punishment. I’ve prepared myself to die in these thirty days. You can go free and live.” But the accused man said, “It isn’t right that you should take my punishment in my place.” They argued like this for some time. Finally, the king interrupted, “Enough!” He had never seen selfless love before, the king said. “I pardon you both and I ask you a favor: May I become your friend? I would give anything to be like you!” The two men agreed and the three became fast friends.

Some fifty years after the incidents recounted in tonight’s Gospel lesson, one of the disciples whose feet had been washed by Jesus, by then a much older man, wrote a letter to be circulated among churches then experiencing persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. Faith in a Savior they could not see was hard to maintain in the face of the threats of the Roman Army they saw every day.

But John, the beloved disciple, traditional author of tonight’s Gospel lesson, encouraged those fearful believers to keep loving God, loving their neighbors, and loving one another. In fact, John says the love of Christians for one another verifies the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. Listen to what he says in 1 John 3:14-16:
“We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
As we prepare to remember the crucifixion of Jesus on Friday and His resurrection on Sunday, let the magnitude of God’s love for you, just as you are, sink deeply into your life.

Then dare to love the Church and all who are part of it as you have been loved. The Bible says that the Church is a living organism and when the faith of one member is built up by love, the faith of the whole Church is built up. And a faithful, loving Church, as you know, is among God’s very best gifts. Amen

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