Thursday, April 05, 2012

What's So "New" About Jesus' "New Commandment"?

[This was prepared to be shared with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, along with their guests and friends, as we celebrated Maundy Thursday earlier this evening.]

The late Watchman Nee, a Christian author and leader, told the true story of a Chinese Christian who owned a rice paddy next to one owned by a communist neighbor. 

The Christian irrigated his paddy by pumping water out of a canal, using a leg-operated pump that makes users look like they’re riding bicycles. Every day, after the Christian had pumped enough water to fill his field, the neighbor would come out, remove some of the boards that kept the water in the Christian man’s field and let all the water flow down into his own field. That way, he didn’t have to pump. 

Of course, it also left the Christian man's field without the water needed to make his rice crop grow.

This went on for a number of days. Finally, the Christian prayed, “Lord, if this keeps up, I’m going to lose all my rice, maybe even my field. I’ve got a family to take care of. What can I do?”

After the man prayed in this way, the Lord put a thought in his mind. So, the next morning, he woke up well before dawn, while it was still dark, and started pumping water into the field of his neighbor. Then, he replaced the boards and pumped water into his own rice paddy. In a few weeks, both fields of rice were doing well.*

In our lesson for this evening, Jesus tells the eleven disciples who remain with Him to celebrate the Passover just before His arrest: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”**

I used to wonder what was so new about this commandment. 

After all, as every Lutheran Catechism student knows, the ten commandments, given by God to the world through Moses about 1500 years before Jesus’ birth, can be divided into two tables. The first table, composed of the first three commandments, says that we are to love God. The second table, made up of the fourth through tenth commandments, tell us to love others. 

And, as we’ve remembered in our confession of sin at the beginnings of our Sunday services during Lent, Jesus once summarized the two tables in what we know as the Great Commandment. It’s in Matthew 22:37-40, where Jesus says: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

And before Jesus gave the “new commandment” He gives in our lesson for this evening, He already had expanded the boundaries of who among our neighbors He expected all human beings to love. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the hero of Jesus’ story is the member of an ethnic group His people hated.

And early in His ministry, during what we call the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had said, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...”

It’s always been God’s will and command that we love. So, what’s so new about the commandment He gave on the night when He was arrested? 

The answer to that question comes in what Jesus says in its entirety. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another,” Jesus says and then adds, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

We are to love others as Jesus loved the disciples gathered with Him on that first Maundy Thursday. He did the work of a slave, washing the grimy feet of His disciples, even the feet of Judas, the man He knew was going to betray Him in a short while, sending Jesus to an undeserved and violent death.

We’re to love others as Jesus loved those who prayed that God the Father would forgive those who shouted for His death, who spat on and punched Him, who plaited a crown of thorns for His head and mocked Him, who cheered and jeered as cold, hard nails were pounded into His flesh.

We’re to love others as Jesus loved and had compassion for Peter, forgiving Peter after Peter had denied even knowing Jesus three different times at the very moment when Jesus could have used a friend.

To love as Jesus loves is to sacrifice oneself to the nth degree. It doesn’t mean being a doormat: Jesus, you’ll remember, wasn’t shy about confronting people about their sins, sins that threatened to put up a wall between God’s grace and the people who wallowed in their sin. He threw the moneychangers from the temple. He called Peter a “Satan” who was trying to keep God’s will from being done. He expressed frustration with the disciples when they argued who of them was the greatest, when they failed to feed crowds who were hungry, and when they claimed to be powerless to pray for anxious parents with demon-possessed children. But even these signs of anger and frustration on Jesus' part were the expressions of the Savior Who had come to call us all out of slavery to sin into the freedom of new life with God!
Jesus didn’t spare any sacrifice, including the giving of His very life, to do the loving thing, the thing that was best for us. 

That’s the kind of love Jesus commands of us. I truly blush in shame and repentance when I remember that Jesus doesn’t suggest that we love others as He has loved us. He commands us to love, not as a condition for being saved from sin and death, but as an expression of faith, joy, and gratitude over the fact that Jesus has already saved those who are baptized and believe in Him from sin and death. 

If you and I will love as Jesus has loved us, Jesus says, “everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

This is why I so love the story of the Chinese Christian rice farmer. He could have had an angry confrontation with his neighbor and maybe there would be times when the loving thing would demand such confrontation. But before he acted out of his justifiable anger, the man prayed. Then, as he prayed, God seemed to tell him not to exercise his righteous indignation, but to try something different: to serve and love and sacrifice at an outrageous level. 

“You’ve been loved and, because of Jesus, you are with Me always,” God seemed to tell the man. “You have eternity as your certain possession. Not everyone has the freedom from sin and death you possess as My child. Only those who know Jesus as you know Jesus have that. So, have compassion on those enslaved by sin and death. Dare to love as My Son loved you on the cross and see what, if anything, happens.”

When you and I, under the guidance of the living Lord we intimately know and have come to believe in through prayer, the reading and study of Scripture, public worship, and receiving the Sacraments, dare to love others as Jesus has loved us, strange things happen. 

Watchman Nee says that after the Chinese Christian farmer spent weeks waking up before the crack of dawn, giving the free gift of his labor and love to an atheist neighbor who hated and stole from him, the neighbor came to faith in Christ.

In a way, that shouldn’t surprise us. After Jesus’ outrageous act of love on the cross, He rose again from the grave and now offers to all who turn from sin and believe in Him new and everlasting life. And since the risen Jesus is still alive and living within all who trust in Him, we can expect surprising things when we seek God’s help in loving others as Jesus loves us.

May we all dare to obey Jesus’ new commandment. May we all learn to love others as Jesus has loved us!

*The true story told by Watchman Nee is recounted in this book.

**It's from these words that the designation of this day as Maundy Thursday comes. The word maundy comes the English language from Latin by way of Old French. The word mandatum in Latin and mandé in Old French, both mean commandment. In Latin, the words of Jesus at the beginning of John 13:34, are: "Mandātum novum dō vōbīs" (literally, "A commandment new to you I give"). Why Latin? That was the language used for Mass in the Roman Catholic tradition in which Maundy Thursday arose on the church calendar. It was also the language of the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible used during Mass.

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