People like rules. We have all kinds of them: what you can wear, how you can talk, who you can spend time with, where you can spend your time, what you can drink or eat, what behaviors are appropriate or not dependent upon any number of factors from where you are to your age to whether or not you’re married. Christians are no different. We really like rules; and we really like enforcing the rules.
A group of researches recently conducted a study that looked a number of different cultures. The researches interviewed almost 7000 people about their culture’s social norms, how clearly expectations are communicated, and how the culture handles rule-breakers.
The interviews covered both working adults and students and asked people about behaviors ranging from kissing in a bank to eating in a classroom.
Respondents were also asked to rate how justifiable certain behaviors are: such as claiming government benefits to which you aren’t entitled, avoiding paying for public transportation, cheating on taxes, and homosexuality, prostitution, abortion, divorce and others.
Those cultures that are have more rigid social norms and in which sanctions for violating those norms are more strictly applied were labeled “tight” societies. Those cultures that have less restrictive social norms, cultures in which a wider range of behaviors are not only permissible, but encouraged, were labeled “loose” societies.
While this study looked at the cultures in 33 different countries in the world, I wish someone had done (or would be willing to do in the near future) a study that looks at the social values within a given church setting. While it’s true that people in general like rules, and Christians in particular seem to like rules even more, I personally really, really, really like knowing the rules. I like knowing what’s expected of me in a given place, at a given time, with a given group of people. Knowing others’ expectations allows me to either meet their expectations or communicate clearly in a way that resets their expectations in accordance with my skills and abilities.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus talks about his expectations. And he makes his expectations really clear. “IF you love me, you WILL keep my commandments.” Except, he just kind of stops there. Jesus tells that he expects us to keep his commandments. Great! “Follow the rules,” he says. But, then, he never really seems to tell us what those rules are. Expectation: Follow the rules. Follow-up: None.
So, in trying to determine just what it means to keep Jesus’s commandments, I did a little research. I did a little digging. I looked at everything Jesus said in the Gospel of John before making this pronouncement to keep his commandments, I looked at everything that that Jesus said after. Then, I did some research on the word “commandments” in the original Greek.
Here’s what I found: 1. the original word translated “commandments” is singular. A better reading would be “If you love me, you will keep my command.” 2. In the whole of the Gospel of John Jesus only ever gives one command to his disciples: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
That’s it. Love each other. Seems really easy, doesn’t it. There’s only one thing we have to do if we love Jesus: love one another.
If only were really that easy.
Loving people is hard. And loving people the way Jesus loved them… Well, that’s a daunting task. In fact, at times can feel impossible.
In the gospel of John, Jesus spends the first half of the story performing miracles: turning water into wine, healing the paralytic and the blind, raising the dead. If you have expectations that I, as a minister, am going to follow in Jesus’s footsteps in that regard, let me take a moment to reset your expectations: I have never even turned grape juice in to wine; I’ve never healed anyone of any ailment, physical or otherwise; and I have never raised anyone from the dead. These things are not in my skill set.
So, for today, I looked outside of the gospel of John to find a few more examples of the stuff Jesus did while he was walking around loving people. Now, when I first learned how to study the bible, inter-textual studying—looking from one book in the bible to explain what something in another book means without consideration for the history, culture, and context in which each was written—was strictly verboten. There you have it: I broke the rules. Your sermon this morning is brought to you by someone who thought to herself, “I need more data.”
Looking at the other three gospels, we see Jesus doing more miracles of healing and resurrection. We also see him feeding crowds of people, forgiving sins, and commanding the religious elite to: stop judging people, to take care of the widow, the orphan, and the poor, and honor the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. Jesus met people’s needs and commanded others to do the same, even if it meant they had to accept someone radically different from themselves to do it, even if it meant they had to acknowledge that their way of doing things wasn’t the only way of doing things.
Jesus commands us to love one another. He commands us to love one another as he has loved us. When we see Jesus doing anything in the gospel, he starts whatever it is he’s doing by discerning what is in people’s hearts. Jesus knew those around him. He knew how to love people well because he knew what they needed. And Jesus knew what people needed because he actually knew them.
So it is with us. To truly love someone, we have to know them. It isn’t enough to simply meet their physical needs. Simply giving food to the hungry isn’t enough. Jesus demands that we radically love those around us. If we’re going to feed their bellies, we need to feed their hearts and their spirits as well. When I was in graduate school, I helped to feed the hungry, volunteering my time in soup kitchens and food pantries. They were run by different organizations, and there was a marked difference in the way those coming to be fed were treated, and how they responded.
At one, I saw volunteers who knew those they fed. They talked with them, shared stories, laughed together, cried together, and those eating at the table often left with a smile on their face. At another, I heard judgment and condescending words; those who volunteered knew what those coming to be fed did or where they lived, but they did not take the time to know their hearts, to share in their grief or their joy. Often people took what was offered and walked away looking as despondent as when they arrived. Both groups received food; one responded as though they had received love as well.
I was reading some Alcoholics Anonymous literature one day. In that month’s magazine, a man had written in concerning his relationship with his son. The man himself was a recovering alcoholic who was devastated by choices his son was making in continuing to use drugs and alcoholic, and at a rate that was quickly killing him. The man, having found freedom from his own addiction in AA, began pressuring his son at every turn to join him at meetings. The son consistently refused, and it was a point of tension and pain in their relationship.
One day, the man was reviewing step 3: he made a decision to turn his will and his life over to God. The man realized that his own will and his own life belonged wholly to God, and the same was true for his son. He left his son in God’s hands, and rather than trying to get his son clean and sober, began getting to know his son. Their relationship changed drastically. While he still hoped and prayed sobriety for his son, his son’s sobriety was no longer his mission. He chose instead to love his son exactly where he was at, for exactly who he was.
I think that as Christians we sometimes we neglect knowing other people. We are so convinced at times that we have the monopoly on what it means to be a Christian, that we fail to see that there are as many ways of loving God and following Jesus as there are people in the world. Instead we create rubrics and star charts and we give a gold star to those who do everything “right”, and often we judge or degrade those who do it differently.
The church, it seems, is a very tight culture. But it’s often one that doesn’t clearly communicate the rules and expectations because we’re all too busy acting nice toward those around us, while we harbor anger and bitterness in our hearts. We love rules more than people, and in so doing, we fail to keep the only command Jesus ever gave us: to love others as he loved us.
Loving others can make us uncomfortable. It means getting to know someone else, someone who might be radically different from ourselves. Sometimes, it can be uncomfortable because it means being radically honest about who we are, which may push back against those cultural norms, creating tension and discomfort for those around us.
Love demands a radical honesty that allows us to know and be known. To love someone is to know them. We hate what we fear, and we fear what we do not understand. In knowing and understanding others, I have come to realize, we cannot help but love them. Because once we know someone, truly and deeply know them, we’re invested.
Our wholeness and well-being as a community is dependent upon the wholeness and well-being of every individual. Our personal wholeness and well-being is dependent upon the wholeness and well-being of the community. For there are many parts, but one body. God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked I, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
If God has put the body together, who are we to fear, judge, or hate even a single part of it? Instead, we are called to love every part of it. 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 in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hope, always perseveres. Love never fails.
We are called to love. This is the great command, and the only one Jesus ever gives.