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Love One Another

November 11th, 2013 No comments

“Love one another” (John 13:34-35)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
October 27, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

A Life of Division
The first couple of weeks of this month, several hundred thousand workers stayed home from work. Parks and monuments closed. Public service workers were put on hold as the United States government shut down. In the past couple of years around the world, thousands have lost jobs, savings, retirements, families, homes, and even their lives as competing factions have vied to establish political rule.

The gap between the rich and the poor is growing ever wider around the globe. Previous allies point fingers at one another and reveal their deep-seated mistrust, just as our friendships and long-standing partnerships so quickly come to an end over bitterness, jealousy, resentment, and fear.

Many anticipate the approaching holidays with trepidation. Will there be conflict at family reunions? Will hurtful words be spoken? Will cousins and siblings and parents and children refuse to talk to each other? Will they even show up?

Several congregations left our conference over the past year. The church the world over is as disparate and fractured now as it ever has been, as congregations and traditions and denominations compete for members to fill their sanctuaries.

We live in a world of division. We’re taught to fear those who are different than we are. We learn to be suspicious of those who don’t think like we do. Old wounds fester in us with a tenacity that fills us with bitterness and resentment that so quickly spills over to innocent bystanders and stalemates relationships in gridlock.

While sometimes it may be the best we can do in this broken world in order to contain evil, we learn to walk out so quickly on conversations, friends, families, marriages, even churches.

When we’re not the “favorite” in the family; When we don’t quite fit in with the “right” group at church; when our interests or friends don’t put us in the running for the popularity contest; when our work loses it significance or we’re asked to make decisions that compromise our integrity, we hide our true selves from each other and put on the masks that we think others want to see and become divided from our own souls, and, most fundamentally, from God.

We live in a world of division.

The still, small voice, the Christ within, speaks the truth. We hear it, yet pretend we do not. We deny the darkness within, “giving it more power” over us rather than letting the light of Christ reveal it, or we “project it onto other people, creating ‘enemies’ where none exist” and make true relationships with God and others impossible due to our own inauthenticity.1

In our divided lives, we “harbor secrets to achieve personal gain at the expense of other people. . . We hide our beliefs from those who disagree with us to avoid conflict, challenge, and change. . . We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked.”2

We live in a world of division, separation, mistrust, suspicion, judgment, alienation.

The Bible has a whole collection of metaphors for this state of existence of division and separation and alienation that comes from its own historical experience: We are lost. We are wandering. We are in captivity. We are away from home. We are strangers in a foreign land. We are in exile. We are walking in darkness.

A very particular kind of love
Division, separation, and darkness begin descending over Jesus and his disciples in John 13. Jesus indicates Judas Iscariot as the one who will betray him. The band of disciples begins to fall apart. Jesus warns Peter that he will deny him three times before the cock crows. Even Jesus will soon be departing. Judas Iscariot gets up and rushes out. And, the text says, it was night.

The pall of darkness is descending as the group falls apart, riddled by betrayal, denial, and rivalry. Indeed, at the moment of Jesus’ death, there are only a few who are left. The commandment to love one another is a blazing light in a world of darkness, division, separation, and alienation.

Jesus has just modeled what that love looks like in an enacted parable of washing his disciples’ feet. This love, the love that heals division, leads the wayward home, looses the chains of captivity, and blazes in the darkness is a very particular kind of love. Wal-Mart doesn’t sell greeting cards about this kind of love. When you go to the Breadbasket and say, “Wow, I love verenike!” that is not this kind of love.

This kind of love does not come from us, but is a gift of God. Paul describes it as the “more excellent way.” In the famous love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13, which we so often hear at weddings, Paul is speaking of this love that Jesus commands his followers. The church in Corinth was immensely talented and gifted, but it seems that there were some who were showing off their spiritual gifts – even to the point of discouraging people in their faith and disrupting or dominating worship meetings like noisy gongs or clanging cymbals, and causing divisions in the church because of their preoccupation with pride and power and achievement.

By contrast, Paul says,

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

Everything that we do can become self-serving and obnoxious and damaging if we do not do it for love and in love.

This is a love that serves. In 1 John, the author asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (3:17-18). This kind of love isn’t mere sentimentality. It is costly, even sacrificial. As 1 John goes on to say famously,

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as atonement for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:7-12, NRSV)

The apostle Paul even proclaims, most startlingly, that Jesus, in his death on the cross has accomplished nothing less than the abolition of the dividing wall, the enmity that divides us, and that he has reconciled us to God in one body, through the cross, killing enmity through it (Eph. 2:16).

Jesus says that we are to love one another with that same deep, costly, self-giving love that even lays down one’s life for one’s friends. So radical is this love that comes from God that it is to be the main badge, the main identifier, the bright light that identifies the community of Christ’s followers.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” – a visible display of the love of an invisible God. Our love for one another is to be a witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, which has broken down dividing walls, ended division, reconciled us, redeemed us, adopted us, and built us all together as a dwelling-place for God and God’s love.

On our own, we love only partially, so incompletely. We love when it serves our interests. We love with hearts that are begrudging. We love for show. We spend our love with the same frugality that we spend our money. Or we love by whim and fancy. When Jesus repeats the command to love one another in John 15, he says to them, “Abide in me, abide in my love.” We we abide in the vine, in the Word, in the life and light and truth of the world, in hope and in faith, then we’re drawing our strength from the complete, wholesome love that comes from God, not from us.

Seeing through a mirror, dimly
Many of you have lived much longer and given much more of yourselves to the church than I have, so you may disagree with me here, and that’s fine. But what I’ve observed is that there’s one thing that undermines mutual love and unity in the church more than just about anything else. And it’s not exactly greed or pride or envy or individualism or fear or difference of opinion and conviction, thought let’s be honest, all of those exist.

But one of our most basic problems is that we make assumptions rather than really, carefully listening to one another. As Paul said, we see through a mirror, dimly. We overhear one part of a conversation, we read one sentence of a note or an email, or catch one glance that seemed different, and our minds suddenly spin out elaborate explanations from a set of inferences and assumptions. All in a split second.

All of us do that. Every one of us. I know I do all the time. It’s how our minds work. It’s how our minds have to be able to work because we often have to make decisions based on partial information. But so often the assumptions and inferences we make about one another are more a dim reflection of our own fears or anxieties or hopes or needs, and not who the other truly is.

I learned a lot about what this love means when I was a student at Bethel College. On one occasion, there was a student whom I’ll call Charles, who really got under my skin. He had transferred into the computer science program from another school. He was a nice enough guy, but he was always late for class, and always late turning in assignments, and the programs he wrote worked, but were stylistically sloppy.

And I got assigned as his partner for a series of group programming projects in class. So we agreed on who would write which part of the project. I got mine done, and the due date was approaching, so in class I’d ask to see how it was coming, “Oh yeah, I’ll send it, I’ll send it.” But I didn’t get it, so I sent him an email – you know, the kind where you try to be polite but also communicate a sense of urgency?

“Hey, hope the project is coming along. It’s due tomorrow morning, so if you send it to me, I’ll get it turned in for us.” Well, I ended up staying up late finishing his part of the project because we were graded on the finished product and I wasn’t about to let my grade suffer. Same thing the next week, and the next. And I was getting really tired – literally – of staying up late doing his work.

And I was getting all worked up in a lather about it. So I had in mind to send him an email expressing my displeasure. You know, it’s easier to do that sort of thing over email than in person so you don’t have to look the person in the eye. Well, I was going to tell him how his approach to school wasn’t going to cut it in a place like this. And I was tired of doing his work for him. And he needed to get his act together. Along those lines.

That day, the campus pastor stopped me between classes. I was a student chaplain, and she said to me, “We just got a call from Charles’ mom. She says he’s severely depressed and really needs some help right now. Since you’re in his major, why don’t you go visit with him.” And my jaw just about hit the floor. He ended up dropping the class to ease his schedule so he could work with a mental health specialist and work out a plan and medication to manage the depression, and did just fine after that.

But my goodness, what damage could I have done if I’d sent him that email! He covered it so well with a cheerful, outgoing, friendly, charismatic personality. I had just assumed that he was irresponsible and had his priorities mixed up. I’d never thought to ask him how school was going and if there was anything I could do to help.

When I was in the college concert choir, which was often sort of like its own little church, our choir director would often share with the choir significant life events of the choir members: a death in the family, an achievement, a severe illness, an engagement. And every time before he would share such news with the choir, he would say, “Another reminder today of how each others’ lives are infinitely more complex than we can imagine. . .”

I’ve often reflected on that. We see in a mirror, dimly. There’s such an infinite range of possibilities of motivations and hopes and fears and emotions and experiences behind each person in each situation. It’s a simple grace we can offer to extend the benefit of the doubt to one another. And it’s a simple act of love to take the time to listen to one another for what others truly need, and not what we may think they need.

When I was growing up, there was a family in the community who lived in very poor conditions, a clay house with a shoddy roof and dirt floors. And so some of the churches in the area decided to do something about it, and they raised the money and the volunteer labor to build a house for this family. They thought it curious as they were building that the family didn’t help, and curiouser still that they weren’t terribly grateful when the work was finished, and then sold the house within a year and moved elsewhere.

Later on they realized that no one had ever really asked the family if they wanted or needed a new house, or to what their true needs were. So quickly our assumptions, even in the very best of intention, run us astray when we don’t take the time to listen attentively.

In Romans 12, Paul describes the path to love that is without hypocrisy: associating with the lowly and living in harmony and extending hospitality to strangers so as to cure ourselves from our tendency to think too much of our own thinking and thinking ourselves wiser than we really are. We see in a mirror, dimly.

We live in a world of division, separation, mistrust, suspicion, judgment, alienation. But abiding in Christ and in his mind and his life, regarding others as better than ourselves and looking to their interests before our own, we may love one another with the same love that Christ loved us and gave his life for us – love that overcomes division, love that reconciles, love that endures, love that forbears, love that cares, love that listens, love that is patient and kind and that gives and gives and gives out of the abundance given us. That is our witness for the world. May it be how our neighbors, how our friends, how our enemies, and indeed, how the world knows us. Amen.

Notes:
1. Palmer, 4. Palmer also lists several hallmarks of the divided life here.
2. Ibid., 6.

Love one another (and yourself)

May 4th, 2011 No comments

“Love one another (and yourself)” (John 13-17)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
April 10, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

A veil of confusion and anxiety
It is night. A veil of confusion and anxiety settles in among the disciples as long shadows cast fear into their souls and trouble their hearts. Indeed, the night will yet bring calculating betrayal and careful deceit as Jesus comes into the hands of those who have been plotting his death. His disciples themselves will turn away in fearful denial, and the Word who became flesh, through whom all things have come into being, will endure the shame and the agony of the cross.

And as all these shadows are stretching into the eventide, Jesus knows that his hour has come, and he gathers his disciples one last time. During supper, Jesus stoops to wash his disciples’ feet, and then he begins to help them through what is to come. As their teacher and friend, Jesus helps them to find their way among the fearful shadows gathering around.

These past weeks, we have been on a journey toward reconciliation as we follow Jesus along the way of the cross. It’s a journey that has its origin in God and in God’s desire for reconciliation with us, and it is a calling that we share for our lives together as God’s people, and as God’s ambassadors in the world.

Jesus’ disciples have followed Jesus along this same journey, and now, as shadowy forces are gathering around them, as the stakes are raised, and anxieties soar even higher, Jesus gathers them together as his friends. There are no clever parables to unravel at this hour. No sequel to the challenging and inspiring sermon on the mount. There’s nothing like the lofty and evocative rhetoric Paul would later use in his letters.

A new commandment
His disciples are fearful and uncertain. Their hearts are troubled, and Jesus knows this is no time for a big theological lecture. A comprehensive final examination is not what is called for. Instead, Jesus enters their worries, walks with them among the shadows, welcomes their timid questions, and embraces their fears with his love.

Jesus gives to his followers one singular new commandment, something solid to hold onto. Love one another. And he repeats it several times to be sure they get it. “I’ve loved you; now love one another.” Perhaps that’s what all this discipleship training boils down to: “Love one another.” Sure, it’s more complicated than three words – any congregation can tell you that – and the Spirit would later teach them more, but for right now, this is the core that they need. This is to be their overarching vision as they adjust to what it means to follow Jesus apart from his physical presence.

John would later even go so far as to say that just as Jesus revealed God, so too, the love of the community reveals God: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). The whole world will know that they are his disciples, Jesus says, by their love (John 13:35). “I give you a new commandment: Love one another.”

Loving ourselves
Now, I’d like to leave that all-encompassing new commandment above us and before us as we chase down an important little rabbit trail at this point. There’s an important part of loving others, and an important part of the journey toward reconciliation that we haven’t touched on yet and that the church has often struggled to find appropriate language to talk about, and that is loving ourselves.

I think that often we in our little corner of the church are acutely sensitive to the many ways that love of self becomes excessive, and the ways it wreaks so much havoc and distortion in relationships, or how excessive love of self leads to so much fear and pride and idolatry and violence. We’re so sensitive to it that we even struggle to talk about the gifts God has given us to be released in the church and in the world.

But equally dangerous to excessive love of self isn’t so much that sort of undue modesty, but rather an inability to see ourselves as God sees us – as God’s people, created good. I believe that inner loathing and shame distorts our relationships with God and with others in very different ways and for very different reasons – many of which we don’t even really begin to understand, but it is there nonetheless.

Shame and fear
Grace May, a Chinese American, grew up in a severely dysfunctional family, which ultimately resulted in her father abandoning them. In her community’s culture, such a family was considered to be incredibly shameful. Grace carried this shame and embarrassment with her for many years, trying to cover it up. She hated that part of herself, that family from which she could not escape. She recalls that as she grew older, “instead of treasuring friendships as gifts from God, [she] sought to win people’s affection. Then, after [she] had gained the trust of a friend, [she] would sabotage the relationship” because of this inner shame and self-loathing.1 It’s hard to love one another when we despise who we are.

Teacher Doug Frank observes:

I wonder if it is not nearly universal that, in varying degrees, we experience the world as an unsafe place, a place where we cannot really be ourselves, cannot be confident that we are acceptable, that others will love us, no matter what. I would hazard a guess that inside most of us, in relative measures, hides a person who feels small, perhaps pathetic or ridiculous or confused or inadequate, and often rather scared.2

We so often assume that we’re the only one who feels that way inside. “That’s what shame is about: it always singles you out as uniquely damaged goods,” says Frank.3 To hide ourselves and our shame and those bits about ourselves that are so fearful and awkward, we adopt disguises. The disciple Peter tried to disguise his inner fear and insecurity with false bravado, “Lord, I will go with you to prison and to death!” (Luke 22:33). Yet by morning, he had denied Jesus three times.

Where does this fear of being exposed for who we truly are come from? Frank notes that it’s almost as if we’re born into this world wondering, “Is this a safe place for me to be me? If I am me, will I be taken care of, accepted, affirmed, loved?”4

I think here in these final moments with his disciples, part of what Jesus is trying to do is to help them know that they can be who God has created them to be, even in his absence. I think Jesus knows how when a parent belittles a child, or ignores a child, or has an angry outburst at a child, the child gets the impression that deep down, she or he is “fundamentally deficient or ridiculous.”5 How much more so when a child suffers outright abuse.

Was Peter afraid that if he showed who he really was deep down inside at that moment – confused, afraid, troubled – that he would lose Jesus’ love? Is that the reason for the false bravado? Don’t we often feel as though we’re under constant scrutiny – whether from parents or peers or authorities, or even God – that someone is just waiting for us to mess up, to show who we really are. Isn’t that why we go to great lengths to conceal our weaknesses? Don’t we fear that those around us are judging us, even though they most likely love us? Do we even fear, deep down, that God is condemning us, even though God is love? Is that why we’re so afraid of having our weaknesses exposed?

Perfect love
John would later write that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), and Jesus gave his disciples a picture of what that perfect love looks like: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Again, Frank: In the cross, we see Jesus “in a most ungodly pose – naked, bound wounded, exposed to our contempt – and yet compassionate toward those who hung him there.” Jesus reveals that God is “more truly present to us as one who is vulnerable, seemingly powerless, and infinitely forgiving.”6

“What we have learned to be ashamed of in ourselves – our fear and helplessness and vulnerability – Jesus displayed openly”7 on the cross. We work so tirelessly to hide our nakedness and our vulnerability and our weakness, but Jesus has willingly embodied all this before our very eyes, “despising its shame” (Hebrews 12:2).

Part of the great mystery of Christian faith, part of the great power of the cross is that God’s power is made perfect in weakness, that when we are vulnerable, then Christ dwells within us, that when we are weak, then we are strong. When this happens to us by the Spirit’s power, when we start to wear what we consider weakness more openly, then shame starts to lose its power over us. Then our neighbors start to experience us as safer, and maybe they can become more honest about themselves instead of hiding behind relentless masks of confidence and perfection.

Free to be who we are as God’s people
I believe that part of the message Jesus was trying to communicate to his disciples, and part of the significance of the cross that stands before us, is that nothing, nothing, as Paul once so beautifully put it, neither life nor death, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39)!

We are free to be who God has created us to be because this perfect love has cast out fear. Jesus said to his disciples, “You did not choose me. I chose you.” We’re called to embrace reconciliation with God in Christ – no doubt. We’re called also to seek reconciliation with others. That’s perfectly clear. And I think the biblical call to reconciliation also extends to seeking reconciliation with ourselves – of accepting who we are as God’s children, indeed chosen and dearly loved.

The world is not a safe place for us to be who God has created us to be. . . but Jesus is. “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus said. “My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27). I have said this to you,” he said to his disciples that night, as the shadows were gathering, “so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Grace May, the Chinese American who grew up in a deeply dysfunctional home, remembers that a turning point in her life, when she began to emerge from the shadows of self-loathing and paralyzing shame, was when her congregation was sharing communion, and the pastor said to them, “If you feel unworthy, this table is for you.”8 And Grace began to find healing in her weakness, no longer hiding behind disguises masking her family’s “shame.”

Love one another
I think part of any ability we have to keep the new commandment to love one another comes from that assurance, from those words of peace and affirmation that we are no longer servants but friends of Jesus, that we are welcome at the table. That doesn’t mean we’re perfect. It doesn’t mean we don’t seek to grow ever more into Christ’s likeness. But the more we can embrace who we are, the more we can be vulnerable to love one another, and I think the more we can even be honest and open before God, who loves us. How much freer are we to love others and to love God when we know at the core of our being that God loves us?

On the night that he was betrayed, as the shadows of fear were assembling their deathly power, Jesus concludes his last moments with his disciples by praying to God, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22-23).

In our love for one another, in our unity with one another and with Christ, we become a witness to the world that God is love. May we, by God’s perfect grace, find that unity within ourselves, with one another, and with almighty God as we hear afresh those simple words to us: “Love one another.” Amen.

Notes:
1 Grace Y. May, “The Family Table,” in Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross, ed. Mark Baker, 139.
2 Doug Frank, “Naked but Unashamed,” in Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross, ed. Mark Baker, 125.
3 Frank, 124.
4 Ibid., 126.
5 Ibid., 127.
6 Ibid., 131.
7 Ibid., 132.
8 May, 140.