February 13, 2017

Heard It

On the night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus gathered his disciples together and said,
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciple, if you have love for one another.
The church reads these words every year on the Thursday evening of Holy Week, a day often called Maundy Thursday, a title derived from the same Latin root as the English word “mandate.” In essence, the church regards the commemoration of Jesus’ last night with his disciples as “New Mandate or New Commandment Thursday.”

There’s only one problem with this designation. The commandment to love really wasn’t a new one.

“That sounds awfully familiar, Jesus,” one of the disciples must have been tempted to say. “Are you sure we haven’t heard that one before?”

Well, of course, they had.

Repeated commandments to love give life and vitality to the Law of Moses and the traditions of Israel in which the disciples had been raised.

There’s Leviticus 19:18, for example, which reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

There’s Deuteronomy 10, as well, a passage that first describes God as the One “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers,” then commands the people to “also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

In fact, this idea that there’s a direct connection between the faithful’s experience of God’s love and the expectation that they love neighbors, and strangers, and others well, is the bedrock on which biblical notions of discipleship, faithfulness, and ethics stand.

Prophets, like Micah, made this clear.

Reminding the people that God broke their bonds of slavery and gave them Moses and a Law to set them free, Micah pointed them to the only appropriate response.

With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

We are loved by God and empowered to love others in God’s name. In Jesus’ day, this was already an ancient teaching and territory he had covered with his disciples.

Remember when a Pharisee tried to stump him.

“Teacher,” he asked, “which commandment in the law in the greatest?”

[Jesus] said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with 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.”

So what was Jesus up to on that last night with his friends?

Love one another, a new commandment?

What was he getting at?

I think the Sermon on the Mount helps us understand more clearly our mandate.

This morning we’ve read a section of Jesus’ most famous sermon in which he sets his teachings over and against the law in a series of “You have heard it said, but I say” statements.

“You have heard it said ‘You shall not murder,’ but I say that if you are angry with a brother or sister or insult them you will be liable to judgement.”

“You have heard it said ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I say everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery.”

“You have heard it said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say if someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek to them as well.”

There’s no doubt that Jesus hoped this riff would inspire the people to elevate their actions, attitudes, and their imaginations. We do well to appreciate that while there’s no evidence he ever required any of his followers to pluck out a wandering eye or lop off an offending hand, Jesus did push his disciples to be more than a community that kept the letter of the law. He wanted them to embody the law’s spirit and highest ideals. He wanted them to be a sign of God’s beloved community, even in the midst of a broken world.

Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon describe Jesus’ intent like this,

In Matthew 5, Jesus repeatedly cites an older command, already tough enough to keep in itself, and then radically deepens its significance, not to lay some gigantic ethical burden on the backs of potential ethical heroes, but to illustrate what is happening in our midst. This instance is not a law from which deductions can be casuistically drawn; rather, it is an imaginative metaphor, which hopes to produce a shock within our imaginations so that the hearer comes to see his or her life in a radical new way. (Resident Aliens, p. 84)
The shocking reality about the radical new way Jesus wants us to live is that it is inseparable from the shocking reality about who God is and what God does.

Yesterday, February 11, marked the 27th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison after serving 27 years for protesting South Africa’s racist policy of apartheid. Mandela went on to become his nation’s first black president and one of the world’s most respected leaders. He was also a Christian whose experience of tremendous suffering because of cruel policies that were often supported and carried out by other believers not only showed him the truth about God, but also the truth about how we should live.

Mandela articulated this truth in remarks he delivered at an Easter conference in 1994 where the prisoner-turned-politician put of the mantle of a preacher.

Mandela said,

Each Easter marks the rebirth of our faith. It marks the victory of our risen Saviour over the torture of the cross and the grave...

Our Messiah, born like an outcast in a stable, and executed like criminal on the cross.

Our Messiah, whose life bears testimony to the truth that there is no shame in poverty: Those who should be ashamed are they who impoverish others.

Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being persecuted: Those who should be ashamed are they who persecute others.

Whose life proclaims the truth that there is no shame in being conquered: Those who should be ashamed are they who conquer others.

Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being dispossessed: Those who should be ashamed are they who dispossess others.

Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being oppressed: Those who should be ashamed are they who oppress others.

The shocking reality about the radical new way Jesus wants us to live is that it is inseparable from the shocking reality about who God is and what God does.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invites those who would follow him to center their lives in the character and abundance of God’s mercy and holiness. He isn’t interested—in this sermon or anywhere else—in teaching us how to do enough good things so that others will think of us as good people. He doesn’t want to teach us what’s the least that we can do and still go to heaven when we die. He isn’t interested in answering any question that’s based on the erroneous assumption that God’s blessings are in any way limited or scarce.

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” Jesus said, “and all these things (freedom from worry, freedom from want) shall be added unto you.”

Jesus wants us to encounter the expanse and power and beauty of God’s amazing grace, to know God’s grace is active in this world and present to all people, and to live our life together accordingly.

Or said another way,

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciple, if you have love for one another.
Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.