A New Commandment Church
The two most monumental events that have changed the course of human history took place in an upper room.
The first upper room is a drab flat over a dingy laundry in a poor district of London in the 19th century. Through the dirty windows we see a man working passionately at a round table piled high with stacks of articles and worn manuscripts. The man is Karl Marx, the father of Communism. He is writing a book with the title Das Kapital – a book destined to change the history of nations and revolutionize the world. In it Marx argues that only strife, rigid control of human lives, and a godless philosophy of history will give the world the perfect society.
The second upper room is located in the one of the oldest cities in the world – Jerusalem – in the 1st century of the Common Era. There is also a table in that room and around it sit 13 men. One of the men takes bread and wine and passes them to the others to eat and drink. So meaningful is this ceremony that it becomes celebrated by billions of people to the present day. After the ceremony, the host who shared the bread and wine with the others, talks to them for the last time. He is Jesus of Nazareth. The words he speaks change the course of history. His message is one of faith in God, love for people, freedom, and the recognition of all people as children of God. It’s a message that revolutionizes the world. Among the words of Jesus in that upper room is this charge to his disciples: “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 disciples, if you have love for one another.”
No one speaks with greater sincerity than when they know they will soon die. In my office I have the funeral instructions of a number of parishioners, all of whom recognize that our time in this world is limited. When I speak with these people, there is no fooling around. It’s a time of frankness – a moment to speak as never before, to say how you feel, what you think, where you stand, and what you want. In this framework Jesus tells his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” This is the message of Christianity. This is the heart of the Gospel. Jesus did not say, “Now friends, I think it would be a nice thing if you love people. How much better the world would be if you did that.” No, Jesus issued a command – “love one another as I have loved you.” This is what it means to be a Christian. Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
So what are some of the characteristics of Christ-like love and how might we apply them to our own lives and to our parish?
For one thing, Christ-like love is all-inclusive. It is a love that breaks the boundaries and barriers that we impose to pit one group against another. Jesus wants us to turn our institutions, ideas, and paradigms upside down and inside out by reminding our world that every human being, regardless of race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, or sexual orientation is a child of God. For when are cut, we all bleed. When we are tickled, we all laugh. And when we hurt, we all cry. We are all God’s children. We make distinctions among ourselves, but God never does.
Years ago a reporter was covering the war in Sarajevo. The reporter noticed a little girl walking slowly in front of him. He discovered that she had been severely wounded by sniper fire. Before the reporter could react, a man rushed over and scooped up the little girl and pleaded with the reporter to drive him to the hospital. Without hesitating, they loaded her into the back seat and took off for medical help.
After a minute or two, the man said urgently, “Please hurry, she is dying!” The reporter drove faster. A few minutes later, the man in the back seat said, “Hurry, please, my little girl is still breathing!” The reporter sped on. A minute or two later the man said, “Hurry, please, my little girl is still warm.” Soon they pulled up to the hospital, but it was too late. The girl had died in the man’s arms.
The man and the reporter walked somberly to the restroom to wash the little girl’s blood from their hands. As they were washing, the man said, “Now comes the hardest part.”
“What’s that?” asked the reporter. The man said, “Now I have to go find that little girl’s father and tell him she is gone.” The reporter was stunned and said, “But I thought you were the father! I thought she was your child!” The man replied, “Aren’t they all our children?”
Aren’t they? Aren’t we all God’s children?
God never intended God’s boundaries to be less than the whole world. Therefore, none of us have a monopoly on God’s love. God loves everyone everywhere, all of us, all the time. If we try to restrict God’s love to ourselves, we cut ourselves off from that love. Why? The Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin may have said it best: “It is impossible to love Christ without loving others, and it is impossible to love others without moving nearer to Christ.”
Every human being deserves to feel that he or she is loved. Every human being deserves to know that there is a bond that nothing in this world can break. The first characteristic of Christ-like love is that it is all-inclusive.
The second characteristic of Christ-like love is that it is supportive.
By that I mean the church should lift people up rather than bring people down. It should encourage people to “keep on keeping on” – to be decent and compassionate human beings as well as good and faithful servants of Christ.
Early on in my ministry as a priest I made a commitment to bless people rather than to curse them; to affirm them rather than to judge them; to count people in rather than to kick people out; to be inclusive rather than exclusive.
When I was a priest in Pennsylvania, a parishioner came to my office one day and said, “The trouble with you is that you don’t preach any hellfire and brimstone sermons. You’ve got to be stronger in the pulpit and lay down the law to these people!”
I thanked the person for her suggestion, but responded, “My goal is to preach more about heaven than hell, more about grace than law, more about love than fear.”
After hearing my answer, the woman said she was leaving the parish to find a good hellfire and brimstone church. I wished her well in her journey to hell. As she left my office, the words of Jonathan Swift came to mind: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”
I think I was on solid ground with that woman. Did you ever notice that when anyone went up to Jesus, they usually left feeling better about themselves? The Samaritan woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, Bartimaeus the blind beggar, Zaachaeus the tax collector – Jesus never told them they were dirty rotten sinners going to hell. Rather he said they were beloved children of God. When Jesus did get angry, he did so at those who would judge and condemn rather than bless and affirm.
There’s a lesson here for the church, isn’t there? God wants the church to be a place of support for people who are broken and battered by the blows of life. The church should be the one place where we can make a lot of mistakes and still feel loved, accepted and forgiven. The church, at its best, is people limping toward the sunrise, but know God loves them, everyone.
Do you remember the film The Color Purple? It’s about a group of slaves on a southern plantation where they are abused, battered and cruelly mistreated. One of the characters, Sophie, experienced some kindnesses in a dark and troubling time in her life that deeply affected her. Looking back on those kindnesses, she says, “It was then I knew that there was a God.” Intuitively she knew that this is the best evidence we have of the existence of God. In an unloving world, there are yet people who really do care about others.
Shouldn’t it be that way with the church – to be a community of caring, kindness and support for people going through tough times? We all need the support of one another. None of us can journey through life alone, without a helping hand, or a listening ear, or a shoulder to lean on. We all need someone sometime. And when we do, the church should be there for us.
Christ-like love is all-inclusive. Christ-like love is supportive. And lastly, Christ-like love is gentle.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. We are quick to judge other people, but we are slow to love, accept and understand them. We can be very hard on people, even our fellow Christians in the same parish, acting without listening, judging without knowing the facts, imagining the worst about others rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt. I have seen this again and again in my years in the priesthood. The church, to its shame, is very good at shooting its wounded.
And I include myself here. Let me tell you a story about happened to me when I was a young priest in New York State. When I got to the parish, I saw this woman’s name on the membership rolls, but never saw the woman in church. So I asked several parishioners about this lady. One parishioner said, “She doesn’t come to church anymore. She used to be so faithful and active, but something happened. She stopped coming to church about three years ago, and my, has she changed! She won’t have anything to do with anyone anymore. We think it’s because she inherited some money. Those who have stopped over to her house say she is always in very expensive, flimsy negligees, wearing expensive perfume, with a glass of liquor always in reach. She watches television continually, and what’s worse, while her husband’s at work, a strange man drives up, goes in and stays with her about an hour, and then leaves. I think she’s really gone to hell, so why bother with her.”
And I took that advice. I never visited the woman thinking she was a lost soul. Then she died and her husband asked me to conduct the funeral service. I told the husband that his wife had been dropped from the membership rolls but that I would still do the funeral. He was shocked, and then he said, “My wife had an incurable disease which hit her three years ago. She bought the perfume to cover the odor. She wore flimsy negligees so the weight of the clothing wouldn’t hurt her abdomen. The liquor was bona fide medicine. The man who came once a week was a specialist from out of town. She was secretive because she was too ashamed to share her sickness with anyone except the family. And yet, she really did love God. She would be brokenhearted if she knew she was no longer a member of the church.”
How quick we are to judge and how slow we are to love and keep on loving in spite of all outward appearances. We need to be gentler with people just as Jesus is gentle to us.
Love that is all-inclusive, love that is supportive, and love that is gentle – this kind of love would be impossible for any of us without Jesus. We can’t achieve this love by our own willpower, but if we live close to Jesus we will find ourselves becoming more Christ-centered and living more Christ-like. We will begin to move from, “I ought and I must but I can’t” to his encouraging word, “In my power you can and you will.” Today, ask Jesus that his love not only come to you but shine through you to all people. After all, the power of Christ’s love changes the world, you and I included.
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
April 24, 2016
Text – John 13:31-35
Easter 5, C