5th Sunday of Easter, Year C. April 28, 2013. (Text: John 31:31-35.)
Don’t you get aggravated by commercials on TV? Especially the ones you’ve seen five hundred times? But advertising is important. If you’re in business, and people can’t recognize your business, pretty soon you’re going to be out of business. Whether you’re selling cars or toothpaste or beer, you need consumers to recognize your brand and want what you’re selling. Advertising is everywhere now. Pretty soon we’re going to see big signs on Montana lakes with messages like, “This boat ramp is brought to you by Evinrude Outboard Motors. Have fun on the water!”
Churches advertise too. We have a signboard out front here, and at Christmas we put an ad in the local paper. But signs and ads just offer information; they can’t stimulate an “appetite” for our church in the people who see them.
Today’s gospel takes us back to before the Resurrection, back to something that happened at the Last Supper. St. John wrote, “During supper Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” He washed everyone’s feet, even Judas’—ignoring their complaints that this was not something he should be doing. After Judas had gone out into the night, Jesus said to the others: “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.”
After the Resurrection and before he returns to the Father, Jesus is going to tell them: “Go, and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And remember: I’m with you always, even to the end of the ages.” They’re sent out to make as many MORE disciples as they possibly can. That will be their life’s work. So it’s vital that they understand exactly what they are going to be “selling,” what Jesus has given them that other people are going to want--their love for one another.
Jesus said “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” The commandment to love was not new. But Jesus’ commandment that night WAS new. He said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” There’s ordinary love, and there’s the way Jesus loves!
What Jesus’ disciples offer the world is not a set of theological principles. And Jesus didn’t say, “Everyone will know you’re my disciples if you interpret the Bible this way.” Instead, he said, “Everyone will know you’re my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Being a disciple of Jesus isn’t about having all the right answers to theological questions. The song doesn’t say, “They will know we are Christians ‘cause we’re right, ‘cause we’re right. They will know we are Christians ‘cause we’re right.” It says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” —And everybody wants to be loved. (Don’t they?)
The love we’re talking about here is a love that can be commanded, so it can’t be the kind that depends on emotional reflexes. It’s not “affectionate feelings” Jesus is talking about here, but behavior—things we can choose to do for others, just as surely as Jesus chose to wash Judas’ feet, even though he knew what Judas was going to do.
It’s strange but true that the hardest person in the world to love is often somebody close to us, like our neighbor, or a co-worker, or maybe even our own sister or brother. It’s harder to love someone who’s always rubbing up against us—and rubbing us the wrong way!—than to love somebody we rarely have to deal with.
Here’s a story that illustrates one dimension of the kind of love for one another that Jesus wants us to share. (I didn’t write this story, but I did re-write it.)
Two brothers, Bob (who was younger) and Mike (who was older), lived on adjoining farms. When their dad had died twenty-five years before, he’d divided the family farm between his two children, giving each boy a farm of his own. Mike built a house and raised his family on one farm; Bob did the same on the other. The two had been farming side-by-side all those years, sharing equipment and swapping labor and supplies, all without a hitch. But all of a sudden their life-long partnership fell apart. It began with a little misunderstanding that didn’t get resolved, something so insignificant that nobody could remember exactly what it had been all about. But the misunderstanding grew into fault-finding and finally exploded into an exchange of the most hateful kind of words. Our brothers (or sisters) always know what kind of meanness most effectively gets under our skin. This big blowup was followed by two years of acting as if the other brother did not exist.
One summer morning after breakfast there was a knock on Mike’s door. He opened it to find a strapping young man with a beard standing there. “I’m lookin’ for work,” the man said. “Do you have a job I could help with? I can fix most anything. Build stuff too.” Mike looked out to the gravel drive and saw a battered blue pickup there, with faded white lettering on the door, “Joshua the Handyman.”
“Absolutely,” Mike said. “I have a job for you. Come with me.” He took the handyman out to a pole barn, where he showed him a stack of lumber that had been curing for a year and dozens of fence posts neatly piled beside it. Then he said, “Now let’s go out back and I’ll show you what I want you to do.”
When they were outside, he pointed and said, “You see that ditch there? …Looks like a creek? Over yonder on the other side is my neighbor’s place. Fact is, it’s my brother’s place. There used to just be a pretty meadow there between us, but not too long back my brother took his bulldozer and dug him a ditch from back up yonder all the way to the levee. Then he busted through the levee and let the river into the ditch. So now he has himself a twenty foot “moat.” The so-and-so did this just to spite me, but I’m gonna go him one better. I want you to take that lumber and those posts and build me a fence—make it 7-foot high!—all along this side of his ditch. I don’t want to look at his “moat” or his dang place, or him either anymore. Ever.”
Joshua the handyman said, “I understand your situation. Leave it to me. I’ve got all the other tools, just lend me your post-hole digger and I’ll give you just what you need.”
Mike found the post-hole digger and helped the handyman haul out the lumber and posts, then he and the wife were off to town for the day. Joshua worked ‘til nearly sunset, measuring, digging holes, sawing wood and building. About six-thirty when Mike and his wife came home, the handyman had just finished his job and hauled most of his tools back to his truck. Mike’s eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped. Instead of a seven foot high fence along the ditch to hide everything on the far side, the handyman had built a handsome bridge from Mike’s side over to the other. It was very fine, even had handrails and all. As Mike stood there speechless, gaping and steaming mad, his brother Bob came striding down the slope on the far side, right up to the bridge. He was smiling, and it looked like there was a tear in his eye.
“Big Brother,” Bob said, “You’re quite the man. You went and built this bridge after all I’ve said and done to you.” He came forward a little onto the bridge. Mike stood at his end, then took a few steps forward, too. Bob held out his arms to him, and they met in the middle. His brother hugged him and said “Can you forgive me?” Mike replied, with a catch in his voice, “Yeah, I can. I do forgive you.”
The two of them stood there for a long minute, just smiling at each other. Then Mike looked over his shoulder to see the handyman walking away and called out, “No! Wait, Joshua. There’s more to do! There’s a whole bunch of things you can help us with.”
“I’d love to stay on,” the handyman said, “but you can do all the rest, you and Bob. I’ve got more bridges to build. —See ya.”
The world will know we’re Christians because we love each other, not because we’re always right. Sad to say, if we were just able to obey the Handyman’s New Commandment, no church would ever need to advertise. How we treat one other would be all the advertising we’d need.
For pdf version of this sermon, click here