An Easter People: Part 3
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Love is the mark of the church. Love, if we take Jesus at his word, is what sets Easter people apart from the crowds.
This lesson from John’s gospel takes place during the Last Supper. In addition to introducing the practices of communion and foot washing, John records Jesus’ words as a kind of lengthy farewell address. And these few verses lie at its heart: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”
It is also from these verses that our Holy Week celebration of Maundy Thursday gets its name. “Maundy” is an Old English word that means, quite simply, “commandment”. We might call it Commandment Thursday, which sounds kind of off-putting, frankly…except that the command, in this case, is to love one another.
Love is what marks Easter people.
We have been using this season of Easter, the seven weeks between Easter Sunday and Pentecost, to explore what it means to be Easter people. To follow Jesus means to live beyond the good news of Easter, to know that Maundy Thursday is not where the story ends, commandment or not. It’s why ancient Christians chose Sunday as the day of worship: the seventh day was for resting, but the first day was a reminder that life begins again at Easter. It’s why the font has eight sides, as those who are baptized are ushered into this new, Easter life.
New life, and the love that marks it, is what shapes Easter people.
Is the church known as a place of love?
This past week, I attended my cousin’s funeral. He lived well into his 90’s, and so it was an opportunity for celebration. He was a devout Catholic, and so, as was fitting, his church held a memorial mass. They were very kind about the fact that communion was not offered to all, but it was still made clear that non-Catholics were not welcome to receive. Though I am not a Catholic, I appreciate the reasons for this practice. And yet, as the priest consecrated the elements, it was Jesus’ words of invitation, not the politely worded doctrine in the bulletin, which rang in my ears: “Take, eat, all of you…”
The disconnect between promise and execution seemed so obvious. And yet, it’s easy game to find fault with others when we look from outside. Where, I wondered, do we cause those same kinds of disconnects? Is there language we use, our own Presby-speak code, which leaves others wanting a church in-ear translator? When we say, “greet the session in the Narthex after the benediction,” greet the who in the which after the what now?
And what about our communion practices? Back in Reformation days, if you wanted to receive, you needed a chip as proof that you had done adequate preparation. It was a kind of a confession-lite. When I was a child, we were required to take a communion readiness class so that we would know what all the fuss was about. Today, the requirement is that you must be baptized – it doesn’t matter what kind of baptism, but baptism nonetheless – in order to receive communion. And even that is up-for-grabs, and I think rightly so.
After all, how many of us can explain in detail what it is that communion means? A show of hands from all who can explain Calvin’s understanding of the “real, spiritual presence.” Or is it enough to know that, by participating, you belong to something bigger than yourself?
My wife Elizabeth tells the story of growing up Episcopalian. As a child, before she was deemed ready to receive, she would go up for communion with her mother. When she got the priest’s blessing instead of the bread and cup, she would scream her head off…because whatever she may or may not have grasped of any kind of doctrine, she knew she was being left out of something special. And, isn’t that its own disconnect between preaching and practice?
And speaking of disconnects, how about a lengthy explanation of communion practices on a Sunday on which we are not going to have communion?
But I digress…the point in all of this is Jesus’ command to love: a love that spreads the table wider than we can even imagine. After all, when Jesus broke bread in that Upper Room, he even served it to the one who went out to betray him. There is no greater love than a love that includes those who would do us in. Who among us is willing to love that broadly?
What does that love look like in our lives? Not just any love, mind you, but a love that reflects the love of Jesus himself, a love that is willing to go to any length, even to the cross, to open wide the gates of the kingdom?
Last Sunday, as the people of Boston were still reeling from the marathon bombings and high-stakes police chase, I came across an article written by Boston native Michael Rogers, who is about to be ordained as a Jesuit priest. Writing an open letter to suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, he penned words that, to me, demonstrated the kind of love of which Jesus speaks:
I am glad that you are going to prison, and I hope that you will have many long years there…I hope that no one I love will ever be threatened by you again, but I can't hate you. I can't hate you because whatever you brought into Boston was enough hate for a good long while. I won't and can't hate any more. I can't hate you because I remember being nineteen. I thought many things were a good idea which weren't. I never would have went where you were with that, but I was certainly not an adult…I can't hate you because, even though you did unspeakable things...somehow you are still my brother and your death can never be my gain…I don't and can't hate you. I will love and pray for you, because somehow your sin was turned for good, and my community and the people I love will only be stronger in the end.
What does it look like to love with the love of Jesus here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian? Where is it that we are being commanded to love beyond the barriers we may have constructed? Where is it that you are being commanded to love without limits? Is there a neighbor or a friend who needs to know how loved they are? Is there someone in your life whom you know is aching in loneliness, who needs to know that they, too, belong at the table? Is there a kindness you can offer to rebuke spite and the ill it intends?
Love, the love of Jesus, is what marks us as the church. It is what sets us apart as Easter people. It is what ushers in the new heaven and the new earth. Are we a people of love?