May 7th 2017
Romans 13:8-14 Acts 2:42-47
If today’s scripture reading (from the Acts of the Apostles) sounds vaguely familiar, it is because it was only two weeks ago that we read the verses that immediately precede today’s. Peter, who, with the disciples, had just experienced the Holy Spirit, had been defending their faith to the throngs of Jews in the streets of Jerusalem, there to celebrate the feast of Shavuot, (which marked the day the Israel people, through Moses, received the commandments from God on Mt. Sanai). And I mentioned that Luke records, that after listening to Peter speak, about 3,000 of those Jews repented and were baptized.
So my question to you is, if you were being questioned about your faith, like Peter had, how would you explain this fella Jesus you say you believe in? What exactly is it you believe? If you were asked, ‘if he was the son of God, as your Bible says, why did he come to live among men and women, and why 2000 years ago,’ what would your reply be? How would you explain Jesus to your questioner?
I know all the answers we’ve been trained to respond with, some of us (like me) have been raised in the church since before we were old enough to read, to repeat the ‘pat’ answers to those questions: ‘He came to save our souls, to bring us salvation, to wash our sins away.’ These are the answers that we too often parrot, when someone outside of our ‘churched’ circle of friends, brings up the subject of God, or faith, or religion. Instinctively we retreat to those “buzz” phrases, mostly because to give a more in-depth answer would require us to think beyond those phrases, and we don’t feel on very solid ground when are challenged to explain them… without resorting to parroting more of the same phrases. These are the answers that quickly turn away someone who had been sincerely questioning. I also realize that to give something greater-than a superficial answer, to these pretty ‘weighty’ questions, requires that you give them some really personal introspective thought.
It is almost universally accepted by Biblical scholars that that fella Jesus lived somewhere between thirty and thirty-three years, and that his ministry began about three years before he was crucified. If that is true, (and we feel confident in this through the references in the Gospels to independent historically-verifiable events), why was it necessary for Jesus to wander around the country-side teaching the common people for three full years? Why not go directly to the place where all Jews believed God resided, the Temple in Jerusalem – to proclaim God had anointed him to announce “the year of the Lord was at hand” instead of going to the tiny synagogue in his home-town village of Nazareth? Why not just save our souls – wash our sins away, immediately? God had to have had a plan, of why Jesus needed to spend three years in ministry to both Jews and Gentiles.
Something said this past Tuesday by the developer of the lesson plan we are currently using for our Bible Study got me thinking about whom this Jesus was, and what some of my answers to those questions might be. The resource we are using is presented by Rev. Mike Slaughter (a United Methodist minister from Ohio). I went back and watched the video because I wanted to quote it exactly in the words he used, which were,
“here’s what Jesus said to us, ‘a new commandment I give to you’, this is the only new thing that Jesus taught us, virtually everything else he just expounded upon or gave greater clarity to from the old covenant, the Old Testament, but here’s the one new thing, he said, ‘love other people as I love you, by this all people will know that you are my disciples.’[i]” [ii]
Now of course Jesus expressed this thought many times, often in broader and even more inclusive language; he said “Love one another”, he said “love your neighbor, as much as you love yourself”[iii] he even said “love your enemies.”[iv] In each case, when he says “love” he uses the verb for love which means a selfless, self-sacrificial love; a love that most of us rarely share with anyone. When Slaughter made the statement, I was not struck by ‘what’ Jesus said, (because I’ve been preaching that lesson here at Greenwood Baptist for 8 ½ years); what struck me was that this was the only new thing Jesus ever taught us. And even though, in the course of those 8 ½ years, I have probably said this, or something very similar, hearing it expressed exactly the way Slaughter put it stuck in my mind. And when you give it some serious thought, you’ll realize he is absolutely correct, it is the only new thing Jesus taught us. If you use one of those Bibles which highlight Jesus’ words in red ink, you’ll recognize that, in those moments when Jesus is ‘teaching’ us, he was, either directly quoting, paraphrasing, or citing the lessons which were written in the Hebrew texts. But when we see Jesus in action, when he is interacting with people, when he is healing, when he is reaching across divides, we see him demonstrating the kind of love he describes in this one commandment.
We live today in what feels like maybe the most divisive time ever – I doubt that it truly is – but it feels that way to us. And whatever response you might have to that statement, it is probably triggered by our current socio-political climate, which, on one level is certainly an explicit example of how divisive we can be. But when I said divisive I really meant on a much broader continuum. Both up the spectrum to a global level, where across the globe, neighboring state suspects and fears neighboring state, and each harbors protectionist us-against-the-world perspectives; and down the spectrum, to the level of our personal interactions with those we love and interact on a daily basis, and with total strangers we just happen to bump into… and despise even when we don’t know the first thing about them. We’ve actually invented words like “trolling” to describe how we cruelly attack individuals we don’t know, pure and simply because we might have a difference of opinion from them.
But this world, our world, does not need to be that divisive; there is an alternative path. Like any other time, the early church certainly had its share of disagreements and problems, but Luke describes how they found a way to get beyond those things. They devoted themselves to studying the lessons that Jesus’ followers taught them; they shared their meals; they shared their worship; they understood that the source of all their blessings was the Lord, and so they shared that too; they shared their lives. Paul is even more explicit, he describes the pitfalls that lead to the kind of divisiveness we know and live with, but he encouraged the members in his churches to follow the commandments and to put the things that would divide them behind them; and then tells them that the only way to do that is to follow that one great commandment Jesus gave them – to love one another. He tells them if they can love one another, all those other commandments will take care of themselves.
If we could only do what they had done, if we could love our neighbor, love one another, if we could love even our enemies, and speak well of those who would harm us, we would begin to break down the barriers of divisiveness.
So the next time you’re tempted to respond with the easy, pat answers to that question he put to his own disciples, “who do you say I am?” think, before answering, “He came to wash my sins,” or “He came to offer salvation.” Think about what his answer had been.
He said he came to stand with the poor against those who would oppress them – he came to teach us love. He came to offer compassion to the widow whose son had died – he came to teach us love. He came to offer spiritual abundance to those who lived in moral poverty; he came to offer peace and contentment to those who lived with the barest minimum – he came to teach us love. He came to offer escape and freedom to those entrapped in lives ruled by their own greed and lust; he came to offer release to those ensnared by their misunderstanding of God – he came to teach us love. He came to bring healing into lives and relationships infected with doubt and abuse; he came to give hope and encouragement to those who were wounded and broken hearted – he came to teach us love.
The reason Jesus spent three years in ministry to Jews and Gentiles was to demonstrate for us what love is, to show us who God asks us to love, and to teach us how we too, can live that kind of love. It was the one thing Jesus taught us while he walked among us. The one thing that can change your life, the one thing that defines all those platitudes and buzz phrases; He showed us what love looks like, He taught us to love.
— Amen ―
[i] John 13:34-35 (CEV)
[ii] Renegade Gospel, The Rebel Jesus, Chapter 5 The Way of the Cross, Rev. Mike Slaughter, Abingdon Press
[iii] Mark 12:31 (CEV)
[iv] Luke 6:27,35 (CEV)