In the Name...
Pastor John sat comfortably in his big pulpit chair on the stage while the congregation finished the final stanza of a song. He looked out over the 1,000 people before him and once more mentally reviewed the points of his sermon. He had spent many hours crafting each point and tailoring each illustration to support his theme for the day. The title of his message, advertised on the signboard out front, was simple enough, "Love One Another", and he had prepared a first-class exposition of that theme.
But, just as Pastor John was feeling quite pleased with himself, God spoke to him and said, “John. How many sermons have you preached on love?” Now, being Pentecostal, Pastor John had no problem with the idea of God speaking, but he found the timing a little curious. “I don’t know Lord", he replied, "maybe ten or twelve.” There was a pause and then God said, "Have they done any good?"
The praise band played the final notes and the congregation settled in their theatre-style chairs and waited for the sermon. The Lord’s question was ringing in his ears as he stood silent in the pulpit and he began his sermon with a faltering voice, “Love one another.” He paused, and then he went and sat down.
People looked at one another, thinking that they'd missed something. They were accustomed to a sermon lasting an hour, not a second. Just then, Pastor John got up, walked back to the pulpit, and this time he said, in a stronger voice, “Love one another.” Then, he, again, sat down.
A general stirring spread through the congregation. People began asking each other if they knew what the pastor meant. Finally, an elder stood up and spoke. “I think that I understand what Pastor John means. He wants me to love you.” he said, pointing to someone in the row behind him. “But, how can I love you, when I don't even know who you are.” With that, he introduced himself and began to meet the people behind him.
Others got up and introduced themselves to people they had often seen, but never met. Conversations began, phone numbers were exchanged, invitations extended. For the rest of the worship time people just milled around and talked to one another. And before they all went home, some money had been raised to help a woman's medical bills, a first-time visiting family was given a good lead on a day-care, a piano teacher was found for a young boy, a job interview arranged for a man out of work, and in a hundred other ways 1,000 strangers who'd come for the show, made a connection. Years later, Pastor John considered this to have been his most effective sermon.
On the night of his betrayal and arrest, our Lord issued his final commandment to his disciples, his last words to his closest followers. With death staring him in the face, what was the most important thing he wanted them to remember? Strange as it may seem, his first concern was not about doctrine or theology; it wasn't about liturgy, program, or property, or even, surprisingly, morality. It was about relationship.
You see, Jesus knew that his followers would argue about doctrine and liturgy and property and everything else. He knew that people would interpret his teaching to conform to their own certainties and that others would oppose them from other certainties. But, when that happened, rather than fight and hurt one another, he wanted his disciples, whatever their certainties, to be known by their love for one another.
It's a pity that we often treat these words "love one another" as vague and sentimental, like the song, “All you need is love” - whatever that means. But, in fact, to fulfil this commandment of Jesus, you need much more than just a vague sentiment; you need deeds. You need to do something to prove it because what's the rest of the commandment? Love one another - as I have loved you. As I have loved you.
So, how has Jesus loved us? Vaguely, sentimentally? Or has he done something, something specific, concrete, to prove it? Something, perhaps, that we remember in Holy Week and Easter. And why did he do that? Because he loved us, yes, but also because he knew us. He knew us. As the Psalmist said, "When I was still in the womb, you knew me."
The artist Pablo Picasso once lost his passport while traveling in Europe. When he came to a border crossing, he explained his predicament to the guard. This was a more informal era than our own and Picasso hoped that because he was famous he would be allowed to pass. The guard, however, handed him a pencil and a sheet of paper, and told the artist to draw something. Picasso did so and only then the guard was convinced he was indeed who he claimed to be. The guard had to be sure he knew him.
Shortly before Jesus issued his last commandment that night in the Upper Room, he took a basin of water and a towel and washed the feet of his disciples. He did not wait to be asked. He did not ask their permission. He took the initiative. And that's an important lesson for us.
So often, we are ready to respond, but not to initiate. I'm sure that in Pastor John's church if he had announced that a woman needed help with her bills or that a relocating family needed help finding a dentist or that someone needed help finding a new job, then people would have stepped forward to help, gladly. But, that's the wrong model. Even the best pastor in the world can only, and this is borne out by numerous studies, only really know about 150 church members and that's regardless of church size. 150 is it - tops. These mega-churches with thousands of members; the pastor only knows 150 of them. Seriously.
Some time-management books I've seen say that relationships need to be evaluated in terms of what they bring to me. How do I benefit from knowing this person? And the benefit is usually described in material terms. But, that's not what Jesus said. That's not what Jesus did. St. Paul makes the point that Jesus loved us before we loved him. He died for us before we could do anything for him. He took the initiative with us. Let's do the same with each other.
Will we benefit from it? Maybe. One thing, though. We'll have done something, and that's important, done something Jesus asked us to do.
Know one another, as I have known you. That's the first step. Then, we can move on to love.
In the Name....