More than the Golden Rule: to love as Jesus loves us
Sermon preached at St. Peter & S.t Paul, Marietta GA
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, May 19, 2019
The Fifth Sunday of Easter – (Year C) John 13:31-35
John 13:31-35 When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” 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.’
Once upon a time there were two little boys playing on the playground. They began to argue over some marbles that they had found. One boy claimed they were his marbles, the other boy claimed them as well. Their teacher come over to them and reminded them of the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you,” She said.
A few minutes later, the teacher heard screams and loud crying from one of the boys. When she went to see what had happened, one boy said that the other boy had pushed him to the ground. When the teacher reminded the second boy about the Golden Rule, he replied “Well, he took my marbles, and if I took someone else’s marbles, I would want them to push me down!”
Of course, neither taking marbles nor pushing someone down is good behavior. Clearly, this is an abuse of the Golden Rule. Somehow that old proverb is not enough for these boys truly to understand what it means to be in right relationship. We need something more than the Golden Rule. Christianity teaches something similar, we have the commandment to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” Some think that this is enough for us, but what about those whose lives are bound by depression and bitterness and anger? What about those whose lives are torn apart by abuse or addiction? What about those who don’t know how to love themselves or how to love rightly? That could be any of us, really.
When Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, he replies by giving two commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments,” Jesus says, “hang all the law and the prophets.” To love our neighbor truly, we must love God—with all our heart and soul and strength. Through our relationship with God, we learn how to love.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus again takes up the subject of love with his disciples. The scene is the last supper. Judas has just left to betray Jesus. Jesus urges his disciples to love one another—to love as he has loved them. His disciples were a diverse bunch of people. Among the Apostles themselves, were Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector. Just so you understand, Tax collectors were collaborators with the Roman occupation—agents of a foreign power. Zealots, on the other hand, were Jewish insurgents who fought against Roman power with violence. How could these two disciples get along? This is worse conflict than Republicans vs. Democrats. How could they learn to love each other? They loved God, and they were learning to love each other, but Jesus wanted them to live more deeply into the love of God.
On our own, we are a little like those boys playing with marbles on the playground. On our own, we can define love in warped ways that serve our own interest. God’s love does not mean ‘do whatever pleases people’ or ‘do whatever pleases me.’ So how do we know how to love?
God does not leave us on our own in answering this question. God gives us Holy Scriptures and God comes to us in Jesus Christ, and teaches us what God’s love is like. Our catechism, in the back of the prayer book, is a series of questions and answers about the Christian Faith and life. In one section, it mentions the two greatest commandments, but then we hear an important emphasis on a new commandment that Jesus gives us. Jesus tells us to love one another as he has loved us. To love the way God loves, we should love each other as Jesus loved us.
This may not sound particularly unusual, but let me illustrate what makes Jesus’ love for us so much more than the Golden Rule. When I worked for Lincoln Electric, I had a manager for many years by the name of Chet Woodman. Chet was a seasoned old professional, full of wit and wisdom—a great mentor for me and many others. Chet talked with me once about the relationships of the people in our department and what it takes from each of us truly to work well together. He said he had heard this in reference to how a married couple love each other, but it works for other relationships as well.
He said that often times, we hear advice about “meeting the other person halfway.” He said “imagine if you and I are standing facing each other and we want to truly connect with each other, but we only reach out halfway—what happens to our hands? They only touch fingertips. Each of us is only giving fifty-fifty. That’s only fair—right? But fair doesn’t truly get us in relationship. What happens, however, when each of us gives more than fifty-fifty—reaches out more than halfway—then our hands overlap and we have a handshake.”
I believe that Chet had an insight to the Christian message. You see, God is not fair. If God were fair, we would be in big trouble, for each of us has turned away from God plenty of times. But God is more generous than fair. God reached out to us in Jesus Christ, not meeting us halfway, nor even giving 51% to bridge that gap. God came to us in Jesus Christ to live our life fully and to die on the cross—to give 100%—so that we might be reconciled to God.
This does not mean that anything goes. Indeed, Jesus loves us enough to call us to repentance. Jesus knows that repentance and returning to follow God leads to life, as we heard in the reading from Acts this morning. The Apostles saw that God had given to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life. Jesus’ love takes a stand on sin. And Jesus also loves us enough to help us repent and strengthen us with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus loves us generously, with mercy and forgiveness, even when we don’t deserve forgiveness. Jesus loves us selflessly, reaching out and blessing us even when we don’t deserve blessing. Jesus loves us passionately, willing to live and suffer and die—willing to conquer death so that his reluctant and unfaithful disciples might have life—disciples like you and me.
Do you love that way? Do we love more than the Golden Rule? Do you and I love generously—loving even those who may not treat us well? Do you and I love selflessly—giving ourselves for the benefit of others? Do we love passionately—giving our energy and strength to God and to others? This love of Jesus is the bedrock of our relationships with each other as Christian disciples. Jesus said “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The mark of the church is not simply that we get along politely, but that we share the love of Jesus with each other. We call each other to high standards, and we embrace each other with Jesus’ mercy and grace.
Jesus gives us a new commandment that is more than the Golden Rule. Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us. When we know the generous, selfless, passionate love of Jesus for us, then we will truly know how to love God and how to love each other.
You may say that this love is not easy—and I would agree with you. In fact, on our own, this is impossible. But we are not on our own. We know how to share this love because we ourselves have felt this love of God in our lives. We have felt—even in some small way—the generous, selfless, passionate love of Jesus Christ, a love that is more than the Golden Rule. Empowered by the love of God, we can share that same love of Jesus. And by this love, the world will learn to share the love of Jesus too.