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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In my Easter Sunday sermon, I shared with you my conviction that “Faith in the resurrection comes slowly, but when it comes, it changes everything.” Throughout the season of Easter, I have been presenting a series of meditations based on the changes that do occur. We have reflected on the resurrection’s elimination of fear and doubt and its word of forgiveness. Last week, we meditated on the resurrected Christ’s promise of protection and security. Today we turn to the resurrection’s changed perspective on love.
The last words which people utter before their death are often memorable. At times, the last words are sublime. The poet Emily Dickinson whispered softly, “I must go in, the fog is rising.” English poet Lord Byron sighed, “Now I shall go to sleep. Goodnight.” The inventor Thomas Edison whispered, “It is very beautiful over there.” Sometimes the words are inspirational. The martyr Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was killed in his Church, cried out, “I am ready to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace.”
Mind you, there were the thoughtful pragmatists who offered advice in their last words. Conrad Hilton the founder of the Hilton Hotel chain, said, “Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub.” And P.T. Barnum of Barnum and Bailey Circus questioned, “How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?”
Last words often go to the very core of the soul. Simply ask, friends and family who have lost a loved one. These last words become vivid in their memory. I recall poignantly the words of my mother-in-law as she prepared for her final journey, “Everything will be just fine.” It’s interesting how often the simple words that were once spoken in the hours or days before death take on a richer, deeper meaning in the days and years after. That was certainly what happened to Jesus’ own words after his resurrection.
The gospel passage we read this morning includes a portion of the final words spoken by Jesus to his disciples on the night in which betrayed. They were spoken as he finished washing their feet, and just after Judas left the meal to betray his master. There was an awkward tension in the air. And then came those poignant words, “A new commandment I give to you; love one another. As I have loved you, you are to love one another.” Of course, these wouldn’t be his final parting words, but this last commandment would bear Christ’s unique signature on the world, and would carry the true identity of the church he established. “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
Arguably, there is nothing new in Jesus’ command. The words “to love one another” go back much further than Jesus himself. To love one another is one of the themes cited again and again in the Old Testament. It is written in the book of Leviticus which Jesus repeated when he was questioned about the greatest commandment, “You shall the Lord your God, with all your soul, and all you might, and your neighbor as yourself.” So what was the special nuance that made this final command so memorable? I believe it was the phrase that Jesus added to the ancient commandment- “As I have loved you.” The dilemma is “And how has Jesus loved you?”
Theologians have wrestled with this passage for generations. Some believe that Christian love is an intimate quality which can only be expressed within a close community where men and women forgive each other and dare to wash each other’s feet. While others believe that Jesus washing the disciples’ feet dramatically symbolizes the vastness of God’s love for all creation. Others still consider the scene to be a model of servant leadership. Jesus himself readily kneels before the poor and needy of the world. It proclaims that the kingdom Jesus came to establish is to serve and not to be served.
Throughout St. John’s gospel, we read of God’s love for the world which is both intimate and vast, but I believe there is another quality of God’s love that is equally as important. The love of God is uncalculating and can only be understood in the light Christ’s death and resurrection. On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus demonstrated this uncalculated love for the very disciples who would soon fail him miserably. Jesus washed the feet of Judas, and fed him, the very one who would betray him. He washed the feet of Peter who would deny him. Jesus washed the feet of all the rest who would fail to stand by him in his hour of greatest distress. The love that Jesus demonstrated that night, and commanded his disciples to practice was certainly not based on their merit. He commanded that their love be just as uncalculated and that this love for the world and their neighbor be their new perspective.
Jesus couldn’t be clearer. It is why his final words still echo unto this generation. It is not by the standards of our theological correctness that others will know that we are his disciples. It is not by our moral purity, nor our knowledge that the world will come to know Christ- or even our good intentions. It is quite simply by our loving acts — acts of service and sacrifice, acts of love and mercy that point to the love of God in the world. As we used to sing in an old Bible camp song, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” For Jesus, love wasn’t a sweet sentimental feeling. It meant action. And that’s where the faith in the resurrection makes all the difference.
Now what does this have to do with you and me and our faith journey? Simply said, it is this new perspective on love and service that you can only develop in the light of the Easter’s resurrection. Loving those with whom you agree is the easy part of the Christian life. Loving the rest of the folks with whom you disagree or those whom you disregard, or those who are disenfranchised is much harder. But our world changes when love prevails. When we love one another as Christ has loved us– no matter who they are.
There is a story I remember from my childhood about a high school football player who was the team captain and quarterback. He was to lead his team in victory in the state finals when word came that his father had died. The funeral was scheduled for the same day as the big game and everyone just assumed that the boy would not play ball. After all, it was his father’s funeral. So the back-up quarter back was suiting up to play when the boy walked into the locker room. The room was silent- no one knew what to say. Finally, the coach took the boy aside and said, “You can’t play today. You should be at the funeral.” The boy looked the coach in the eye and said, “You don’t understand. My father was blind. He never saw me play. This will be the first game he sees.”
What a difference it is in the way you face the challenges and disappointments in life when by the power of the resurrection you confess that your loved ones are cheering you on from the great bleachers in heaven and that you are serving the world to honor them and their faithfulness to God. What a difference it is when you don’t have to sit back and calculate how your actions will benefit you, or your gifts of charity will return to you, but you can simply love and serve because God has commanded you to love so that the whole world can come a little closer to knowing God’s love. That is the true resurrection love Jesus spoke of in his final words.
“Faith in the resurrection comes slowly, but when it comes, it changes everything.” Easter is the beginning of a new day and new life for all God’s people with Jesus’s final commandment echoing in their thoughts, “Love one another as I have loved you.” My friends, faith in the resurrection allows you to embrace that new perspective of love for the sake of your neighbors and the world. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.