“His human body was God’s language,
as much as his human speech.”
-Sara Miles, from her book Jesus Freak.
Now it’s our turn to be his students. This is not a time to take notes. Instead it's a time to listen closely and carefully to his final words. Because at the end of the day, our final exam will be based on this one simple sentence: “Love one another as I have loved you.” This is perhaps the single, most important lesson Jesus gives. His entire ministry, and now ours, can be boiled down to this simple, yet complex ethic of love. Love one another as I have loved you.
If you need to know anything about this radical rabbi, this Word made flesh, it’s this: What Jesus says, is exactly what Jesus does. Sara Miles describes it so poetically when she says, “His human body was God’s language, as much as his human speech.”
Jesus shows us how to love in the varied way he loves us. This is dangerous on so many levels. He knows all too well what this kind of love can cause people to do. But what Jesus says is exactly what Jesus does...in spite of what the world does to him.
It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of this passage especially as we struggle to find love and joy in our lives. But if we take these few words to heart, making them our own personal ethic, and live them out in the world, then love and joy will soon be all we know.
Jesus teaches his disciples the most crucial thing about God’s nature: Love and Joy cannot be separated. Without God’s love at the center of our life, real joy cannot exist.
William Sloane Coffin writes, “The highest purpose of Christianity – which is primarily a way of life and not a system of belief – is to love one another. And the first fruit of love is joy, the joy that represents meaning and fulfillment.” If Coffin is correct, and God's love is the first fruit of our joy, then we must share it liberally and freely, even with those who try to steal our joy.
Let me ask you this: Has there been anything or anyone stealing your joy lately?
In the final chapter of his letter, Paul reveals there is some kind of tension in the Philippian churches. There's disunity between two women. We know very little about them other than they are doing something that is dividing the churches. Paul does not give us details about their dispute, because the details are not important. It doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong. What’s important is their joy is incomplete. They are not united in God’s love, but instead divided by their own egos.
Ego and anger are the opposite of love and joy. Anger leaves us vulnerable to attack. Conflict, as you might know, opens the door that allows our joy to walk away or be stolen. But here's the twist. The love Jesus calls us practice also leaves us vulnerable. To love as God loves us forces us to always seek a common ground instead of a battleground. This doesn’t mean we have to be the same, or think the same, or dress the same. Christianity isn’t a robotic ritual. Jesus calls us into a way of life built upon the strong bond of God's love for us. Just as we are connected to God through Jesus we are to be connected to one another through the same love.
Last night, as I was watching the Joy Bells play for their fundraiser, I learned something interesting about finding a common ground. I didn’t know that each individual hand bell is not separate instrument. It’s only when they are together do they make one instrument, in one octave? While each musician can play the different bells, in different notes, and sometimes even in different timings, what makes it work so perfectly is their willingness to all play in the same key. Because they shared a common ground, they actually make a joyful noise unto the Lord!
We might not always see eye-to-eye. But in spite of our differences, when we love as God loves us, we become one instrument of God's joy. Of course when God’s love is at the center of all we do, then we are able to confront and reconcile the things that steal our joy.
I believe all Christian denominations can agree that reconciliation is the centerpiece of Jesus’ love ethic. If we are to imitate him, as Paul suggests then we need make forgiveness a top priority. This does not mean that we allow the world to push us around. Compassion does not turn its back on conflict; it confronts it and defeats it in the name of love. Perhaps there is a reason why the Bible frequently replaces the word "love" for the word "forgiveness" and even as it does...the results remain the same. Joy.
Forgiveness needs love just as much as love needs forgiveness. Without either, there can be no real joy. Think about it, how long does your joy last when you win an argument, but lose a friend or a loved one in the process?
However important you think your issue might be, Jesus says the way we love and forgive are a testimony to God at work in us. Therefore we must reconcile our problems, as Paul suggests “with gentleness.” That is to say...with compassion, kindness, love and joy in our hearts. We can't do this when anger builds up a wall around us.
Jesus reminds us that gentleness is the opposite of anger. Jesus was gentle. He did not push people away, but instead drew people to him through love. He doesn't build a wall; instead he comforts, heals, and forgives...even those who crucified him. What Jesus says is exactly what Jesus does.
As his disciples, as the body of his church, our character towards others, is the mirror by which people will see us. "They will know you are with me," Jesus says, "by the way you love one another."
It's not a mistake the lectionary sent us back here to learn this lesson. Jesus' final message to us...is the key to finding true joy...especially in the darkness of depression, pain, and suffering.
Christ calls us to act upon our faith and, through the power of love and reconciliation, we must allow God's love to work through us. As Paul says, "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable"...we do these things with a higher purpose. We do not do it for our glory, but for the glory of God.
When preparing the 12 for what is to come, Jesus sets aside his own ego. He washes their feet. He feeds them food. And give his life for them, and for everyone. He does this not for his own self-interest, but because of his love for us. His words and deeds remind us that the greatest gift we can give others is ourselves. Herni Nouwen writes, “When God’s love is at the center of all we do, then we are able to offer our joy and peace, our consolation and reconciliation to others; especially in moments of crisis or conflict.”
Once we start living intentionally with this kind of conviction, then our joy can never be defeated. No matter what the world can throw at us, we remain as God's beloved children.
United as one family by God's very own love and joy. This is the core of Jesus’ ethic and of Paul’s entire faith. When we live this out in the world, we can joyfully shout, "Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice."
As we leave here this morning let us hold fast to the words of the Apostle who encourages us to, “Keep doing these things that you have learned and received and heard and seen, and the God of peace will be with you.”
(NRSV), Bible. Philippians 4:1-9; John 13:31-35.
Bartlett, David, Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009.
Holladay, Tom. Philippians: The Eight Places Joy is Won or Lost. El Toro: Saddleback Church.
Miles, Sara. Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.
Nouwen, Henri. Bread for the Journey: A Day Book of Wisdom and Faith. New York: HarperCollins e-books, 1997.
Ott, Emlyn. "Reflections on the Lectionary." Christian Century, 2016.