'To Love' is a Command, not a Suggestion

John 13: 31-35

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. Dr. Mary Abrams
Deacon

April 24, 2016

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” You all are going to get tired of hearing me preach about love. I told someone not too long ago that it seems that every time I preach the message is about love. Sometimes the passage like the one we read today is very clearly about love. But even when the message is not obvious, after I have studied the passage the message seems to me to be about love. Maybe that is because I think that the main message of the Bible is love; God loving us, us loving God, loving our neighbor, loving ourselves. Other people will have their own “main message” but I see love throughout the Bible.

Love is not just a Christian thing and it is not only found in the New Testament. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament as it is commonly called, where violence and wars are commonplace, love is at the center. The greatest love of all: God’s love for us and for all creation.

A Jewish friend of mine says that the Jews see the ten commandments as an executive summary of the 613 laws given to the Hebrews that are found in Bible. And we know that the first four of those ten commandments are about loving God and the last six are about loving others.

Most of the words in the Bible that are attributed to Jesus come from the Hebrew Scriptures. He may have added his own spin on things and many times turned them upside down with new meaning but he usually started with a passage from the Hebrew Scriptures as his foundation. When he was asked “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?”, he quoted from Deuteronomy where it says “ Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

And Jesus continued with “This is the first and greatest commandment. A second like unto it, and he quoted from Leviticus where it is written, “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people; but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love is a primary teaching in the Jewish religion.

And it is not just Christians and Jews that have love as a fundamental belief. In Louisville every year we have a Hunger Walk sponsored by an interfaith organization. A couple of weeks before the walk they hold a press conference where leaders from the various faith communities have the opportunity to speak about the upcoming event. Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Bahais all gather together. This wonderfully diverse group standing in unity, to support this event. And despite all of their many differences, they all speak of the one thing that they believe and hold in common. and that is that we are all called to care for others; the poor and the needy, the orphan and the widow. Those that have less than we have. They all speak of the importance of love.

So today we read I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. We know that it sounds like an easy thing to do, simply love everyone. But in reality we know that it is very difficult. In fact so difficult that humans from the very beginning have been trying but failing to love one another. The Israelites tried and failed so often that God came to earth in human form to show us how to love and we still don’t get it. And to top it all off Jesus added that to love our neighbor meant we are to love our enemies also.

Two things came to mind as I was studying this passage and preparing for today trying to find something different to say about loving others. The first thing I noticed in this passage was that there is no wiggle room. That Jesus didn’t give us a suggestion, or a helpful hint or even make a request. Jesus said “I give you a new commandment.” We are commanded to love one another. We are to do this. God expects it of us.

And then I was reminded of my favorite passage of the entire Bible. One could look at this passage as a “how to love ” passage, an instruction manual for those of you who like to follow the details of instructions. Or maybe a “How to Love for Dummies” for those of us who may need it to be made real simple.

It is from the Old Testament book of Micah. The prophet Micah is speaking for God when he tells his listeners "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?"

Do, Love, Walk. Do justice, Love mercy and Walk with God. Noticed, they're all action words. Nothing passive here. It takes action to do what the Lord requires, it takes action to love.

The first requirement is to do justice: Marcus Borg in his book Speaking Christian, explains that the meaning of the word justice in the Bible is different for our modern day use of the word. For many of us today, the primary meaning of justice can be found in our criminal justice system. The responsibility of the Department of Justice is the enforcement of our laws. Victims of crime often exclaim, We want justice. After the verdict of a trail is read the victims or their family are asked by reporters “ if they received justice from the court’s verdict.” This kind of justice is punitive. It prosecutes and punishes those who violate laws in order to maintain law and order. This form of justice is good and necessary. People living together in groups need laws and the fair enforcement of them.

But justice in the Bible most often means something quite different. In the Bible justice and righteousness are the same. When the Bible speaks of God’s passion for righteousness and justice it does not mean that God is passionate about the punishment of wrongdoers. To say that God is righteous or that God is just means that God is right. God is passionate that we do what is right. Justice means doing what is right ——even if it's uncomfortable or not popular. Micah is saying that God requires us to do what is right and fair in our relationships with other people. That is how we love others.

Doing the right and fair thing is not all we are required to do. The second requirement is to Love mercy.

Again our modern day usage of the word mercy puts a different slant on the word. In contemporary usage the word mercy or merciful involves a difference in power between two or more people. When mercy is called for we usually think that someone has done something wrong and is asking for mercy. The one with more power can decide to punish or to not punish or to reduce the punishment of the wrongdoer. Criminals will throw themselves on the mercy of the court hoping for leniency. A governor shows mercy by commuting a death sentence to life in prison. A parent shows mercy by deciding not to punish a disobedient child.

In the Bible, showing mercy does not necessarily involve someone doing something wrong. Mercy in the Bible is the same as compassion or kindness. God has compassion for us. And God expects us to show compassion and kindness toward one another. We are to give where no giving is deserved. We are to act when no action is required. We are to fill our hearts with compassion and kindness toward one another.

Notice also that this second requirement is not just that we have mercy, but that we are to love mercy. There is a big difference between the two. We are not required do acts of kindness because we feel we have to or because we feel we should do them, but we are required to do them out of love. The requirement is not to DO mercy but to love mercy. We are to love mercy because we want to make others feel good, because we want to make others happy, because we want to relieve their suffering not because it is expected. Loving to be merciful and kind is how we love one another.-

And the third requirement is to walk humbly with our God. Walking with God is to keep God in our hearts and at our sides at all times. To know that God cares for us and loves us and will give us wisdom, guidance, and protection as we need it.

But are we not only required to WALK with God but we are required to walk Humbly with God. To put aside our arrogance and pride and to remember that God is in control. That it is God’s way and not our way. If by walking humbly with God, that is to keep God in your heart and listen when God is speaking to you, the next time you find it difficult to love someone, or you are tempted to turn your back on someone in need or to judge someone as not worthy, God will be there to help you know what is the right and fair thing to do and will remind you when kindness and mercy are called for.

I pray that we all will remember this little instruction manual of Micah’s or his “How to Love for Dummies”. I believe it can help in those situations where loving others is hard. By following Micah’s words of what the Lord requires of us— to Do Justice, to Love Mercy and to Walk Humbly with God we may just find it a bit easier to meet Jesus’ commandment to love one another.