Fifth Sunday in Easter 2013

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 28, 2013 (Easter 5, Year C)

At the Last Supper Jesus said to the assembled disciples, “I give you a new commandment.” And if there were any Episcopalians there they must have been thinking, “What’s wrong with the old commandment? My grandmother donated that commandment. Sure it could use a little updating but everybody’s used to it. We don’t need a new commandment. The old one is comforting, it’s familiar and if you force us to adopt a new one we’re going to write an angry letter to the bishop.” And this would all culminate in the formation of the Society for the Preservation of the Old Commandment.

Whether we admit it or not, resistance to something new and different is often our first response. Human beings generally don’t embrace change with arms wide open. We try to avoid it or ignore it or hide from it until, when recognizing it’s inevitable, grudgingly accepting it.

Resistance to change is especially powerful in church settings. Many of us remember ways of doing things from our childhood parishes. There may be certain hymns that bring us back to that time when things were perhaps simpler or prayers that serve as a link to our younger selves. 

Now, don’t worry, this isn’t a preamble to announcing some big change. I haven’t unilaterally decided to remove all the pews and install water beds or have people start rapping the Prayers of the People. But I do want to focus on this “new” commandment Jesus gives us. It’s pretty simple: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Which at first glance doesn’t seem particularly new. Telling people to “love one another” isn’t exactly a radical religious statement. 

So first, let’s place this exchange into context. It’s important to remember this wasn’t some off-handed remark Jesus made in between healing lepers and eating with assorted tax collectors and sinners. Jesus said this to the disciples immediately after Judas had left the Last Supper to go off and betray him. Time was short and the message was urgent as Jesus wrapped up his earthly ministry. So this gathering the night before the crucifixion must have had the feel of a last will and testament with the disciples hanging on every single word. 

Now you can already feel, if not resistance among Jesus’ closest followers, at least bewilderment. “What do you mean you’re giving us a new commandment?” Everyone knows it’s God alone who gives commandments. Moses came down from Mt. Sinai bearing the 10 Commandments given to him by God. So even by offering a new “commandment” — a word so linked to God the Father — Jesus is making a bold statement about his identity as God’s son. A commandment issued by Jesus (and a new commandment at that!) holds the authority of God. Unlike Moses, the great prophet of the Israelites, Jesus isn’t merely God’s messenger. Jesus himself is God’s message.

And that, my friends, is an important and radical distinction. One that would have had tremendous significance for those gathered together in the Upper Room with Jesus. The Old Covenant based on the Law of Moses and the 10 Commandments was the first step, a step that lasted 1,500 years. That’s not to say that people who lived under the Law were discouraged from loving one another. At one level there’s nothing new about Jesus’ “new” commandment. In the Old Testament Book of Leviticus, God tells the Israelites to “love your neighbor as yourself” — a phrase Jesus himself uses in summarizing the Law. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.”

What’s really new here has to do with Jesus himself. In giving this new commandment Jesus starts out by saying “love one another” — okay we got that. But then he adds, “as I have loved you.” So this new commandment is “Love one another as I have loved you.” And in so doing Jesus initiates the New Covenant between God and his people. Through the person of Jesus, God doesn’t just tell us to love one another but sends Jesus as an example of perfect love. Jesus himself is the example of how this new commandment is to be enacted in the world and through his life we are given a glimpse of perfect love as lived out not in the abstract or the theoretical but in the real world in which we live and move and have our being. The real world of humanity — our world — that knows loss and grief and sin and pain as well as joy and beauty and hope and life. In other words, Jesus himself embodies this new commandment to love one another as he loves us — even to the point of death on the cross.

Okay, let’s talk a bit about circumcision (I’m a master of the smooth segue — it’ll come together, don’t worry). In the Book of Acts we hear the experiences of the early Christians in the days after the Resurrection. One of the big controversies early on was whether to include Gentiles in the community. The big sticking point was circumcision. Paul advocated sharing the Good News freely with these non-Jews while Peter advocated the position that any Gentile who wanted to follow this new movement had to first undergo circumcision, that ancient sign of covenant between God and his people. It looked like there would be a major impasse and division within the early Christian community until Peter had the revelation we hear about in this morning’s lesson. 

When those in the circumcision camp heard Peter had eaten with the non-circumcised in Jerusalem they were appalled and openly criticized him. But once Peter shared his vision, they came around. Again, a story of resistance to change followed by the moving of the Holy Spirit to bring Peter and those who fought for circumcision to a new perspective. “Who was I that I could hinder God?” he finally asks rhetorically.

This isn’t to say that every change is good or divinely inspired — there’s a reason our faith in anchored in ancient tradition. But we must be open to change or else we die. When our hearts are hardened to the possibility of  new life, our souls wither and decay. 

In a very real sense, Jesus’s whole ministry is based on change — a changed relationship between God and humanity; a changed model of faith based on inclusion rather than exclusion; a changed interpretation of religion that placed the emphasis on the spirit rather than the letter of the Law. So to be a Christian is to embrace change. And this new commandment — to “love one another as I have loved you” — is the start of it all. Jesus calls us out of the old and into the new. A new commandment, a new way of loving others, a new way of allowing yourself to be loved. May we be wise in our discernment of all that is holy and may the love we share with one another and the example of love we have from Jesus Christ continue to inspire our hearts and minds and lead us into new things that we cannot even ask for or imagine.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013

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