"Love one another as I have loved you." - John 13:34 NRSV
"Love one another as I have loved you" from John's Gospel is our theme this year at IHS. We planned this theme long before the COVID-19 health crisis, but in the context of the pandemic it is has taken on new meaning and significance. More accurately, it takes the original significance but applies it in a way that is a new experience for us.
Similarly, John's Gospel re-frames the commandment to love in a new way. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) Jesus teaches and lives the commands to love from God's Law. John's Gospel roots this command to love in the love between the Father and Son, and the love of the Son, Jesus, for all of us. Let's look more deeply at this command to love and what it means for us in 2020.
This coming Sunday's Gospel reading is Matthew 22:34-46. It comes at the conclusion of a series of questions from two groups of Jewish religious leaders: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. If you've been following the Sunday lectionary with us, then you may remember many of these questions including when the Sadducees tried to trap Jesus in a question about the resurrection of the dead.
In this particular reading, the Pharisees now question Jesus with a basic question about the Law. It's important to note that the Pharisees don't disagree with Jesus about the answer. The answer that a Pharisee, or any "lawyer" of God's law in first century Judaism, would have given to this question is referred to now as the Shema or the Sh'ma Yisrael. These are the first words of the Law, and what Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 6: "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."
Jesus doesn't stop there. Like many of his answers, he turns it around them and answers a question they didn't even ask. They ask him for the greatest commandment but he tells them the answer they're looking for, but that the second is like it. The second greatest commandment is joined to it. They're intrinsically linked together and inseparable in Jesus' understanding of the law: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” The second commandment Jesus references is from the Leviticus reading from this week's lectionary, Leviticus 19. You'll notice that Jesus says that on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
It's my suspicion that this is at the root of Jesus' issue with the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders of his day. They've emphasized as highly as possible the love of God and following God's law, building a complex series of purity obligations as part of worship and love of God. But they have done so at the expense of love of neighbor. Jesus sees the law as the eighth century prophets did. Rituals and purity laws are worthless if there is not true righteousness, which means right relationships. Right relationship with God intrinsically requires right relationship with others, love of neighbor and justice for all.
The eighth century prophets Amos, Micah, and Hosea prophesied judgment over Israel for "trampling on the poor" as Amos says and predicted a coming Day of the Lord when there would be God's righteousness and justice, in other words when right relationships would be restored among the people and there would be equal justice for all. As Amos writes,
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Similarly, Micah writes,
“With what shall I come before the Lord,and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Jesus echoes there teaching so closely. Just look at Matthew 23 when he says
"“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.”
This is the heart of Jesus' difference from the leaders of his day. The Pharisees have worked hard to keep the Law as they saw it. But what are rituals without justice and righteousness? The heart of the law is not ritual or purity, it is doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God. The law is about loving God and neighbor. This is not an indictment against Judaism today, this is a discussion within Judaism in the 8th century and then, in the case of Jesus, in the first century CE.
We can see Jesus' similarity to the 8th century prophets highlighted in his conflicts in Matthew's Gospel with the religious leaders, like Matthew 12 when they get in a disagreement about plucking grain on the Sabbath to eat or Matthew 15 when he criticizes their interpretation of the law at the expense of love and care for the poor and vulnerable.
When we get to the Gospel of John, we now see the command framed differently: "Love one another as I have loved you." It seems to me that the community that produced John's Gospel, reflecting for more than one generation on the teachings and on the death and resurrection of Jesus, has learned to see the law of love through the lens of their relationship with Jesus, or "abiding in him" in the language of John. We are commanded to love one another as Jesus loved his followers, his friends: the love that took him to his knees to wash their feet and the love that led him to the cross to die. That is the love we are to show one another: self-sacrificing, servant love for one another. We're being asked to give no less than our whole selves in love of God and our neighbor.
Jesus' way of love speaks to our situation in 2020 as it speaks to followers of The Way in all times and places. A parishioner sent me an article about two Colorado churches that filed lawsuits against their state's COVID-19 restrictions. According to CBS 4 Denver, "In what was called a victory for religious freedom, a federal court judge's decision Thursday means congregants at Colorado churches will no longer be required to wear masks or limit their numbers" because of COVID-19 mandates. I would argue that these churches have also missed the point. In their desire to worship God in church services together and their belief in freedom of religious expression, it seems to me (and I speak personally here) that these churches have failed to see that what God is calling them to do is not attend church services but love and care for their neighbors, especially the most vulnerable.
People are talking about "COVID fatigue." The President of the United States says that "people are tired of COVID." Of course, people are tired of wearing masks and social distancing. But we must persevere, because the way of love demands it. We wear masks and practice social distancing not for ourselves but as an act of loving our neighbor. We do these and more because they protect the most vulnerable among us.
What good are the sacrifices of praise, the melodies of worship songs or hymns, of holding solemn assemblies, of putting tithe money into offering plates, if we neglect what is more important: justice, mercy, and faithfulness? What good is the freedom to gather in crowds and meet without masks if it means forgetting kindness and not walking humbly before God?
Most of us are asked to do something that is not terribly difficult compared to the true suffering that exists in our world and throughout history. Today, I performed a graveside funeral. I wore a mask the whole time and I practiced social distancing. The service was outside at the grave instead of inside a church. There was no communion. Today I also ate two full meals, and I'm writing this blog post on my expensive computer in my nice home. I don't see friends the way I used to, so instead I find other ways to socialize like playing games online, or going on hikes with my family.
Compare these small sacrifices to the Cross of Christ.
Jesus went to the Garden and said "not my will but yours be done" and allowed himself to be handed over to the Romans, chained, stripped, tortured, beaten, mocked, and hung for dead, nailed on wood in shame.
Jesus says to us in Matthew 16, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?" Wearing a mask or taking time off from get-togethers is not taking up our cross. They are small gestures of love compared to what Jesus is asking of us: to forgive those who wrong us, to turn the other cheek, to love and pray for our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to practice love of neighbor as the Good Samaritan did, caring and helping the person hardest for us to love, to deny ourselves daily and submit ourselves fully to the will of God.
Before I conclude I should say that there are those who have truly suffered in the pandemic in no small way. There are those asked to sacrifice seeing parents or grandchildren for extended periods of time. People have lost jobs or been forced out of the work force. Children attend school online instead of in-person and their development is effected. And of course tens of millions have been infected by the virus around the world and over a million persons have died. If you have suffered in one of these ways, I don't mean to downplay your experience. These are all the more places where the healing love of God is needed and opportunities for us as the Church, the Body of Jesus on Earth, to get to work putting love into action.
This year IHS is calling all of us to remember, follow, and live Jesus' command "love one another as I have loved you." What does the way of love demand of you today? This week? This month? This year?