Sunday, April 28, 2013

The newness of love

Texts: Acts 11 1-18 (Peter's vision); John 13 31-35 (a new commandment)

"They will know we are Christians by our love." Do you remember that song from the 60s? It goes like this. "We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord. And we pray that all unity will one be restored. And they'll know we are Christians, by our love, by our love, and they'll know we are Christians by our love."

This song was inspired by today's Gospel reading. In it, Jesus tells us that his disciples are known not by what we believe; nor by how we worship; but by how we love. We show that we are children of God by how we take care of one another; how we listen to one another; and how we help one another.

Jesus says: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples."
Isn't that wonderful?

But have you ever wondered why Jesus feels the need to command us to love? As a Jewish rabbi, he stands on 1,000 years of sacred law, the most famous section of which is the 10 Commandments. Shouldn't the 10 commandments be enough?

Well, truth be told, the 10 Commandments are not about love. They command us to worship the God of Israel above other gods, to not create idols, to keep the sabbath holy, to honour one's parents, to not murder, to not steal, to be honest, and to not desire another's property. But there is nothing in them about loving one another.

To the extent that the books of the Hebrew Bible -- what Christians call the Old Testament -- focus on love at all, it is usually on our obligation to love God and not our obligations to love one another.

Of course, this is not always the case. Leviticus contains the famous commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves, which Jesus emphasizes in his teachings.

But I believe that Jesus has good reason to call his commandment that we love one another new. With Jesus, the focus is no longer on the tribe or nation. His focus is on all human beings.

By the time of Jesus, Israel's context has changed. The Jews have been a conquered people for 600 years, and their current ruler, Rome, will soon destroy Jerusalem. In the past, the Jewish nation had been their most sacred value. But with no hope for national independence, Jesus points to a more universal value -- love for each other and for all humans regardless of tribe or nation.

Religion, like everything else, changes over time. The moment when Jesus gives his disciples his new commandment marks one of those changes.

Our first reading from Acts, focuses on a similar change. Peter tells the first followers of Jesus of a vision in which God shows him that non-Jews can be part of the church. This vision also shows Peter that baptized Gentiles do not have to follow Jewish laws about kosher eating and other cultural commandments.

Both our readings point towards something new. They orient the church outward from its first members, all of whom were Jewish, to people everywhere. I am sure that this change was painful for many early Christians. But they rose to that challenge, and they changed the world.

Change, of course, did not stop with the early church. It has been constant during all the 2,000 years since.

Yesterday, I learned more about the history of change in the churches in our area. I had presided at a brief graveside service for Ron Schmidt, formerly of Coronach, who had died in Swift Current in February. The burial was at St. John's cemetery west of Coronach. It occurred amid the warm wind, the running water, the beauty of the countryside . . . and the mud -- which Merv Colibaba, Ron's cousin, worked hard to clear.

As we drove back to Ron's sister, Elvina Winter's house for lunch, another of Ron's cousins, Garth from Lethbridge, told me the history of the Lutheran churches in Coronach. The German Lutheran church had been built out in the country by the cemetery during the early years of homesteading. At that time, as many people lived in the countryside as lived in town.

Later, as farms grew in size and people moved from the country to the town, the church building was moved to Coronach.

But the changes didn't end there. Over time, the distinctions between Germans and Norwegians, which must have loomed large when people first settled the land 100 years ago, lessened. Everyone learned English. They went to school together. They became neighbours and friends. So at a certain point, the German and Norwegian Lutheran congregations decided to merge and form today's Faith Lutheran charge in Coronach.

As in any such merger, it came with its share of difficulties and pain. But out of it, the ministry of Lutherans in Coronach has continued to this day.

Change confronts us in Borderlands charge as well. Last Wednesday evening, our Central Board responded positively to a request from the United Church's General Council to participate in the conversations of the church's Comprehensive Review process.

This three-year process is led by a group of seven church leaders from across Canada. They will write make recommendations to the next General Council in 2015 as to how the church can continue our mission with fewer people and resources. The Comprehensive Review is looking for new life for the church in a changed context just as the first Christians looked for new life after Jesus' death and resurrection.

Later in the spring, all of us will be invited to spend about 90 minutes in a conversation facilitated by someone trained for this task. We will be asked to share feelings, thoughts and experiences that arise out of the worship and mission of our congregations.

Not only will this help the Review team, it will also help us as a charge discern what we want to do next in Borderlands. I am excited about the prospect, and I hope that many of us will be able to part of that event. Stay tuned for more details!

Something similar will take place at the workshop planned for next meeting of Chinook Presbytery in Moose Jaw on May 10 and 11. Once again, I hope many of us  will be able to come to that workshop to discuss how to be church in a new context.

Change can often feel painful. But it is constant. Both as individuals and as churches, we are constantly challenged to find God's new life in a new situation. The United Church of Canada and Borderlands are facing such a challenge today, and I am confident God's Spirit is with us as we face those challenges.

Culture changes, churches change with them, but God's Love remains. Jesus gives us the commandment to love one another because love is our source, our calling and our sure destiny.
And so as Christians we try to love one another. We try to love our neighbours as ourselves. And we even try to love our so-called enemies.

We all know the difference that love makes. We depend on each other; we yearn for caring contact. And our greatest joy comes from giving love to our families, friends, and neighbours.

In towns like ours, we know that our neighbours are God's children regardless of whether they go to church. We know it when they listen to us; when they help us; and when they love us. We know they are God's children by their love.

At one time, the tribe or nation was the most sacred value of our society. Jesus helps us see something new. He reminds us that God is not a God of one tribe, nation or church. God is Love, and Love is for everyone.

Thanks be to God.

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