It sounds so simple, doesn’t it. Love one another, as I have loved you. In the Old Testament believers were taught to love their neighbour as themselves. Unfortunately, over time, that command had become rather limiting and exclusive, and morphed into meaning, love those around you if they belong to your own group, and think and worship like you.
Over the centuries many Christians have given their faith a bad name by being exclusive in this way. But Jesus said, “love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus loved his disciples in a completely humble way, serving them, washing their feet, teaching them and leading them when they surely would have tried anyone else’s patience. Jesus is telling us here to love everyone. It isn’t limited to those in our immediate circle, those whom we like anyway. It means everyone. Everyone we meet in our day-to-day life – the nice people, the grumpy people, the snappy ones, the down right rude, the confrontational, those who accuse us – and that’s just the ones at home – as we consider the list of all the people who are hard to love, it starts to seem like an impossible task. And so it is, if we do it in our own strength. It’s just as well then that Jesus left us the gift of the Holy Spirit to enable that love.
Our reading from Acts tells us how that revelation happened to Peter: He had a vision, and in his vision he was shown unclean animals. Remember that in the Jewish law there were certain foods that they were not permitted to eat – you probably know about pork, but shellfish, reptiles and beasts of prey were also among that list. We don’t know why these animals were forbidden. But most of the rules in the Old Testament were based on good medical and hygienic practice. For example, pork used to get infected with a parasite which could make people sick. There was probably a good practical reason therefore for these exclusions.
But the voice from heaven told Peter to eat these things! He was, understandably reluctant – after all, he had been taught from childhood to avoid the prohibited, the unclean. He was revolted by the idea.
The voice answered him – what God has made clean, you must not call unclean.
Peter got the point. Quite quickly for him actually. God was not simply talking about foodstuffs, and dietary laws. He was talking about all those people who the Israelites thought unclean – the Gentiles.
Here we see Peter beginning to understand that the church, the new way of being Christians, or slaves of Christ, was not just for the Jews. Not just for those who had undergone a circumcision when they were eight days old. It was for every person on the earth!
Peter barely had time to consider the implications of this when he got his marching orders – he had to go to see someone who wanted to learn about Jesus.
Peter did as he was told, and went with the others to visit the man, a Gentile. As he spoke, the Holy Spirit fell upon everyone there – it was immediately obvious that this was for everyone. Not just for the Jews, the chosen race.
When we put this account together with Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he has loved us, we can start to see how wide this command is.
Let’s look at the last part of what Jesus said to them. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Have you ever been part of a church which has had a serious rift in the congregation? It’s really horrible, and it goes against everything Jesus is telling his followers. Last year a vote in General Synod abut blessing same-sex marriages was passed, after many years of work. The time taken was so that no one would be left behind, so that everyone could live with the decision, having had their point of view heard and respected, and no one would be forced into acting against their conscience. Unfortunately, in spite of all the work and prayer that went into the process, some parts of our church here in Aotearoa NZ decided that they could no longer share the journey with us.
This rift in the church has been very painful, both for the parishes who split apart, but also for those of us who feel the loss to the body of our fellow worshippers. It has also been very public, with outsiders rightly commenting on the lack of love in the church, if people would leave over such an issue.
Note that Jesus doesn’t tell us to agree with each other all the time, or even to like one another – though I hope we do! But to love one another.
What can love in this way mean?
I think the selfless love Jesus shows is is a bit like the tough love that you sometimes need as a parent. Love isn’t a weak word. It’s not a doormat word. It means being prepared to stand up for justice, or righteousness, for the rights of those who can’t speak for themselves. It also means caring for the resources around us – our beautiful world – in such a way that others are not deprived of fullness of life.
Loving one another as Jesus has loved us covers all aspects of our life – from how we talk to people, to decisions we make about using products with three layers of plastic wrapping.
It means that every decision we make needs to be done ethically, – if we know that a certain shop buys clothes made with child labour, we can make a choice not to support that. Or if we have investments such as a Kiwi Saver, we can make sure that these are lifegiving rather than exploitative.
The church Jesus left in the world has a role to play for all the world. He didn’t tell us to love just you lot sitting there in the pews. Though you are all very loveable. He told us to love everyone. That means people we will never meet, like a little child growing up in Syria. Or an elderly prisoner in Russia. Everyone.
We cannot personally have an impact on the lives of everyone on the planet, and off it in the Space Station, but through prayer we can spread that love, and influence decisions that affect the lives of others, as it says in the Prayer Book.
Today then, I urge you to ponder on what this great love of Jesus means, how you can develop this more and more in your day life, both as you encounter others, and as you pray.