9 May 2021

“This is my commandment, that you love one
another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down
one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:12-14

“Davon Huss tells the story of a boy who came home one hot afternoon, anxious to take a cool swim in the pond behind his Florida home.  His mother spotted him diving off the dock, and went outside to check on him.  As she watched her son swim toward the middle of the lake, she also spotted an alligator moving from the far shore, toward her son! She began screaming the warnings, and the boy stopped in mid-swim. He finally understood the danger, and began racing back toward the dock. Just as he reached her, the alligator reached him.

It was a tug-of-war from a mother’s worst nightmare. From the dock, she pulled his arms. From the water, the alligator held his legs.  A farmer driving by heard the screams, and ran to help. He shot the alligator and helped the mother call for help. The boy survived, and after several weeks of hospitalization, was ready to talk with a news reporter.  The reporter asked the child if he could see where the alligator had bitten him. With the typical pride of a boy, he showed off his healing wounds to the interested reporter. “But wait,” said the boy, “look at these!” With that, he showed the reporter the scars on his arms. “I have great scars on my arms, too. I have them because my Mom wouldn’t let go.””   (Andy Cook, The Pastor’s Workshop)

Voice of the Martyrs tells the story of a Bible smuggler who was traveling from China to North Korea.  His church asked him to accept ten hidden Bibles in a shipment which he could then hand out secretly to those who needed God’s word.  He declined at first because he knew that “if border guards caught him with even a few pages he could be tortured or killed.”  But he later accepted, saying, “Now I believe in God, and in God everything is possible.  I can do anything He wants.  Even if it looks difficult, maybe God will just do His work.”  He saw his opportunity when he heard a man whistling a Christian tune, and he decided to leave the Bibles on his doorstep wrapped in layer of clothes.  He was later arrested, but he found himself in the same prison as an entire family of 27 people, who had begun meeting secretly to study Bibles that had been mysteriously left on their uncle’s doorstep, and they gave their lives to Christ.  In the prison still today, the family is praying in their cells and teaching others about God.  The original Bible smuggler who gave them these Bibles was released seven months later and escaped to South Korea.  There was not enough evidence that he actually had a Bible in his possession.  In South Korea, he still is afraid that someone from North Korea will find him and arrest him and bring him back to prison there.  He says, “I just want for North Korean people to hear the gospel and share the gospel.  That is my only prayer.”  In 2016, a Christian pastor was beaten by a Hindu militia in India because he refused to convert back to Hindu.  He pleaded not with his attackers, but with God, to spare him.  He then said, “God has spared my life, so I will forgive them.”  (Voice of the Martyrs, 2021 Special Issue magazine and persecution.com)  These stories are occurring all over the world today.  Christians are not free to practice their religion openly without fear for their lives on a daily basis.  Yet, they remain willing to accept that risk so that knowledge of God might not be suppressed.  Perhaps we can say too, as did one who responded to these stories, “My heart is full of agony for my fellow Christians, but at the same time joyful, and full of admiration of their wonderful faith.”

This is not something that is far away and that we do not have to think about.  If we celebrate the unity that we have among our Christian brothers and sisters, these are our brothers and sisters who are fighting for the same thing that we are.  They also need our prayers and support through Our Church’s Wider Mission and other Christian agencies.  What risks do we have to take for speaking out for our Christian faith here?  Those who have a greater risk of persecution may be the ones who speak out for their faith more often.  The early disciples faced a great deal of risk too, and many of them ended up in prison also, but they still trusted their faith and led many to God, whether inside a prison or outside.  The disciples loved the people they preached to because they loved God.  Disciples in suppressed countries feel the same today.  Jesus told the disciples as recorded in John, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love.  [Also] love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:9, 12).  Did that boy who was rescued from the alligator by his mother start loving others because she loved him?  He saw the marks of love enough to express them to the reporter.  When our parent or a friend loves us, it means something to us.  We feel loved, and we are more inclined to love another.  God has shown us love.  Jesus has shown us love.  We have a model of how to love.  This is our commandment.  This is what others seek to do in caring for other Christians who are being limited in the ways they can practice their faith.  We learn love through the models that have been shown to us.  God showed us that God would sacrifice God’s own son for us.  That is love.  Our mother and father hopefully have shown us countless ways to love another as we grew up under their tender loving care.  We sing to God “How Great Thou Art” because of what has been shown to us and done for us.

Jesus tells us that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).  He also tells us that there is no greater love than that.  He is the prime example of absolute love.  Do you think that someone can feel pride because they are so loving?  There are very good forms of pride, such as when a mother is proud of her son or daughter.  Though there are also sinful forms of pride, such as when the Pharisee elevated himself above a tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).  As Pastor Sam Marin from Life Church noted, sinful pride is the elevation of yourself above someone else.  Have you ever put yourself higher than another?  The first form of pride is “I’m better than you.”  We’re better than that person because we go to church.  We love more than they do.  I’m better than that person because I ran the race under five hours, unlike that guy over there.  The second form of pride is “I can handle it.”  We think that we can do things without God’s help.  When I ran my marathon last week, I knew that my strength would fail and I would have to ask God for additional strength.  When we pretend that we can handle it, our faith becomes weak because we lean on ourselves rather than trust God to pull us through.  And in truth, we do not know how to love without the example that God showed us.  We need God.  The third is “It doesn’t apply to me.”  A pastor asked a room full of people to raise their hand if they struggled with the sin of pride.  About half raised their hand, and he noted that he was talking to them, but that he was talking even more to the people who were too proud to raise their hands.  Perhaps you have thought that certain rules do not apply to you because of the status that you have.  King David was called out on his sin with Bathsheba; did he think that he did not have to follow the law because he had a high status?  Even the best of us tell ourselves that it is okay to break the rules sometimes, especially rules that God lays down for us, because we follow the rules most of the time.  We have done enough loving for today; do we really have to love this person too?  The answer to that is yes.  We are to love everyone.  Jesus never told the crowds who followed him when he wanted to be alone that his love tank had been drained.  Instead, he preached to them all afternoon and then fed them with five loaves of bread and two fish.  His love never ran out.  We are never above the call to love our neighbor, and we never love better than the one who first loved us.

Have you ever wanted to be someone’s friend, but it does not seem that they notice you or appreciate you?  Jesus says, as recorded in John 15:15, that we are no longer called servants, but friends.  It does not matter that we will never love as well as he loved us.  If we follow the commandment to love one another, which outside of loving God is basically the single commandment that Jesus asks us to follow, Jesus promises to call us a friend.  A friend is someone who we live and talk with regularly.  A friend is someone who loves us and wants what is best for us.  That is what Jesus promises to be for us.  When I write in my journal to God, I sign it, Your friend.  If you see Jesus as far off and not accessible, think on this promise.  Can you see Jesus as your friend today?  Can you talk to him like you talk to any other friend?  Not that he sees it as a competition, but he is the best friend you will ever have.  There is no pride to take in that; it is just who he is; it is his character.  He is the one who sought you out.

Ronald Cole-Turner is a professor and the chair of Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  He wrote the following on God’s character: “We do not have to guess what God is like.  We simply have to look at what God has done.  The one thing we cannot do is to claim to love God while refusing to love the sister or brother in front of us.  Our love for others should follow the same pattern as God’s love for us.  Like God, we are to love the one who is unlovely and unresponsive.  It is easy for us to love those who love in return.  We are commanded to love the one who is unloving, angry, and hurtful” (Feasting on the Word B.2.468-470).  We do not cast them out of our lives.  We love them again, and again, and again.  This is how Christians in suppressed countries keep on living and finding hope; they forgive their persecutors and choose to pray for them instead.  Even if you get upset with your mother from time to time about things, you can make an exception on Mother’s Day.  You can make every day Mother’s Day.  You can love everyone despite the frustrations and even the pain that they might cause you.

We are nearing the end of the fifty days of Easter, and our theme has led us to ask the question, “Now what?”  “What does it mean to be an Easter people?”  In its simplest terms, it means that we love one another.  We see that God gave the ultimate sacrifice.  We know that we can never be as loving as that.  But when we see that, and we recognize it to be true, we are called to repent of anything that clouded our judgement or our faith and see what the word has brought us.  We declare what we have heard and seen no matter what anyone else tries to convince us.  God has done miracles for us.  Second, we are witnesses to what we hear Jesus teach, both to the original disciples as recorded in the Bible and in our very own lives.  Third, we live the word; that is, we spread the love that Jesus shared with us.  This is what Easter is all about.  No evil in the world, not even death itself, can conquer the force of love that God shares with us.  Let us love one another, not just to say “I love you,” but to truly love one another.  Let Jesus call us a friend.  Let us be friends together.  Let us be friends together through all the challenges that we know are ahead, for God made this possible, God is our model, and God will see us through.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

1 John 5:1-6
5:1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.
5:2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.
5:3 For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome,
5:4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.
5:5 Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
5:6 This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

John 15:9-17
15:9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
15:10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
15:11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
15:12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
15:13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
15:14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.
15:15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
15:16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.
15:17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

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