TEXTS: 1 John 5:1-6 and John 15:9-17
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome … (1 John 5:2-3)
Those of you who have study Bibles (if you actually read the annotations and introductions) may be aware that scholars disagree about the authorship of the First Letter of John. Some believe that the traditional ascription is the correct one: that the letter was penned by the apostle John, who also wrote the gospel bearing his name. Others feel that the letter was composed by someone else. They have several reasons for that—including the fact that the correspondent is unnamed; the writer never identifies himself (or herself).
There is, however, broad agreement that the letter came from someone inside the Johannine circle—that is, from someone who had learned about Jesus by listening to the apostle’s teaching. Someone well acquainted with the Jesus whom John the gospel writer quoted thus: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 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 … [and] This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:9-10, 12)
We’re supposed to love one another as Jesus has loved us. This is a commandment straight from God. With that admonition firmly in mind, the author of First John informs us that “the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome …”
Not burdensome? Loving the children of God is not burdensome?
Ah. That must be the reason why Christians get along so well. Right?
Years ago, I remember a friend of mine—he later became a rabbi—used to joke that, whenever there’s a discussion between two Jews, there are at least three opinions.
Today, I would add … when two Christians have a discussion … there will only be two opinions, but it may end in a fistfight!
A slight exaggeration. But let’s face it: Christians have a dismal track record when it comes to getting along.
Jesus’ prayer for his disciples was: “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).
“That they may all be one.” Yet today, worldwide, there are literally thousands of denominations and sects—and many of them see themselves as “the only true church.”
Yeah. Not exactly what Jesus had in mind. Why so many divisions?
Well, sometimes it’s for reasons having to do with church governance: who has authority, who makes decisions, how the organization handles its day-to-day business. But often, it has to do with ideology—what churches usually refer to as doctrine. And most of the time, that stuff is really obscure.
A good example of this—or, actually, a really terrible example—relates to the Sacrament of the Table, which is known variously as Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist. It’s supposed to be our rite of unity. And yet few things in our common life are as divisive.
The idea of an “open table”—one at which all Christians are welcome—is a rare concept in Christendom. Most churches apply some sort of restriction concerning who may approach the table. In other words, they say that some people are not welcome to participate.
Why is that? Ideology. Doctrine. They want to make sure you believe the right stuff before they let you taste the bread.
Now, that’s not just about elitism. There’s a big, complicated, ancient theological argument around this (yes, many of our arguments are indeed ancient).
I won’t go into it in depth here, but (at least in part) it revolves around the question of precisely how Jesus is present in the elements of food and drink. Many Christians think that—when the minister prays over them—they literally become Christ’s body and blood. Other Christians consider the traditional language to be metaphorical, rather than magical. Anyway, these issues are regarded by some as being so important that people who do not believe “the right stuff” are barred from the feast.
Personally, I think that’s a shame. I believe it misses the whole point of what Christianity is about. Because, you know, this faith of ours—this faith we hold in common—is not supposed to be about rules and regulations and doctrines and dogma.
No. It’s supposed to be about relationships. First of all, it’s supposed to be about our relationship to Jesus Christ. It’s a personal relationship, where Jesus is real. Where he is a part of your life, and of mine. It’s real, because he is real, and alive and present—not just in the bread and wine upon the Communion table, but in we who eat and drink.
As a wise teenager once said to me, that is where the “real presence” of Christ resides—it’s in the people who come to the table!
We are the body of Christ. As the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). And we are supposed to have care and concern for one another (1 Cor. 12:25).
It shouldn’t be burdensome. But the truth is, that commandment, “love one another as I have loved you” …
It’s easier said than done, isn’t it?
Plus—and this is even a sadder thing than doctrinal bickering—in most congregations, the sources of discord have nothing to do with doctrine or dogma.
Know what I mean? Next time you’re sitting in church, look around. Look to your left. Look to your right.
See somebody who ticks you off?
Maybe you feel they don’t often enough volunteer to help with stuff. And when they do, they don’t work as hard as you think they should.
Maybe you think they’re rude. And perhaps they are. Maybe they don’t say “thank you” when they should. Maybe they’re not friendly enough at coffee time. Or forgot your birthday. Or didn’t send you a Christmas card. Or insist on rattling open those noisy cellophane-wrapped candies during prayer time.
Perhaps they ask too many questions at board meetings (or at least, more questions than you want to answer). Perhaps you don’t like their politics or their opinions or their attitudes. Maybe they’re just obnoxious. Or maybe …
Well, it’s always something, isn’t it? Whether the matter at hand is large or small—ideological or personal—our differences make loving one another difficult.
In the small congregation which I serve, I see these dramas play out … Well, continually.
I guess that’s the unique challenge of being part of a small family of faith. There’s not much space between us. Not a whole lot of breathing room. We deal with the same people, week after week. Fundraiser after fundraiser. The kitchen becomes too easily crowded … and we get on each other’s nerves.
And then—whether we verbalize it, or not—we begin to question our love for one another.
“Why do I have to put up with so-and-so?”
But here’s the thing … and I guess it’s the unique blessing of being part of a small family of faith …
We truly are family. Even if we don’t always like each other, when the chips are down, our love shines through. When one of us is in trouble or in need, the rest of us come through. We pitch in and help. Which is what a family does. Which is why our small part of Christ’s body has survived—through thick and thin, through the best of times and the worst of times—for more than six decades, and counting.
Small congregations are like that—if they’re healthy, if they abide in the love of Christ. Perhaps they’re always going to be better at caring than big congregations are (generally speaking). They’re definitely better at it than denominations are. They always will be. But all of us can learn from their example.
Is the commandment to love one another a burdensome thing? You know … it really isn’t. Not if we see each other as sisters and brothers—as beloved children of God—rather than as ideological or personal adversaries.
Let’s think about these things, when next we approach the Table of our Lord. Or when the person sitting next to us unwraps one of those blasted candies. Amen.