Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Tough Love

Tough Love
John 13:31-35[1]
  As I mentioned last week, it is unfortunate that the church doesn’t have a very positive image in our culture.  I think if you set up a kiosk at Baybrook Mall and interviewed people who don’t go to church, you’d be disappointed at what they had to say about those of us who do go.  There are a lot of people out there who have been burned by church people at some point in their lives.  Some of them might say that we who go to church are hypocrites, overlooking our own sins while we sharply criticize the sins of others.  Others might point out how church people are always fighting with each other over the most insignificant things.  Unfortunately, most of what I think you’d hear wouldn’t be the full story.  There are plenty of people in church who practice the compassion and mercy of Christ on a daily basis.  But sadly, that doesn’t translate into the perception most people have about us.
  In our gospel lesson, Jesus told the Apostles that the defining mark of their life as his disciples was to be their love for one another.  Now, I’m sure we can all sing the song, “They’ll Know We are Christians By Our Love.”  But I’m afraid the warm, fuzzy feelings we may have when we sing that song fall far short of the kind of love Jesus had in mind.[2]  He told them, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jn. 13:34).  He had in mind a very specific kind of love.  In fact, he demonstrated that love for them earlier when he washed their feet.[3]  It was a kind of love that was so different from what they expected that Peter insisted, “You will never wash my feet” (Jn. 13:8).
  I think we can all appreciate the difficultly Peter must have had with the idea of Jesus washing his feet.  In the first place, it is a very personal thing to have someone wash your feet.  But more than that, in that setting it was a task that you normally did for yourself, or one that a slave did for you.  It certainly was not something you would expect from your teacher, your mentor, and the one you believed to be the Messiah--God’s agent of redemption in the world!  That kind of thing went way beyond the bounds of what Jesus’ disciples would have considered an expression of love.[4] 
  And yet there Jesus was, washing their feet, doing for them all what none of them would ever have done for each other.  In fact, when Peter objected, Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (Jn. 13:8).  Peter misunderstood this as well.  It would seem that what Jesus was trying to impress on him and on the rest of the disciples was that this was the quality of love that defined God’s very character.[5]  It was the quality of love that God shared with Jesus.  It was the quality of love that Jesus had shown to them.  And it was the quality of love that Jesus commanded them to show one another. 
  Even at this, we might still be able to get over the menial nature of washing someone’s feet--or the modern-day equivalent.  But so that we can see the true nature of the quality of love that Jesus expected us to show one another, we have to remember the situation.  He had just washed the feet of 12 men, one of whom was about to betray him.  Another of them, Peter, would publicly deny even knowing Jesus.  And the rest of them would abandon him and run for their lives when the crucial moment came.  It would seem that Jesus knew all of this ahead of time, and still he demonstrated his love for each and every one of them by washing their feet. 
  This is the kind of love that Jesus said would be the defining mark of those who claimed to follow him.  It is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling we have when we sing familiar songs together.  It is the willingness to humble ourselves to do for one another what we would not normally do.  It is the decision to give ourselves away for the sake of one another.  It is the commitment that our lives are to be lived not just for ourselves, but for the benefit of one another.  It is a love that is incredibly difficult.  It is the ultimate “tough love.” The love that Jesus modeled for is a love that is willing to do whatever it takes to meet the needs of one another.  It is a love that leads us to make sacrifices for one another, even when it is unconventional, or inconvenient, or even uncomfortable.[6]  The love that Jesus commanded has always been tough love.
  I believe this is one of the most important ways that we can bear witness to our new life through faith in Jesus Christ.[7]  In our day and time, Christians are divided by race, divided by class, divided by politics, divided by dogma.  All of these divisions contradict what Jesus said should be our defining trait: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35).  Because we come from different perspectives and backgrounds, the kind of love Jesus commanded us to show one another is tough.  It takes all that we have to give.  But in a world that seems increasingly lacking in love, it seems to me that maintaining this tough love for one another is the most important way that we can demonstrate the new life of our risen Lord.[8]

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX on 4/28/2013.
[2] Cf. Margaret Guenther, “No Exceptions Permitted,” in The Christian Century (May 3, 1995): 479: “Yes, love can be warm, enfolding and sheltering. Yes, love can feel good. But love can also be strong and difficult. It can be an impossible challenge.”
[3] Cf. Ernst Haenchen, John: A commentary on the Gospel of John, 117.
[4] Cf. Mary L. Coloe, “Welcome into the Household of God: The Foot Washing in John 13,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66 (Jul 2004):408.
[5] Cf. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:723: the foot washing “draws the disciple into the love that marks God’s and Jesus’ relationship to each other and to the world.”  Contrast Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, 568, where he presents the idea that “Jesus performed this servile task to prophesy symbolically that he was about to be humiliated in death.”
[6] Cf. Guenther, “No Exceptions,” 479: “I tend to love with my fingers crossed. I'm ready to love almost everyone, .... Surely I am allowed one holdout, one person whom I may judge unworthy of love. But the commandment has no loopholes”
[7] cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:235-36, where he argues that the essential revelation in the Gospel of John is the mutual love between the Father and the Son which Jesus demonstrates as a love that draws the world into this fellowship.  On that basis, then, he can say that “He Himself is the pledge” that is “the world which is loved by God and loves Him in return” even in spite of its ignorance of that fact.  He continues, “And with Him, as His disciples, those who believe in Him, the community of His followers, are a similar pledge.”  He concludes, “It is, therefore, the love which is in God Himself, which goes forth and breaks into the world in the existence of the man Jesus, and which is first actualised in those who believe in Him that they should be its witnesses—it is this love which the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel reveals as He manifests His glory.” And it is this love that draws others to faith.
[8] Cf. Richard B. Hayes, “Emergency Directive,” in The Christian Century (Apr 22, 1992): 425: “Sacrificial love ... presents a transformative witness to a world where the pursuit of self-actualization is the highest value, a world where self-asserting violence is the norm.” Cf. similarly George R. Beasley-Murray, John, 264

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