John 13:31-35 | 2 Corinthians 8:1-15
We ended last week with Paul’s amazing claim that we have been called to share in God’s ministry of reconciliation; as ambassadors, making known the amazing grace, the incredible good fortune that we have experienced – finding ourselves reconciled with God in the person of Jesus Christ. That the Christian life is about living as people who know they are beloved of, and reconciled with, God; and that Christian mission is, at its heart, sharing the truth of that love and that reconciliation with a world desperately in need of it.
And Paul used the image of an ambassador, to make the point that we are messengers of, spokespeople for, witnesses to, that reconciliation. We cannot reconcile anyone with God; our role is simply to let them know that God has already done everything that needs to be done.
But I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that that means that there is room only for words in the sharing – and living – of our faith. For of course that could hardly be further from the truth.
For of course the most important part – the one irreplaceable part – of sharing the good news of reconciliation is by demonstration. The life of the ambassador must reflect the message.
The life of the ambassador for the reconciling love of Jesus must reflect the reconciling love of Jesus.
And so today’s gospel reading gives us that so simple and yet so profound “new commandment” of Jesus. “Love one another”.
Except, of course, that’s not a new commandment.
Love your people, love your tribe, love your team; there’s nothing new in that. It’s right there in the Levitical law – Leviticus 19:18 – “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord”. And in the sermon on the mount, Jesus pours scorn on idea that loving one another is somehow a great good “don’t even the tax collectors do that? don’t the gentiles?”
Hearing Jesus’ words, “love one another” as spoken – as they were – to a group of his followers, as entreating them to look out for each other, that’s not a new commandment.
You can’t stop at “love one another”. The bit which makes it new is “as I have loved”.
Love one another as I have loved.
So what is it about the way that Jesus loved that makes this commandment something new?
Well, two things, perhaps, come to mind.
The first is that the love of Jesus was (and this was surely on his mind in our gospel reading, the farewell discourse, as Jesus was about to be taken and killed) was that Jesus’ love was sacrificial. Greater love has no one than this; that they lay down their life for their friends. This was not the love of the tax collector that Jesus scorns; the love that loves others when it might be to our advantage – crassly to our financial advantage, or more subtly, to our emotional advantage. This is love that puts the needs of the beloved first.
And the second – well, it’s there in the same breath in the sermon on the mount. ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies’.
The new commandment – to love as Jesus loved – is to a love that is both generous and without borders; a love, in fact, which is characterised by reconciliation, reaching out beyond the ‘us’.
The ministry of ambassadors of reconciliation is to be witnesses to the love of God which is generous and without borders, by living, ourselves, a love which is generous and without borders.
Paul, writing to the Church in Corinth, is making an appeal that reminds me of those invitations you get, especially at this time of year – “as the financial year draws to a close, there is no better time to make a tax-deductible gift”. He’s appealing to the Corinthians to give generously for the needs of others.
But his appeal is not as if this were a duty, or a responsibility. He names it, instead, as a privilege.
And he draws the attention of the Corinthian Church to the attitude of the Macedonians. Who, despite their severe affliction, had begged Paul to accept their contribution to the needs of others.
Now I can’t help feeling that there is an almost frighteningly strong parallel between this passage, and us, here in Wahroonga, at the end of a tax year, and in the run up to a federal election. I’m reminded of a story Sureka told me (and I’m sure has told others).
About 15 months ago, cyclone Pam devastated many tropical islands, but most especially, Vanuatu. And alongside the generous response of many in Australia, the Church in Fiji (which had itself been effected by the cyclone, though to a much lesser extent) raised funds for their brothers and sisters in Vanuatu, channelling those funds through their partnership with UnitingWorld.
Less than a year later, in February this year, cyclone Winston struck Fiji. And the Church in Vanuatu – still struggling to rebuild their own homes, schools, public spaces – raised money to help the people of Fiji.
This is the spirit of the Macedonian Church, that Paul appeals to: “for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity”.
But Paul is not writing to the Macedonian Church, but to the Corinthians; the relatively wealthy Church in a major trading town.
If the Macedonians – those generous even in their hardship, are the Fijian Church, the Church of Vanuatu, then the Corinthians are us. The fellow believers who are, relatively, at least, wealthy.
And Paul appeals to them: if you excel in anything, excel in this: generosity.
He even goes so far as to say that this is the test of their love: not purity of doctrine, not spiritual gifting, not words of profundity; but the extent to which their love finds expression in their generosity towards others.
Why is this the test? Paul goes on: because you know the generosity of God, shown in Jesus, who became poor, that you might be rich.
This, Paul told the Corinthian Church, and, I believe, would tell us, this is the measure of your love, you who are rich; will you imitate the one you follow, the one who became poor that you might be rich?
Not that you should be destitute (he goes on) “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need”
But simply “that there may be a fair balance”
The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little
And so we bring the two together: the call to love beyond boundaries, to love those who are different, those who are frightening, those who are enemy; and the call the generosity, to sharing in, reflecting the generous love of God.
This is the call upon us, in our day to day lives, and as we come to choose the direction of our country for the next few years.
I don’t believe it is the role of the preacher to suggest how people should vote – I’d honestly be very surprised if anyone took any notice of me if I did. People of good faith and good conscience will differ in what they believe to be the best direction, the best policies, the best leadership. And that is how it should be, as we celebrate the messy wonder of living in a liberal democratic state.
My only appeal would be that generous love that knows no boundaries be the standard against which you measure – most of all, against which you measure yourself.