By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel
A man whose body was painfully twisted and deformed by polio wrote an article saying his spirit was unconquerable: “My body may be handicapped but my mind isn’t.” When asked whether he was always blessed with such a wonderful, positive attitude, he said, “No, not always. I was terribly self-conscious as a teenager and unhappy. I would never undress in a locker room where other boys could see me. Even the prospect of a routine physical exam left me filled with self-loathing and dread. One day, I had to endure yet another physical exam by a doctor I had never met before. He was completely impersonal and professional but I was miserable. Afterward, he told me to get dressed. Then he sat at his desk and asked me to excuse him briefly. He would be back in about ten minutes, he said, and then left the room.
“I sat there staring at the form on his desk, wondering what sort of grim notations he might have made about me. At last, unable to contain my curiosity, I went over and looked at it. There were some medical references that meant little to me but then my eye fell on what he had written in the box reserved for comments. There he had written five words in a strong, clear hand: Has a magnificently shaped head. I’ll never forget the extraordinary sense of relief that flooded over me with those words. They made me feel that I was not just a cripple, not just a freak. I was a person with compensative features and attributes. Right then and there I made up my mind to put my handicap in its place and to make the most of myself regardless of the circumstances. And the most marvelous component of that tremendous feeling of warmth and optimism was the knowledge that this doctor, this perceptive, caring doctor, had staged the whole thing. He had left the room knowing that I would be unable to resist the temptation to look at a piece of paper on his desk. He had written a prescription designed to restore my shattered self-esteem. What a wonderful thing! It turned me completely around. It has illuminated my whole life!”
When I read this man’s story, quoted by Norman Vincent Peale, I thought—love comes in many different ways. Love can as heroic as laying down one’s life for one’s friends. That is the sort of love, friendship, described by Jesus in today’s text. Or it can be simple yet gratifying, much as the doctor’s attempt to reach out to a young man miserable under his handicap.
From the earliest days of the Church, love was a mark of Christian believers. Pagans would marvel at the sharing among Christians and would comment, “See how they love one another.” They were described to the Roman emperor Hadrian this say, “They love one another. They never fail to help widows, to save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something, they give freely to those who have nothing. They do not consider themselves brothers and sisters in the usual sense, but instead brothers and sisters through the spirit of God.” Wayne Meek has written extensively on the growth of Christianity and he notes how Christians triumphed in the classical world. When epidemics raged, the Christians would care for each other. The pagans would not. The Christians would nurse people outside their community; the pagans would flee. Christians respected women. Girls were allowed to mature before they were married, while the culture around them married off young girls, abused women and subjugated their wives. Along with the Jews, rules of hygiene and moderation provided a healthier community and an example of love and care. Others would see how Christians cared for each other and for them and many converted. People became Christians because their moral way of life was better than that of the pagans and their love for those within and without the community showed a better way, the way of love.
The word in Greek for the love of sisters and brothers is philein. It is the word used in our text for that friendship we have with God and each other. It is the love which corresponds to the love between God the Father and God the Son and between Jesus, God’s Son, and his disciples. It is descriptive in our passage—this is how Christians love one another—and prescriptive—this is how Christians are to treat each other. “This is my commandment. You should love one another as I have loved you.”
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “PLEASE keep OT exegesis coming. It is relatively easy to find exegetical work on gospel passages, but not OT (or rest of NT). Thank you!”
(A note from Dick Donovan: I have completed the OT exegesis for the Sunday readings for the common lectionary, as well as a number of the Epistles. I am working hard to complete the Epistles.)
A thousand sparks to inspire you — and your congregation!
Albert Schweitzer once said, “Many have discovered helping others to be the most enduring therapy for it is the burdens you help another to bear that makes your own seem life.”
I read a parish newsletter not long ago where the pastor wrote that God promises to be with us now and for the life to come but then he went on to say that God give a third promise—God is present with us in the people of God. As Martin Luther noted we become little Christs to our neighbor, that God works through means of grace which include the Word of God, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper but also through what he called the conversation and consolation of the brethren. God works through us as we love our sister and brothers, as we share our faith story and listen to theirs, as we comfort and encourage, challenge and console. God works through us as we love one another as God first loved us.
Our Gospel today is a clear reminder of the importance of love. It is part of Jesus’ farewell to his disciples. Jesus wants them to know that they are to love one another as they have been loved. He uses the word “commandment” and his disciples, as Jews, would know that Jesus was referring to the Ten Commandments that God gave to the people of Israel. Jesus gives a new commandment which sums up the rest—as we love God and our neighbor as ourselves, we become the people of God. We form a new community of love. Outsiders will look at us and see our friendship, our caring, kindness, forbearance and love. Jesus also tells us that the result of our love will be joy.
Loving brings joy just as I am sure that the doctor was filled with joy as he wrote those encouraging words in the boy’s chart. It is joy we find we help the poor, feed the hungry, build shelter for the homeless, as we support missionaries, as we visit shut-ins and send cards to the ill. St Rose of Lima said, “When we serve the poor and sick we serve Jesus. We must not fail to help our neighbors because in them we serve Jesus.” And Jesus himself said that as we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick, we do all these things to him: “Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40 WEB).
In closing I would like to share another story of love, this time instead of the love of an adult for a child, it is the other way around. It is a story of Babe Ruth, also shared by Norman Vincent Peale. This great baseball player was a big man, but graceful, even rhythmic in his motions. When he batted, it was said to be like a symphony of beauty—the crack of the bat, the run, the tag on the base. He hit 714 home runs and multitudes loved him. But them, like all men and women, he got older. He was traded to the Boston Braves by his beloved Yankee. He came to one of his last games when the Braves were playing the Reds in Cincinnati. A big crowd was there to watch the great Ruth who though he was declining was still the Babe. But this day he wasn’t doing well. He fumbled the ball twice, made a couple of bad throws, let in five runs for the Cincinnati Reds. As the game ended, the old boy with his head down, walked slowly toward the dugout. The fans who once had cheered him so wildly were now booing. Then a small boy jumped over the railing on to the playing field. He threw his arms around the knees of his great hero. Ruth picked him up and then set him down, tousling his head. Hand-in-hand, the two started walking off the field. The booing ceased and there was a deep silence. Those fans witnessed the love of a great man for a little boy and the love of the boy for the great man.
Love has the power to change lives—our love for one another, our love for those in need, our love for Jesus. We love because God first loved us. God first loved us in Jesus, so let us love one another. Abide in love. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.