The story is told of a church that had recently called a new pastor. On his first Sunday in the pulpit, the sanctuary was packed. Hopes ran high as the folks prepared to hear his first sermon. Naturally, they prayed that their new pastor would be a dynamic, gifted preacher.
They were not disappointed. His text was from John 13, verse 34, where Jesus said,
“A new commandment I give to you,
that you love one another,
just like I have loved you…”
The sermon was splendid. The new pastor proclaimed God’s Word with eloquence and grace. When it was over, everyone – especially the members of the Pastor Nominating Committee – breathed a sigh of relief and exchanged glances of tacit approval.
The next Sunday, the people gathered in anticipation of another great sermon, but, to their dismay, he repeated the sermon from the week before:
“A new commandment I give to you,
that you love one another,
just like I have loved you…”
At first, the folks were stunned. “Didn’t we just hear this sermon last week?” they thought to themselves. Then they began to reason: “No, it was certainly similar, but there must have been subtle differences from the week before. Ah, clever fellow! He used the same text, but altered the sermon ever so slightly so as to emphasize yet another point. Next time we’ll listen more carefully. Wow, what a preacher!”
Sure enough, the third Sunday the people gathered as before and, unbelievably, the new pastor preached the exact same sermon from the previous two Sundays, word for word: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just like I have loved you…” This time there was no mistake – he was clearly repeating himself.
The elders gathered hastily after church and demanded an explanation. “What in heaven’s name is going on?” they asked. The new preacher replied, “Going on? What do you mean? Jesus was clear: ‘That you love one another, just like I have loved you.’ Well, when you do this, I’ll give you my next sermon.”
It’s just a story, but it contains an element of truth: Unless we’re willing to love one another, we need not expect to go on to the next level. Love is the basis of the Christian life. If we don’t live in love with one another, nothing else matters. This is what Paul said so long ago:
“If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but don’t have love,
I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge;
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but don’t have love,
I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
This morning, I want to touch briefly on what it means to love one another, and if you don’t hear anything else but this, let’s be clear: To love one another in the best sense of the word is not humanly possible; it can only come as a gift of God. First, we must be filled with God’s love; and, as we are, God’s love will overflow to all those we come in contact with – loved ones, friends, acquaintances, strangers, even our enemies.
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So, what does it mean to love one another? First, it means to accept and affirm others unconditionally. That means to see the beauty of God’s presence in their faces, no matter how disfigured they may be.
Two weeks ago, my son, Patrick, and his wife, Emily, presented their eight-week-old baby, Hank, to be baptized. Now, you need to know, Hank is one of the most beautiful children you’ve ever seen … and, of course, I’m being completely objective in saying that. He’s handsome and cute, and he’s got the biggest blue eyes in the world. O.K., so I’m a doting grandfather. The point is, even if he looked like Attila the Hun, he’d still be precious in the sight of those who love him.
I have a picture from the luncheon afterward. Hank is in his mother’s arms looking up wide-eyed over her left shoulder. As importantly, Emily is looking down at him, smiling, with the most adoring expression of pride and joy a mother could have.
This is what it means to love one another, to accept and affirm them unconditionally, warts and all.
Have you ever experienced that? Are there those who love you in this way? It can transform your life. There’s no greater experience in the world than to be loved unconditionally, to be valued purely and simply for who you are and not for how you look or for what you can do.
And to love others in that same unconditional way is the greatest gift you can give, and the most powerful testimony as to what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
To love one another means to accept and affirm others unconditionally and without reservation. That’s the first point, and the second is: To love one another means to want what’s best for others as much as you want what’s best for you.
This is the heart of Jesus’ teaching, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In this spirit, we seek to do what’s best for all concerned and not simply act out of self-interest.
One of my favorite illustrations is that of young woman who grew up in a large family.
They were poor, and the highlight of their week was Sunday dinner, when they had fried chicken. All the kids competed for a breast or a leg or the “pulley bone.” “Mom always asked for the back,” the young woman said with a tear in her eye. “She said it was her favorite piece.”
Then she added, “It wasn’t until I graduated from college that it dawned on me that she took the back so that everyone else could have what they wanted.”
We see this all the time: Parents driving older cars, wearing frayed clothes, living modestly in order to send their kids to college; moms going to work, dads taking a second job just to give the kids an advantage.
Many of you remember Ana Rosales. She’s the young woman from Piedras Negras we helped sponsor at Schreiner University. Her mother, Maria, tells of how this group of Presbyterians from Corpus Christi convinced her to let Ana go to Presbyterian Pan American School in Kingsville. Ana was only fourteen at the time. Maria said it was like losing her daughter. She wondered if she’d ever see or hear from Ana again. Her instinct was to hold on and keep her close to home. But she wanted what was best for Ana, and she knew that Ana could get a better education and have more opportunities in the United States. So, she said yes.
And today, Ana is not only a college graduate but in her second year at Austin Seminary and on her way to becoming a Minister of Word and Sacrament. And, yes, she calls home often and makes frequent trips back to Piedras Negras.
To love one another is to want what’s best for the other as much as you want what’s best for you. That’s the second point, and the third point is this: To love one another is to be there for each other in times of need and to lend a helping hand, whatever the cost may be.
Dave Burdett told me this week about the time when he and Kathy, just newlyweds, lost everything they had in the wake of Hurricane Carla. They had to move in with Kathy’s mom and dad. I’m sure others of you could tell similar stories of setbacks you’ve suffered and how those who loved you were there to help you get back on your feet. This is what it means to love one another. According to James, it’s the most telling test of faith. He says,
“And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food,
and one of you tells them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled;”
and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it?
Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself.” (James 2:15-17)
Ever since Sunday, we’ve been riveted to the TV set, watching the devastation of Hurricane Katrina unfold. It’s been a nightmare for the people of New Orleans and south Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Today, we have hundreds of displaced people here in Bryan-College Station seeking shelter and relief.
Already, your response has been overwhelming. I sent an email to the elders and to the Men’s Breakfast Fellowship Wednesday afternoon asking for help. Thursday morning I took part of the money and bought $350 dollars worth of toiletries, snacks, diapers and bottled water to donate to the cause. Many of you have called and emailed me and Pam and Marie asking what you can do. Several of you have indicated a willingness to take an individual or family into your home. I couldn’t be more impressed and touched by your graciousness and generosity, and I’m confident that we’ll do our part to help in the relief effort in the weeks and months ahead.
This is what it means to love one another: To be there for each other in times of need, and to lend a helping hand, whatever the cost may be.
The question is: Where does this come from, this capacity to love others, to reach out to total strangers with open and generous hearts?
I submit to you, it comes only as a gift of God. “We love him, because he first loved us,” scripture says. (1 John 4:19) First, we must be filled with God’s love. As we are, God’s love will overflow to all those we come in contact with – loved ones, friends, acquaintances, strangers, even our enemies.
We see God’s love most clearly in Jesus Christ, who took a basin and towel and knelt and washed his disciples’ feet. Then he took bread and broke it, and he gave it to them and said, “Take, eat. This is my body, which is broken for you.” Then he took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink, in memory of me.”
Jesus lived in such a way as to show us how to love one another. And he died for the forgiveness of our sins in order that we might free to love one another in his name.
The Sacrament of Holy Communion is a symbol of God’s love. As you receive these elements, know that God loves you with an everlasting, unconditional love. Then, in response, go out and love one another to the glory of his name.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.