In his last week in Jerusalem, Jesus knew he did not have long. His path had become irreversible. Judas had already arranged betrayal. Jesus was headed to Jerusalem’s street of tears, the way of the cross. In these last hours, he wanted to be sure the disciples understood that his whole life and teaching came down to one commandment. Love one another.
Even as I have loved you, he said, you are to love one another. That’s not much of an expectation. God asks us to take note of what he has done for us by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and see that his love was freely given to us. Now God expects his people to love one another. Jesus created the community of love in the upper room. He washed the disciples’ feet as a symbol of the service, humility, and self-renunciation which characterizes that world-wide community.
Then he gave them bread and wine, calling it his body and blood, showing that the meal of his followers is himself. God’s family celebrates God’s presence in Jesus Christ. We rejoice in the action of God in giving Jesus Christ to us, his people on earth. It is the love of God in Christ that builds the community we know as the church.
Luther got it right in his explanation of the third article of the creed. “The Holy Spirit,” he wrote, “has called me through the gospel in the same way that he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” God in Jesus tells us we can’t have our own thing going with him if it excludes other people. We are called to be part of a fellowship of witnesses who work and live and worship together. The togetherness is not optional. Being part of the family means that we actually do something regarding our attitude and actions, in order to participate fully in the community of which Christ is the head.
Often we think we cannot change something about our behavior required for honest participation in the community of Christ. I would like to suggest that we can, although no one has said it would be easy. In order to become better acquainted with how behavior can change, I attended an open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was an exhilarating experience to be in company with people who have made tremendous changes in their habits, attitudes and behavior and to hear their witness. I was particularly impressed with their discussion of the twelve steps of the path to the spiritual awakening that keeps them sober. In these steps, the person who wants to overcome addiction and its consequences makes direct amends to those whom he or she has harmed as a result of alcoholism.
Each person knew he or she must continue to take personal inventory, and in the words of the 12 steps, “when we were wrong, promptly admit it.” Sometimes it is difficult to act like we do love people close to us. difficult to make amends, difficult to admit being wrong.
But the behavioral sciences have proven over and over that if we make ourselves go through the motions of acting like we love someone or if we compel ourselves to make amends and admit being wrong, then the inner attitude will eventually change. The sequence of the aphorism may have it right after all, that quarrelling lovers first kiss, and then they make up. Does that kind of moral strength characterize the church?
Is the church merely a convenience where we exercise our individual involvement with God and ignore other people with whom we pass through this world? Or do we as individuals take seriously the implication of faith for our own daily living?
Do we, members of the church, ever give the impression that the church resulted accidentally from Jesus’ life and work?
Or do we believe the church is a community where ordinary people live out God’s love for the world? If we fail to see the church as a community of people who love each other because God first loved us, then it becomes merely a social fellowship, an optional feature, just another club dressed up in religious rituals. So we have to keep asking ourselves whether we take the church from the center of God’s concern and placed it on the sidelines.
But if the church becomes a take-it or leave-it sort of thing where nothing really important happens, then Christ died in vain and his commandment to love one another has no relevance. In contrast, our proper response is to thank God that Jesus Christ came to establish this community of love that we have entered in our baptism. Now God’s loving action for us in Jesus Christ must draw from us grace-filled living.
To say that we have been baptized does not mean only that some ceremony took place in a certain holy place, but our baptism whether as an infant or adult, means we are part of God’s family. In our baptism, we have been joined with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. By the washing of water when it is joined with God’s word, we are buried with Christ in his tomb as the consequence of sin and death. As he came from the grave to newness of life, in like manner we are born again in our baptism to enjoy the power of Christ’s resurrection in daily living.
In our worship we are involved in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These actions, of water and bread and wine are the heart of the gospel. And they all take place within a fellowship of persons committed to God and each other. God’s intention for us jumps across continents and centuries as we come together for worship. Jesus gave the gifts of baptism and the Lord’s Supper to his first followers, the disciples and those others who accompanied him.
Today the church has inherited those gifts along with the fellowship in which those gifts are available. In the same way, the ordained ministry has been called into being, not to create two classes of Christians, such as normal folk and then the really holy people – which is an illusion anyway. Rather we have pastors because the life of the church utterly depends on the gospel being preached and the love of God enacted in the sacraments in the church.
If the gospel is not preached and the sacraments not given, then not only is the life of the church gradually and surely snuffed out, but God’s plan of establishing a community of love is left unfinished. The church lives by the gospel and sacraments. In them, God’s love reaches down from heaven and touches us, making us into his family.
All of which means that the church is the outgrowth of the upper room, where Jesus taught his disciples and where they received bread and wine from his hands in this new ceremony of community love for each other. Today the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper show us the reality of what Christ did for his disciples in Jerusalem and for us.
When we say we are in the church, we do not mean that our name is in a registry book somewhere or even that we come into the same room with other Christians from time to time. It means that we are all woven into a world-wide collection of people where if one of us is hurt, we’ll all say “ouch”. If one is blessed, we all say “thank God.”
The meaning, as well as the mystery, of the human condition is life shared – not pretended, not glossed over with polite manners and superficial smiles, not promises made because they sound nice. The great question for the community of God is whether we share the love of God.
The love we show the world will probably be a story of actions, ways in which we step into a hurting world and actively participate in its hurting and on its’ healing.
Today I hurt and need you. Tomorrow you hurt and need me. Others need all of us. When one rejoices, we invite all to join in the celebration.
Jesus shared himself, in every possible way, to create the community of love. It was his last instruction. Now his people around the world love one another.
That is God’s dream for us all.