Monday, May 24, 2010

How will they know?

A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons, Kevin, age 5, and Ryan, age 3. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson about love. She told the boys, “If Jesus were sitting here, he would say ‘Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.’” It only took Kevin a split second to catch on. So Kevin turned to his younger brother and said, “Ryan, you be Jesus.”

This morning's Scripture passage is from the Gospel of John, chapter 13, verses 34-35. It takes place on the night of the Last Supper. After Jesus had washed the feet of his disciples and shared the Passover meal with the Twelve, and after Jesus had identified the one who would betray him, he gives this command to the remaining eleven. “Love one another. As I have loved you, love one another. By this all men will know you are my disciples.”

In the days of Jesus' ministry to b a disciple meant that you were someone who studied with a particular teacher, or followed a certain religion or philosophy. And disciples were not limited only to Jesus. The Bible mentions that John the Baptist, the Pharisees, Moses, even the ancient kings and pharaohs all had their own following of disciples. A disciple committed himself to learn the ways of his instructor or master. This was accomplished through a process of regular meeting times, questions and answers, whether it was the student asking the teacher or vice-versa, repetition and memorization. Over time, the disciple would become increasingly devoted to the master's teaching and loyal to the master himself. Eventually the pupil would become the teacher and the traditions and doctrines he learned from his master and now held to so dearly would be passed along to a disciple of his own.

We try to teach our children to be choosy about who their friends are. Why? Because you become like those you associate with, right? A good example is to look at a teenage girl and her bestie. For those of you who haven't been around teens for some time, a bestie is a best friend. They dress similarly, often sharing each other's clothes; like the same foods, use similar words; share the same experiences, either by spending time together or by telling each other EVERYTHING by phone, i/m, texting. If you want to know the likes and dislikes of a teenage girl, you can learn a lot without asking her a single question. All you have to do is just closely observe her bestie. In the same way, you could tell who a teacher's disciples were by close observation. There were tell-tale signs. Some were obvious, perhaps a wardrobe item such as specific jewelry or a particular head covering. Others may not be so noticeable at first glance but are still there. It might be a dietary regulation like not eating red meat, or the use, or absence, of certain words or phrases in his regular vocabulary, or their attitude toward others different from themselves. Whatever it is, that same traits would be common among the teacher's group of followers.

That night in the Upper Room Jesus makes it clear to his disciples what trait should stand out that will identify them to him. He gives the eleven men with him a new command: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so must you love one another.”

Loving your neighbor is nothing new; it is a command that was mentioned in the book of Leviticus, back in the days of Moses. When Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount he tells us, “Love your enemies.” Loving neighbors and enemies – people who often were outside of the direct influence of Jesus, people on the fringes of society – is noble and good. But what is it about “Love one another” that makes this a “new” command?

Jesus knew that if we as his disciples, the ones who follow him, do not live a lifestyle of brotherly love for each other, any love outside of our fellowship would lose its meaning. Jealousy, revenge and retaliation are common in the world around us. This command to Love One Another is a call to transcend our sinful tendencies and to live with love being the mutual debt owed one to another.

Jesus also knew that if we failed in this command, well, let's face it – why would an “outsider” want to be a part of a group where people don't get along? He knew He was about to give his closest followers a commission: To make disciples of all nations. He also knew that if we did not practice love for one another, this Great Commission would be in vain, and the church would die before it would have a chance to get started.

Not only does Jesus tell us the trait that should identify the disciple to the Master, He gives a standard of what it should look like: “As I have loved you.” It doesn't take much imagination to see how Jesus loved his disciples. First of all, Jesus chose them. Most disciples chose their teachers; here the Teacher chose the pupil. While under his instruction, Jesus, spoke kindly to them, was concerned for them and their welfare. He prayed with them and for them, even publicly owned them, considering them to be dearer to him than his mother, sister or brother. He rebuked them when they needed it, yet compassionately put up with their failings. Just prior to giving this command he washed their feet, and would later demonstrate the greatest act of love: He would lay down His life by dying on the cross for them, and for you and me.

Jesus knew the disciples would have to have outstanding love for one another in order for the early church to grow. But he knew they could not do it on their own. That is why He promised another Counselor, the Holy Spirit, to dwell within them, to guide them, and empower them to carry out what Jesus had called them to do. You can see evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter 2, when the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles at Pentecost. It is a familiar passage, so I won't read the text of it. But to remind you of the account, Jesus had already descended to heaven. Before doing so, he instructed his disciples to remain in Jerusalem, because they would soon receive power from the Holy Spirit, just as had been promised.

The day of Pentecost, also called the Festival of Weeks or Festival of First-fruits, was one of three important observances in the year where all Jewish men were expected to make sacrifices in the sanctuary. The other two observances were Passover, held 50 days earlier, and the Day of Atonement to be held in Autumn. That is why on the Day of Pentecost there was such a crowd of Jews from 15 or more nations gathered in Jerusalem.

As the account goes, the disciples were gathered in an upper room, when suddenly a “sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. And they all started to speak in different languages, as the Spirit enabled them.”

Remember the crowd of people outside? They heard that sound like the blowing of a violent wind too. They started gathering, and were amazed to hear these Galileean men talking in languages they had never spoken in, languages of the homelands of the men in the crowds. OK, not all of them were amazed. There were some scattered groups that insisted the disciples had too much to drink.

At that point Peter stood up and addressed the crowd, telling of Jesus the Messiah, who lived, was crucified, died and buried, and was resurrected on the third day, as prophesied by the prophet Joel and by King David. Peter went on and called the men gathered that day in Jerusalem to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, and they too would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And that day about 3,000 men were added to the followers of Jesus. Chapter 2 of Acts goes on to tell how the Believers had a sense of community about themselves, meeting together, taking care of each others' needs. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

If we are to love each other the same way that Jesus loves us, what would that look like? Recently I conducted an informal internet poll via Facebook, and here are some answers:

Through hugs, warm embraces, smiles, small touches OR helping them plant a garden, paint a room, roof a house, build a fence, share a meal...find the key to their office, help a lost child find their mommy, asking little ones in public washrooms "Did you flush?" "Do you need help washing your hands"...

Through listening and simply being there.

I greet the God within you.

Unconditionally. To love someone without limits. This doesn't mean you can't be angry, upset or frustrated with them but to love them regardless of circumstances.

In our “tiny mighty” congregation here at 64th and Orange, loving one another is demonstrated by our embraces during our greeting time. It is taking flowers or home communion to one of our shut-in members, or maybe Mariners and Youth going together to a Manor service. Learning enough Spanish to welcome someone in the Hispanic ministry, or knowing how to greet our youth with a fist-bump. It's a phone call or e-mail saying, not “where have you been?” but rather, “We've missed your smile.” It's one of our long-time members telling our high school students, “I'm proud of you,” or one of our youth asking a long-time member, “What was it like 20, 30, 40 years ago?”

Last fall the Session chose our 2010 stewardship theme to be “Building Community.” Loving one another is how we Build Community, a community where outsiders can look at us and see something different about us, something that identifies us as disciples of Jesus who happen to worship at this little corner. It doesn't happen by itself; it takes crossing the cultural and generational lines that we often stand behind and extending grace and compassion to others who may not be like us.

In 2002 the (then) Anaheim Angels and San Francisco Giants played against each other in the World Series. The Giants had all-star batter Barry Bonds, the Major League Player of the Year from the previous season on their team. But the Angels still won the series, even though they did not have one single superstar in their line-up and a rookie starting pitcher to boot. They won the championship because they had an outstanding team. But outstanding teams do not naturally happen on their own. To have an outstanding team is to have great coaching and an outstanding team manager.

A community such as ours cannot grow in the knowledge and grace of our Lord and Savior on its own either. Hopefully we each have a “coach,” someone who helps us to pattern our life after Jesus, whether it is a parent or grandparent, a Sunday school teacher, Pastor Chris, a former pastor, or someone else who takes us under his or her wing, helping to bring out the best in us, encouraging us to reach our full potential. Expressing our love for one another in this way is called “discipleship.” However, our full potential can never be truly realized without the empowerment of our Spiritual Manager, and that Spiritual Manager is the Holy Spirit, who dwells within each and every believer.

Discipleship ought not be a single generation, from parent to child or teacher to pupil either. The apostle Paul tells his young pupil Timothy, “You have heard me teach things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others.” Allow me to give an example:

When I was in my early 20's I was invited to my bestie's house for a small dinner party. It was her first apartment, and she was excited about cooking for guests, and all that. She decided to cook Roast Beef for her guests. As I was helping her prepare the meal, something about the way she did the roast caught my attention. I asked her, “Aren’t you supposed to cut the ends off ?”

“What?” she asked.

I repeated the question. “Aren’t you supposed to cut the ends off the roast beef? My mom always does.”

“Why would she do that?” she asked. Since I've never really been a kitchen person I did not have an answer to that, and just let her continue what she was doing.

The next time my mom cooked a roast, I asked her why she cuts the ends off when she prepares it. “Well, that’s the way your Nana did it. I learned it from her.”

A few minutes later my grandmother comes shuffling into the room with her walker. “Nana, when you used to cook roast beef, why did you always cut the ends off? Was it to make it more tender, or to cook more evenly?”

She put her frail hand on top of mine and smiled at me. “Honey, it’s because the pan wasn’t big enough!”

Discipleship is, by design, a never-ending process. The disciple becomes the teacher, thereby bringing a new pupil into a community governed by the command to Love One Another. And the new pupil, in time, becomes the teacher to the next generation. The teacher/pupil is not determined by age; the teacher does not need to be older than the one being taught. And just because you are discipling or mentoring someone else, do not think for a minute that you do not need a teacher yourself. We should always be seeking to grow and strengthen our relationship with the Lord. Therefore, I want to challenge you this day, if you seek to walk more closely with God, to seek out someone who can instruct, coach and encourage you to do so, whether it is Pastor Chris, myself, or someone else who is willing to do so. And if you are already walking in Jesus' footsteps, ask the Holy Spirit to bring a disciple into your life, and bring them into the community of believers who are known for their love one for another. Amen.

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