Pastor Dale E. Austin John 14:15-21
In my somewhat limited travels throughout the state, as I move from appointment to appointment, I’ve come across some common characters who seem to be everywhere. I find some of them in the congregations I’ve served; others in the larger community. There are always those who will do anything for their church, as long as they don’t get up in front of the congregation and say something; they’re comfortable working behind the scenes, without overt recognition or fanfare. There are usually a few who like to believe that they are in charge and that they run everything in the church. There will be those who are deeply concerned over the plight of their neighbors; these are usually the ones whom we find on our missions teams. And then there are the spiritual elitists – those who look down on others who don’t measure up to their understanding of what it means to be “Christian.” These are usually the ones who give the rest of us a bad name.
I’ve’ know a good number of people who make clear distinctions between those whom they consider to be Christian and those whom they do not. Often I’ve found that they have few qualms about cheating or abusing those in the latter category, because they don’t belong to the Body of Christ. Unfortunately, I don’t find anywhere in the scriptures where that type of distinction is sanctioned, or where such judgments are condoned.
Today we hear Jesus telling us, more than once, that his followers are those who hear his commandments and obey them. Nothing more. But, what commandments? Jesus issued only one commandment. In the previous chapter, still part of this same extended discourse, he tells his disciples that he gives them a new commandment – to love one another. That’s the only commandment which Jesus issues. When asked about the greatest commandment he will quote the Old Testament, telling us to love God and to love others, but those were already on the books before Jesus came along.
So he tells us to “love one another.” It’s the only commandment he offers. But just who does he mean by “one another”? The elitists among us will tell us that he means our brothers and sisters in Christ. After all, he was addressing his inner circle of disciples, so he’s speaking to those who are genuine believers. For anyone outside that circle, they believe, this commandment doesn’t apply. This restriction gives them permission to mistreat those whom they do not consider to be true believers, because they aren’t included in “one another.”
Yeah – right!
That’s not what I see as I read the stories of those first disciples. They didn’t restrict their ministry just to each other. They reached out into the world, particularly to those outside the circle of faith, always working to enlarge that circle.
Jesus’ commandment to love one another is not exclusive or restrictive. It doesn’t refer only to those who are “just like us.” It can never become a justification for ignoring the situation of those whom we might consider to be outside the faith, simply because “they’re not Christians.” There was a second part to that commandment as Jesus tells us “as I have loved you.” Ah – there’s the guiding principle: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
Generally speaking, Jesus never restricted his ministry to those who were part of his inner circle. Granted, there were times when he singled them out for special instruction. But the vast majority of his ministry was open and available to anyone who was willing to listen to him or to come to him for help. For him, “one another” included everyone. In time, he even broadened his understanding to include foreigners, those who were not even Jewish, much less part of his inner circle. For Jesus, “one another” has no limits, no boundaries.
Jesus tells us that those who love him will obey his commandments. When we distort his words or place limitations on what we would like him to be saying, we are no longer obeying his words. We’ve substituted our own words, which is always risky. Whenever we turn away from someone in need, for whatever reasons, we are disobeying. Thank God for grace, because we all slip up here, at some time in our lives.
But we can’t rely on that grace as an escape hatch, allowing us to mistreat others intentionally, trusting that God’s grace will get us out. Grace is never an excuse for not trying to do our best. It’s for those times when we have tried, but we still come up short.