One of the lines in our Gospel reading, spoken by Jesus, is a well known Bible quotation, and that is "Love one another." The full line Jesus says, of course, is "love one another as I have loved you," which is a pretty high standard. People have a tendency to quote the line "Love one another" as if it refers to how all human beings ought to treat all other human beings. And I have nothing against that basic idea: the world would be a much better place if everyone could love everyone else. However, history shows that that usually isn't so simple. And Christians explain why that isn't so simple by means of a doctrine called "sin," which maybe we'll talk about in more detail another day.
But it’s important to read the Bible in context, and in context, the direction to "love one another as I have loved you" is given specifically by Jesus to his inner group of disciples. You might remember that after Jesus was raised from the dead he spent a period of time, 50 days to be exact, teaching his disciples in private before he ascended into heaven. Of course, we can't recreate exactly that experience. We can use the number 50 to set how many days we will observe the Easter season, which we do. But we can't quote any of the teaching the Risen Christ gave his disciples during these 50 days, because nobody wrote any of it down. Or if they did, it must not have been God’s will for us to have it in our Bible, because it was not preserved.
So our lectionary, our schedule of readings, can't use any of that intimate teaching material given to the inner circle before Jesus' ascension. But it can use the intimate teaching material given to the inner circle before Jesus' crucifixion, because that was preserved. That gives you a little background as to why we have the kind of Gospel readings we do in this season -- to duplicate that sense of close-knit, heartfelt teaching within the community of disciples.
Do you see, though, why especially given that context, we can’t quote "love one another" as if it were a generic slogan? Christians are asked to be loving towards all kinds of people, but this verse is not about that. "Love one another as I have loved you" is a statement spoken to a committed group of disciples as part of their final training by Jesus in how to be the church, what the standards within the Christian community are to be. "Love one another as I have loved you." And that line is only one statement about what ought to define the inner workings of a Christian community. In fact, there are many more teachings in exactly that form -- Verb + One Another -- in the New Testament. Each of them also addresses the inner workings of any circle of believers, and calls us to show forth the presence of the Spirit specifically in how we deal with each other. We’ve talked at Emmanuel this year about Christian truth, Christian tools, and Christian belonging, and these verses give a picture of Christian belonging which helps us see that by the power of God, a church can be a very different thing than a club or an office or a family reunion.
We’re going to look quickly at eight of those "one anothers." And as I do, think over how well they characterize us Christians, us Episcopalians, or us Emmanuelites. How well these commands from the Bible are being lived out in our own communities.
1. We've already cited the first one, which is Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34)—Jesus’ kind of love is unselfish and sacrificial. What would the church look like if each one was willing to sacrifice their own preferences so that others could grow closer to God?
2. Be at peace with one another (Mark 9:50)—Another direction spoken by Christ himself. I'm sure most of you have heard stories in the press, or maybe a little closer than that, about churches that were at war with their clergy or with their Bishop or with other parts of their denomination. If you haven’t, just open Twitter. Think of the damage those battles do to the credibility of Christianity. How would church life change if Christians made a conscious choice to live in internal peace -- not a phony niceness, but the costly unity that comes from speaking the truth while prioritizing Jesus over getting your own way?
3. Honor one another (Romans 12:10)—Christ honored even the most lowly people. Who here at Emmanuel needs to feel honored and valued, needs someone to say "I'm proud of you?" Often churches are good at honoring the most visible people, people who have power in some way, but in the eyes of Jesus everybody counts. Look around the room and ask yourself: Whom can you take a moment to honor before you leave today?
4. Accept one another (Romans 15:7)—It’s not the role of Christians to change other people; that's in God’s job description. I'm not saying that we condone any and all actions, but that we accept each person as a beloved child of God first and foremost. Do you think that this attitude is something people associate with followers of Jesus? Or do they expect us to be judgmental?
5. Carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)—This means willingly and humbly walking beside others when they’re hurting or struggling. We have some wonderful examples of people doing this for each other at Emmanuel, especially if they were already friends outside the church. But how can the list of members whose burdens get noticed grow longer? Who is there in this congregation whose load you could help to bear? Or let me turn it around -- have you chosen to disobey this verse and carry a burden by yourself because in the world, your problem is something embarrassing, rather than let some fellow believers shoulder it with you in a community that plays by different rules than the world?
6. Be patient with one another (Ephesians 4:2)— There are probably other followers of Jesus in this world, maybe in this room who, in worldly terms, drive you nuts. Rub you the wrong way. In Christ, there are resources so that our relationship with those people can look different than it would if we were not believers in the same Lord. You may never find all your fellow disciples to your taste, but you can display patience with them if you seek it from Christ.
7. Forgive one another (Colossians 3:13)—Harboring a grudge creates stressed and unbalanced relationships, and according to Jesus, it also blocks the action of the Spirit. If you are nursing hostility against another follower of Christ, could you imagine letting go of ego and pride to forgive them – not to excuse them, but to forgive them -- for the sake of strengthening the church and your own relationship with God?
And finally 8. Serve one another (1 Peter 4:10)—According to the New Testament, every Christian is given at least one spiritual gift. While it is very fun and fulfilling to put a spiritual gift to work, they aren't given for selfish use. How would our church change if every single person in this building started actively using their gifts for God and to meet some of the very significant needs Emmanuel’s ministries have right now? For one thing, we’d be back to two services immediately, I’ll tell you that much.
There are more "one anothers," but eight are enough for now. As we've asked these questions and looked at these verses, you may have thought, "Hey, you know, we're doing pretty well." Or you may have said, "Gosh, we do some of those things, but it's more based on human friendships than on our common faith in Christ. How can we open up more?" You may have muttered, "The lousy institutional church, never ever lives up to what Jesus wants." Or you may have said to yourself, "This community is on the way to that kind of life, and I want to see us get there."
Love one another, Be at peace with one another, Honor one another, Accept one another, Carry one another’s burdens, Be patient with one another, Forgive one another, Serve one another. Whatever your reaction to the list, this is what a community life that flows from Christ looks like. Now, the actual life of any Christian community, including this one, probably never flows 100% from Christ -- back to that doctrine of sin again. But his life and his power are available to help us live out those "one anothers" -- to behave within this community according to what Scripture says. And if we first open ourselves to receive that life and power, and if we next use that life and power, and if then by that life and power we start to live out those "one anothers" in our own Christian belonging here at Emmanuel, the prediction Jesus made at the end of today's Gospel will come true. "By this everyone will know that we are his disciples."