Two Commandments from Grandpa John
Easter 4B John 10:11-18, I John 3:16-24
Happy Mother’s Day. To all those mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers, godmothers, surrogate mothers, step-mothers and any other kinds of mothers here today, may God bless your life, especially in your calling to be a mother.
Something old and something new. An old commandment but at the same time, a new commandment.
I need your help today as we begin the sermon with a mind game. I would like you to visualize with me things that are both old and new at the same time. I would like you to think of things that are enormously old such as centuries or millennia old, but are at the same time, new and fresh every day. And the combination of this oldness and newness makes these events infinitely valuable.
For an example, not that long ago, my wife and I were walking down the canyon road near our house earlier this spring. My wife, looking at the new lushness of green in the springtime, exclaimed, “Look at the lushness of the canyon. The new green leaves from the trees. The new green fronds from the ferns. The new green plants springing up from the earth. It is all so new.” But yet, at the same time, those trees, those ferns and those bushes are very, very old. Those trees, ferns and bushes have been there for hundreds of years if not thousands of years. Yet there were new leaves, new fronds, new undergrowth on the forest floor. Something new yet very old. And the combination of old and new is infinitely beautiful and valuable.
Another example, I would like you to take a road trip up to the Cascade Mountains. I need you to ride in your car up through the town of Enumclaw and up to the village of Greenwater. Are you there in your car in Greenwater? On that trip to the Cascade mountains, immediately before Greenwater, you see the Nisqually River for the first time. You can see the river so clearly. The green water flowing swiftly down the Nisqually River. Fresh water from the rain. Fresh water from the mountain snows. Fresh water from the glaciers. Rippling water. Rushing water. Rolling water. Not that long ago this rippling water was up in the mountains as part of the winter snows and glacial system, but now this rippling water is flowing down the river and it was new water, fresh and clean. But that riverbed has been there for hundreds of years, thousands of years, perhaps tens of thousands years. The green waters in the river are forever new but the riverbed itself is thousands of years old. The combination of the new and old makes the infinitely valuable and both old and new at the same time.
A third example of something old but yet at the same time, very new. My most recent wedding was that of Michelle Tervo and Josh Siebenaler. On their wedding day, the two of them seemed like young kids, young adults, so fresh and so young, like the green waters of that Nisqually River, so fresh like the green fronds of the ferns in the forest. Twenty two years old, fresh and green. In that wedding ceremony that day, we did something which was very old, but at the same time was very new. The couple made life long vows to each other. The two of them were doing something which was very new and fresh for them. They were making their life long commitments to each other. But this ritual was very old. For centuries, from the dawn of time, men and women have made covenants with each other and with God. For centuries and civilizations, men and women have joined together as they make their life long promises to each other. This ritual is very old and at the same time, it was very new, such for Michelle and Joshua that day. Something very old and something very new. Some things in life are infinitely valuable precisely because they are both very old and very new at the same time.
Something old and something new. And so it is with Mothering. Like the ferns in the forest at springtime. Like fresh waters flowing down an ancient riverbed. Like a man and a woman making wedding vows of loyalty to each other, vows that men and women have made from the dawn of civilization. Mothering too is something very old and something very new at the same time. Since Adam and Eve, throughout all centuries and civilizations, Mothers throughout the world have laid down their lives for their children, have loved their children unconditionally and graciously, through thick and thin, through the good times and bad, and bonded with their child so deeply. This quality of mothering love is universal. It is old as the dawn of time. It is very old but at the same time, it is very new because each new mother and each new generation of mothers needs to discover what it means to be a mother, to lay down her life for her children. My daughter and daughters in law rediscover what it means to be a mother with the birth of each and every baby. And mothering is infinitely valuable, precisely because it is both eons old and freshly new at the same time.
It is with these images and metaphors that we approach the epistle and gospel lesson for today where the Apostle John says: A new commandment I give to you which is very old. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ who laid his life down for you and love one another. A new commandment but an old commandment: to believe and to love. By this we know what love is: that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us and we are to lay down our lives for each other.
Who wrote these profound words? The Apostle John. Let me tell you about the Apostle John. The Apostle John wrote both the gospel lesson and the epistle lesson for today. That is, he wrote both the Gospel of John and the Epistle of First John. How do we know that? We put a computer analysis of both books, and we discover that the Gospel of John and the Epistle of I John have the same vocabulary, the same language, the same syntax, and the same grammar. We know that John wrote both books.
Similarly, we know that the Apostle John did not write II and III John nor did he write the Book of Revelation. How do we know this? A computer analysis of the vocabulary, the language, the grammar and the syntax show that II and III John were written by someone else (the elder) and so was the Book of Revelation (the prophet). II and III John and Revelation do not claim to have been written by the Beloved disciple.
So both the Gospel of John and I John were written by the same person.
Other things about this Apostle John. He is called the beloved disciple. That is, of all the disciples of Jesus, John knew what love was. He was closest to Jesus, closer than all the other disciples. John was the only disciple who was present at Jesus’ crucifixion on Calvary; the other disciples had gutlessly run away. When Jesus was dying on the cross, he entrusted the care of his mother to John the Apostle. Jesus knew that John would take care of his mother in all circumstances. He was trustworthy, more than any other of the disciples and more than Jesus’ own brothers and sisters. The Apostle John knew what love was, more than any of the disciples and that is why he was called the beloved disciple.
What else about this John? He is the only eyewitness of our four gospels about Jesus’ life. Only John claims to have been an eyewitness of Jesus’ life and not the others. Not Matthew, Mark and Luke. Only John claims to be an eyewitness and we get juicy, little historical details from him such as Jesus walking in Solomon’s portico in the temple in the dead of winter or the juicy little historical detail from Good Friday when Jesus was on the cross. John tells us of a bowl, not a cup, full not half full, of vinegar not wine, and the soldiers lift up the sponge full of vinegar on a branch of hyssop, not a spear. These are juicy little details reported to us by an eyewitness. The Apostle John knew love and he also knew the historical details of Jesus’ life.
What else about this John? John, by this time in his life, was some eighty or ninety years old. The Apostle John had grown very old. Nearly sixty years had passed since Jesus lived, died and was raised from the dead by the powers of God. For sixty years, John had been thinking deeply and profoundly about Jesus and the Jesus story, and he then penned the Gospel of John and the Epistle of I John which is the text for the sermon for today.
After sixty yeas of contemplation, he writes this profound words, “By this we know love.” And that is what we want to know. We want to know love. We want to know what love is because we sense that all meaning and happiness and goodness in life comes from knowing love. The primary meaning and happiness of our lives does not come from our jobs. The primary meaning and happiness of our lives does not from money that we have accumulated. The primary meaning and happiness of our lives does not come from fame. Not from status. The primary meaning and happiness of life comes from knowing true love.
Old Man John says: “By this we know love, that he (Jesus) laid his life down for us.” Jesus laid down his life for us. That is a technical phrase found in John, chapter 10, about the good shepherd. Why is the shepherd good? Why is the shepherd noble? Because the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep and is willing to die for them and sacrifice his life for them. Five times in John 10 we hear that phrase: the shepherd was willing to lay down his life for the sheep. That is the essence of what Jesus did. That is the essence of what the good shepherd did. He laid his life down for another.
Why are some lives noble? I prefer the translation, “Jesus was the noble shepherd” more than Jesus was the good shepherd. Why was Jesus noble? Because he was willing to lay down his life for the sheep? That is always the source of nobility. Why was Mother Theresa noble? Because she was willing to lay down her life for others. She put the needs of others before herself. Why was St. Francis of Assisi noble? Because he was willing to lay down his life for others. He wrote: “It is in giving that we receive. It is in dying (to self) that we are born to a living hope.”
As I look across this congregation, I see so many noble lives today. Such grand lives. Such great lives. Such selfless lives. Where you have put the needs of others before your own. The needs of your mother who has Alzheimer’s. The needs of your son who was left medically handicapped after a car accident years ago. The needs of your ailing father. The needs of the homeless men at our shelter. Of people in need around the world. I see many noble lives seated before me today because you have discovered the secret of life and the heart of God: what is love? To lay down your life for another because that is precisely what Jesus did.
Then Grandpa John adds the next line: AND we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. That is love. That is true love. Jesus laid down his life for us and we are invited to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. Jesus also said in John 15, “No greater love has a person than this than they lay down their lives for their friends.”
Jesus then says: a new commandment I give to you and this commandment is very old: believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and love one another as he commanded us. Two commandments which are one: a commandment to believe and a commandment to love. And these commandments are as old as the human race. These two commandments are as old as the heart of God in the Garden of Eden: God wants us to believe in him, the Author of life. To believe in his Son who is the personification of his love. And to love as he loved.
To believe. To Believe in the Author of life. To believe in God. To believe in his only Son who is the personification of his love. What I personally want more than anything else is for my children, my grandchildren and my self to believe. Yes, believe in God, believe in the Author of life. Yes, believe in Jesus Christ, the Son and Personification of God’s love. To believe and not doubt. To believe and not be skeptical. To believe and trust that God is real and eternal. To trust that God is real and not a fabrication of my doubting mind. That is what I want for me and my loved ones.
The same is true for you. You send me your seventh graders to confirmation and down deep, you pray that your child will come to deeply believe and trust in God, in Christ, in the Author of life. These seventh graders show up at class and they are collectively squirrelly as can be. But within the class, the retreats, the mission trips, the friendships at church, it is your prayer that they will come to deeply believe in God and Christ, just as young boys and girls and men and women have come to deeply believe in centuries past. Something very old and very new at the same time: to truly believe in God, in Christ, in the Author of life.
And to love. Grandpa John, Old Man John, not only commanded us to believe but also to love. And that is what we want for ourselves and our children and grandchildren and all people, that we discover what is means to truly love.
Jesus said, “And this is love…that we lay down our lives for each other. Not in word and tongue but in deed in action.”
How we love loving words, perhaps more than loving actions and deeds. We memorize Bible verses about love: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” How we love to recite Bible verses such as “God is love and whoever lives in love lives in God.” We love to quote Bible verses about love, often as a replacement for doing acts of love.
How we love to sing about love. What is that childhood Bible camp song? “It’s about love, love, love. Its about love, love, love. Cause God loves us we love each other, mother, father, sister, brother. Everyone sing and shout, cause that’s what its all about.” Or we sing that great hymn from the hymnal from Charles Wesley, “Love divine all love excelling. Joy of heaven to earth come down. Fix in us thy humble dwelling, all thy faithful mercies crown. Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure unbounded love thou art. Visit us with thy salvation, enter into every trembling heart.” We love to sing about love, often as a replacement for doing the acts of love.
We love to write poetry love. On the Internet the other day, I looked up Shakespeare’s sonnets about love and there was a 164 of them. That is a lot of poetry about love. And I thought Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem was enough. “How shall I love thee, let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach, when feeling out of sight for the ends of Being and Ideal Grace.” We love to write poetry about love, often as a replacement for doing the acts of love.
And John, the Apostle of love; John, the beloved disciple; John who Jesus entrusted with the care of his mother who loved him while he was in his mother’s womb. This John, who knew about the love of Jesus more than any other, said: My brothers and sisters, let us not love in words or tongue but in deeds and action. He also said, “No greater love has a person than this than they lay down their life for their friends.”
This is God’s commandment: to believe. To love.
But…what if you can’t do what Jesus is asking of you? What if you are unable to believe in Christ the way that God wants you to? What if you don’t love the way that Christ wants you to love? What then?
What if you are too Norwegian? That is, what if you are an emotional and moral failure and you feel feelings of failure deep in your Norwegian heart that is prone to finding flaws within your self?
What if you are too German? That is, what if you are good only if you meet the high standards of being perfect or nearly perfect in your believing and in your loving. What if in your German heart you are not perfect enough in your believing and in your loving.
What if you are an only child or the last child or the spoiled child of the family? That is, what if you, because of your birth order, you find yourself enormously selfish and believing primarily in your self and loving primarily your self?
What if you are symbolically Norwegian, German or just place self centered in your love and belief? Then what?
Then hear the Word of the Lord from the Apostle John, who had thought about Jesus for sixty years and penned the following words: “When our hearts condemn us, God is stronger than our hearts.” What??? “When our hearts condemn us, God is stronger than our hearts.” When we feel we are sufficiently unable to believe and love, know that God’s love is stronger than our condemning hearts.”
Some things in life are infinitely valuable because they are both old and new at the same time. The new ferns in an ancient forest. The fresh river water flowing in an ancient riverbed. The living vows between a man and a woman, promises which are centuries and civilizations old. The new mother who loves her child deeply as mothers loved their children centuries ago. And Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you which is very old: Believe. Believe in me. Believe in the Author of life. And love. Love one another as I have loved you. Just as I laid down my life for you, lay down your lives for one another.” So old. So new. Found in the beginning of time. Rediscovered by every new generation today. Amen.
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