When we ask people to boil down the essential message of every world religion, nearly everyone will say something about our need to love others or some version of the “Golden Rule” which appears in some variation within nearly every world religion. It’s called the “Golden Rule” because it is the reductionistic rule for the masses who are not great “rule keepers” or said another way “law breakers” or “sinners.” This series is the reductionistic exploration of Jesus departing words by way of stripping all the layers of Church history, theology, and dogma which have been built upon them.
The Gospel of Matthew records an interaction between a strict law keeper (Pharisee) who asked Jesus to prioritize the greatest law.
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
In Matthew’s text above, Jesus is quoting Moses, who served as the mouthpiece for God to the people of Israel.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
These are important back stories which set up Jesus’ famous last words today in our examination of John’s gospel. They are important because, although the New Testament is full of teaching about love, none of these texts were available to the disciples. As Jews, they would be familiar, and would likely have memorized Deuteronomy 6 as a child. They would have been eyewitnesses to Jesus interacting with the religious leaders in discussing the Law, and they would be very familiar with the thousands of religious and purity laws that were added to Deuteronomy by the religious leaders.
Many listening to me today are in similar religious frameworks. You may be Mormon, Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, 7th Day Adventists, or any mainline denomination. You may be Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu. You could be a scientologist or an Atheist and religiously tied to the truth claims of science. Each religion has it’s merit ladder to God, be it the 10 commandments, the 5 pillars, the 8 fold path, or the “bridge” to total freedom. Regardless of the institution, each one adds more “law” and more rules and more nuance so that the powers who make the rules, can use them to divide people between innies and outies, and those who are truly devout.
If we don’t see the “religious system” which forces compliance through fear and intimidation, we cannot hear Jesus’ words correctly. We will only place his words back within the system we have already adopted. Jesus last words are intended to subvert all other systems which divide people, and replace them with an inclusive, accessible, and mutually agreeable single law, that unites everyone around a single ethos. Jesus was trying to “restore” or bring back the rule of God to the people and free them from the slavery to the earthly king. The original plan to which Jesus is pointing is back to the “kingdom” where God governs his free people.
“And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” 1 Samuel 8:7-8)
Now write yourself into this story as a religious person, who for your whole life has had to uphold countless rules in order to be accepted by your faith and ultimately God. Imagine hearing for the first time, that there isn’t anything to climb, or that there is only one rule.
“Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:33-35)
The Law of Love as Jesus frames it here is single, but it’s application is world transforming. This Law of Love subverts every religion’s rule book(s) and dismantles the arbitrary ritual, cadence, and puppetry of religion. It is impossible to break any purity, moral, economic, social, or psychological law if the single law of Love is upheld. If we can keep one law, we can know that we have kept the heart of every possible configuration of law which humanity designs to make ourselves more holy. Get this law and we get them all…miss it and we miss them all no matter our track record on the others.
“You mean I don’t need to have a goat slaughtered at the Temple? You mean I don’t need a prayer cloth and to pray five times a day facing East? You mean I don’t have to spend hours in religious services on weekends? You mean I can just walk right out from this community without the fear that I will go to Hell when I die? “
This applies to you. To me. To all. Love is inclusive. It brings all comers under the rule of a God which dwells within us. The Law of love is practical too.
This law means that every person we contact is the next person to whom we are to demonstrate Christ’s sacrificial, self-emptying love. Nothing more. Nothing less. No religious performance. No prideful displays of power or status. Selfless generosity to everyone.
…and that’s when we begin to feel the rub.
John Lennon may have been right to “imagine” all of this, but you and I know that even if we have only one law to follow, we still won’t be able to do it. We can barely give ourselves a pass when we fail, yet alone those we don’t know or don’t like. This is when we see ourselves written into this story as Simon.
“Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” (v.36)
We can’t just love others like this. It’s not within us to love like this at first. We simply cannot follow Christ (where he is going) initially. To love like this must be “inspired” or “breathed in” or given by “the Spirit.” Jesus is telling his disciples that after he departs, his very “Spirit” will come to all of them and then this kind of love will be possible. In fact, not only will it be possible, when “inspired”, but the Law of Love will be the single determining factor as to whether someone has been set free from the rule of institutional power unto the rule of Love.
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (v.35)
Remember last week Kosmos or Kingdom? Institutional power or personal power? Fake ID or True name? Control or Freedom? Rules or Love? Doing or Being? Do you see it now?
If we think we can do this on our own steam, under our own volition, or self power, then we are in fact acting like Simon. “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” (v.37) Go ahead and try. Give it all you got. Before morning comes, you and I will all do as Simon did and betray the law of love. This proves us utterly hopeless…
If we can see (perceive) this kind of love, it means we are able to perceive its reality. We can all see it’s latent power to change everything as we know it, but it requires each of us to ask for it. To seek it. To knock on the door of Love, Divine Love. The moment we humbly ask to experience this kind of Love and to be transformed by this kind of Love, and to give it to others as it has been given to us…that is the moment of inspiration…
…the Spirit that was in Christ…that is Christ…
…is now in all of us…
No ritual. Nothing but asking and receiving. No awkward prayers. No doctrine, theology, or affiliations. Just each of us asking to love someone who would otherwise be unloveable to us…it may even be us. Christ’s love gives us the pass we needed. Christ’s love allows us to give a pass to those who need it.
This kind of love, by any name we give it, is the only power which can change our world. It can change yours and mine immediately. Think of a painful or difficult relationship in your life, what would happen if we chose to love instead of defend, argue, or blame?
May we ask for this love to accompany us with the next person we meet, and especially if it someone whom we don’t like or with whom we are angry. That’s how the world changes. No politics, no military, no power plays.
Love causes all of these to become obsolete.