Acts 11:1-18 & John 13:31-35
I was up at Northwood Stadium the other day, and I saw some young people being coached in high jump. The coach had laid out some cones in a half circle, and was asking the athletes to run up to, and past, the high jump bar in a kind of “c” shape, without actually jumping. Then, when they’d got the hang of that, he started to get them jumping over the bar by flinging themselves backwards over it, arching their backs and legs. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I’d never seen the high jump on the TV, I don’t know that I would have worked out that this is the best way to jump over a high jump bar. In fact, people had been jumping over bars for a long time before anybody did try this way of doing it.
In 1968 Dick Fosbury won the Olympic High Jump Gold Medal. As he did so he changed the sport of High Jumping forever, because he did so using the Fosbury Flop.
It was a game changing innovation. For centuries people had been jumping over bars to see who could go highest, but Fosbury, without changing the rules of sport, changed the heights that could be achieved. You had to be willing to take off and jump backwards, and land on your shoulders or head, but if you were up for it, athletes who changed their technique found that they could jump higher than they could previously.
What was it that allowed this to happen, this radical change in this sport? Firstly, there was a trail blazer who proved that it could be done, and showed people how to do it, there was a new champion. Secondly, it took advantage of new circumstances (the introduction of softer landing mats), and thirdly it required the athletes to step up to the new challenge of a different way of doing things.
In our reading from John’s telling of the good news of Jesus, we heard about something new that Jesus gave to his followers. Jesus gave them a new commandment. He told them to love one another as he had loved them.
But hold on a minute, how is this a new commandment? Jesus has been going on about the importance of love since he started his ministry, and that teaching wasn’t even new then, it was based on the Old Testament teaching about love:
Leviticus 19:18 " 'Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD.”
We even hear Jesus quoting this passage directly in Mark’s good news:
“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"
"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
So, if the command to love is an old command, what is new about this one? It seems to me that there is something new about this commandment, something that if we really get hold of it, allows us to reach greater heights of love than the old one did.
The old commandment was for us to love each other as we love ourselves. The new commandment is for us to love each other as Jesus loves us. The old commandment was for us to love each other as we love ourselves. The new commandment is for us to love each other as Jesus loves us.
The bar of love has been raised. Love is still the command, but the height of love that we are to aim for has been increased. We no longer aim to love just as much as we love ourselves, but we have been set a higher standard, the standard of Jesus’ love for us.
How can we meet this challenge, what hope do we have of obeying this commandment? I find it difficult enough to love others with the same poor love that I have for myself. How can I ever love others as much as Jesus loves me?
May I suggest that some of the answers to these questions and worries might be found in the fact that the new commandment does not come on its own. It comes with a new champion, new circumstances, and a new challenge.
Jesus is our new champion. He has shown us the way. In fact, he has done more than shown us the way, he has made that way passable for us. He has opened up a new way of living and being. Jesus said to his disciples, “Where I am going, you cannot come” which doesn’t sound much like Jesus. However, three verses later he adds, “but you will follow afterwards.” Jesus isn’t saying that his followers will never be able to go the way that Jesus is going, but that they can’t go that way yet. Something has to happen first.
The thing that has to happen is Jesus has to die on the cross, defeat death, and open up the way that leads into the Father’s presence for ever. Now that Jesus has opened up that path, we may follow him down it, by way of the cross, to resurrection life. This means that we are freed to love as Jesus loves. Not only are we freed from our own death as we are joined with Jesus in his death and resurrection, but we die to ourselves and so are freed to love as Jesus loves.
Obedience to this new command is possible for us, because Jesus, our new champion, has shown us the way, has opened the way, and walks with us along the way.
Because of what has been done by the new champion, his followers now live in new circumstances.
There is now a new basis of the relationship between God and people. There is a new covenant based on the redemptive and healing death of Jesus on the cross. It is here that we see the depth, height, width, of the love that we are called to. It is in this new relationship that we enjoy with God, that we can experience the love and strength that enables us to love others in the way that Jesus loves us, with the love of self giving.
As there is a new basis for the relationship between God and people, so there is a new basis for the relationships between people. There is now a community that is so much characterised by sacrificial love, one for the other, that it becomes attractive to those around. See how these Christians love each other, prefer each other, are loyal to each other. It is in this community that we learn to love, and to be loved in this way. We learn the cost of this love, as we live alongside each other, work with each other, get to know each other’s weaknesses and annoying habits. So the muscles and sinews of self giving love really start to be stretched and exercised.
It is as we stretch and exercise our loving muscles that the Holy Spirit works in us to strengthen us in that love. We live with the new circumstances of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the people of God. Since Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has been living and active with God’s people, giving us courage and boldness, helping us to love where we did not think that we could love.
Obedience to this new command is possible for us, because we live in new circumstances, in a new relationship with the Father, in a new relationship with each other and with the new gift of the Holy Spirit.
Given these new circumstances, are we going to follow our new champion and rise to the new challenge?
I think that before we answer this, we need to really take stock of what it might mean in practice. What would actually have to change about the way that we think and the way that we do things? The High jump athletes in the late 60’s had to learn to jump backwards and land on their heads. In our reading from the history of the early church, we heard about how some of the Jewish Christians had to learn to see that God was bringing Gentiles to faith, and they had to choose to love and welcome people who up to that time they thought were their enemies.
What does it mean for us to love each other as Jesus loves us? Jesus died for us on a cross, but it is very unlikely that we will ever be asked to die on a cross for somebody, so what does self-sacrificial love actually look like, day by day. I have a few questions that I think might help us to explore what this might mean for us:
Who is there in this room that you love enough to die for? Who is there in this room that you love enough to change your career plans for? Who is there in this room that you love enough to change your plans for Tuesday afternoon for?
We have been given a new commandment. Our new champion, Jesus has shown us the way to obey, and opened up that way. We live in new circumstances, a new relationship with God, with each other and with the power of the Holy Spirit. Are we willing to rise to the challenge, learn to jump in a new way and so soar to new heights of love?