Loving Our Gentiles

James Tissot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: When Jesus gave his disciples a “new” commandment to love one another, he was telling them to stick together through the hard times. We are commanded to do the same – to love our Christian brothers and sisters – especially our “gentiles” – those who think very differently from us and live very different lives. We all know how difficult that can be, so what’s the secret?

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Scripture: John 13:31-35

If we were to visit a variety of Christian churches over several Sundays, and asked people, “Do you love your brothers and sisters in Christ?” I’m sure they would all say, “Yes, of course I do!” We all know that we’re supposed to love our Christian brothers and sisters, but how well do we do that in reality?

Even within our own congregations, it’s not always easy to love one another through conflicts over church administrative decisions, worship practices, music selection, and even fellowship hour goodies. But generally, it is far easier to love people who are more like us than it is to love those who are very different from us – those who think very differently and live very different lives.

The apostles were faced with this same challenge when they started the church. There were major conflicts among the Jews over whether the gentiles could be accepted as Christians without becoming Jews like them. Who are our “gentiles,” and how can we learn to love them?

That is what our scripture reading for today is all about.

The setting of our scripture reading is the night the Lord was betrayed. During supper, the Lord took off his outer garments and washed his disciples’ feet to demonstrate the true purpose for his coming to earth – not to be served, but to serve.

You may remember how much Peter objected to the Lord washing his feet because he didn’t believe a master should wash his disciples’ feet. The Lord responded by reminding Peter that unless he allows this, he can have “no share” with him. Jesus meant that unless Peter can accept his essential equality with the Lord, he will always feel estranged (or separated) from him.

The same is true for all of us. We struggle to give and receive service unless we feel equal. In this world, there is status, but in God’s world, there is no such thing. We are essentially equal – quite literally. The only real part of us is the spark of the Divine within us all, so our essential nature is exactly the same.

After setting this example for his disciples and encouraging them to follow it, Jesus foretells his betrayal, and Judas exits the scene. Here is where our scripture reading begins. The disciples’ relationship with the Lord is about to undergo a huge change, and the Lord does the best he can to explain it.

It must have been a lot like trying to explain to a child where a loved ones goes after they pass away. It’s so difficult to comfort children because they don’t understand why the loved one has to go away and why they can’t follow. Even though we adults understand this more, we feel much the same way.

Jesus has compassion for his disciples, knowing how difficult it will be for them to understand the transformation he is about to undergo, and how it will change his relationship with them. First, he explains that he is about to be glorified with the Father.

The Father within the Son is about to be revealed. The way I understand this is that Jesus’ life and death perfectly expressed the love of God. When he resurrected, he became the Love of God, and so he was immediately glorified with God as God’s perfect expression.

In his teachings, Jesus had told the crowd that he would be with them only a little while longer and that where he was going, they could not follow him or find him. Now, the disciples probably thought that this didn’t apply to them since they went everywhere with Jesus – even the most remote places – when he retreated from his adversaries.

At this point in time, they were determined to follow Jesus wherever he went – even if they had to die with him. When Jesus decided to return to Judea even though the Jews were trying to kill him, Thomas said, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” And later in this passage Peter will say, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

You see, when Jesus says he’s going to a place where they can’t follow him or find him, they think it’s some earthly place. They haven’t accepted what Jesus had been trying to tell them – that he is going to die and then resurrect three days later.

Back to our scripture reading. Jesus gives his disciples what he calls a “new commandment.” But how can it be considered “new” when they all know the greatest commandment of Jewish Law is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Well, in preparing his disciples for his crucifixion, Jesus is telling them to stick together and to take care of one another – to not abandon one another – no matter what happens. He knew that what was about to happen to him in Jerusalem could potentially shatter the group, which could prevent them from spreading the gospel.

They had to love one another through Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial and Thomas’ doubt. They had to love one another through trying to comprehend the purpose of Jesus’ death and the meaning of his resurrection. They had to love one another through figuring out how to bring Jesus’ message of salvation to the world. They had to love one another through making decisions about how to establish and nurture the church.

I can imagine Jesus calling it a “new” commandment with a little wink, knowing that it wouldn’t be easy. In Acts chapter 11, we learn that Peter, along with many Jews, struggled to view gentile Christians as equals because they were not Jews like him. Then, he had a vision that changed his mind and, in verse 12, Peter advises the Jews, “not to make a distinction between them and us.”

Jesus commands us to love our Christian brothers and sisters. But why should we? Jesus told us why. He said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” By loving one another, we set an example for others because it’s just not how most people behave.

Historical records reveal that in early Christian history, non-believers mocked Christians because of how they loved one another. For instance, Tertullian, who lived toward the end of the second century, wrote, “Behold, how these Christians love one another!” And Caecillius wrote, “They love one another before they know one another!”

If these two could step into a time machine and transport themselves into these times, I’m afraid they would admire today’s Christians. They’d be like, “Behold how the Christians hate one another! They hate one another before they know one another!”

Because I am so liberal-minded, my personal “gentiles” are conservative Christians, particularly Evangelical Christians, and until recently I decided that they weren’t really Christians, so I didn’t have to love them. Yes, I was taking advantage of a very popular ploy designed to dodge the Lord’s command.

Then I realized it’s not my place to judge other Christians’ relationship with the Lord. They may genuinely love the Lord just as much as I do, and they feel just as strongly as I do about certain things. I resent it when they judge my relationship with the Lord, and here I was doing the same thing to them.

How can we learn to love them? Well, my parents are two conservative Christians who figured it out. While I was growing up, my parents made it very clear how they felt about homosexuals. My mother didn’t hate anyone, but she had her beliefs, and she believed being gay was sinful. My father, on the other hand, hated homosexuals so much that he said he hoped the AIDS epidemic would kill them all.

I tried to tell my parents when I was in my early twenties that I am gay, but they didn’t handle it well. Since I needed their support, I withdrew my confession, explaining it was due to my mental health crisis. I didn’t attempt coming out again until I was almost fifty years old, after I met my future wife.

My parents didn’t attend the wedding because they didn’t believe in gay marriage. It hurt, but we respected their decision. Some might judge them harshly for this choice, but in not coming to the wedding, they were simply living their lives according to their values, and everyone has that right.

Despite their beliefs, they have always treated both me and my wife with love and respect. Believe it or not, my mother was finally able to accept who I am after she confessed to one of her personal care home friends that she has a daughter who is a lesbian. Her friend replied, “You should be proud of your daughter!” I guess all mom needed was a second opinion.

My father still considers our lifestyle sinful, but he has always treated both me and my wife lovingly – and he recently he told me that he is proud of me – even though I’m gay. Now, that meant a lot to me. All it took for my father to stop hating gay people was for him to know one.

My parents discovered the secret to loving Christians who are very different from us. The secret is this: Love is more important than beliefs. When we make our beliefs more important than love, then we are worshipping an idol, and that idol is ourselves. When we judge others, we are overruling God’s judgement of His Creation as “good” and making of ourselves a rival to God.

This state of mind that separates us from God and one another because it leads to estrangement, which leads to apathy, and often to hatred. The trouble starts the moment we place our fellow Christians into the “them” category.

I was inspired to apply the secret to loving Christians who are different from us in the ruthless arena of social media. I recently posted on Facebook how I feel about a very controversial subject that’s all over the news. There were three comments on my post. The first and third were comments from friends in support of how I feel, so I clicked the “like” emoji for their comments.

The second comment was from a friend who is an evangelical Christian who strongly disagreed with how I feel, and I could just feel the devil’s horns pushing up against my halo! I knew better than to reply and start a discussion with her since we’d been down that painful “Road to Nowhere” before. I thought about deleting her comment, but I decided that was too mean. Then I thought about ignoring it, but I decided that was mean too.

A solution finally came from the Holy Spirit, and it was so easy! I decided to click the “care” emoji for her comment to indicate that I “care” about her feelings even though I feel differently. So, with the click of a button, I let her know that I loved my fellow Christian without requiring her to be like me.

It is the same choice Peter made – a choice we need to make every day – not because we want to, but because the Lord commanded it. What a difference it would make if we Christians could all find a way to love one another despite our differences instead of demonizing one another?

All we need to do is be willing to try to actually care about how they feel. We don’t have to agree with them. We don’t have to feel the same way. We just have to respect them enough to acknowledge the fact that they also feel strongly about their values and that they have the right to express them and live according to them.

That is true for all of us. We don’t have to tolerate the bad behavior of Christians who judge other Christians who have a very different mindset and lifestyle. Paul certainly didn’t. We read in Galatians chapter 2 that Peter caved under the pressure of his Jewish peers and stopped eating with the gentiles. As a result, other Jews followed his lead. He was not setting a good example, and he was the rock.

I can understand Peter’s conflict. It’s like being invited to someone’s house and being served meat when you are a vegan or a vegetarian, but I personally know someone who in that situation will, out of respect for his hosts, eat the meat. Why? Because he believes love is more important than his beliefs.

Religious leaders from both sides have set bad examples by encouraging their flock to categorize as “them” Christians who think differently on things like church doctrine, worship practices, and women in the ministry as well as on social topics such as abortion and gay marriage.

Paul writes in Galatians 2:20-21 “… it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

Some Christians think that they earn God’s justification through their beliefs, but if we become righteous through our beliefs, then Christ died for nothing. There is no belief that earns us justification because we are already justified by virtue of who we are.

Christ died to show us who we are, not what to believe.  It is only the knowledge of Christ living within us that makes us aware of our justification, and that knowledge comes through faith alone. Thanks be to the Lord that we have been brought to this truth.

In gratitude, let us choose to love all our brothers and sisters – especially our gentiles – by letting go of our beliefs, our need to be right, and our obstinacy about having our way. These are all nothing more than the dysfunctional addictions of our human nature. Letting go of these vices helps us to access our Christ nature by opening our hearts so that we can begin to genuinely care about how others feel.

This is how we can restore rational thinking and the ability to compromise not only in the Christian church but also in our country and around the world. This is the path to unity and peace, and through our example, we can lead the way.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to obey your command to love our Christian brothers and sisters, but we confess it is hard to love those who think and live differently from us. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, help us to release all that keeps us estranged from others so that we can be the good examples of unconditional love that you desire for all your disciples to be.

Resources

Deffinbaugh, Bob. 32. “The Eleventh Commandment (John 13:31-38).” Bible.org 20 Aug. 2014 bible.org/seriespage/32-eleventh-commandment-john-1331-38