This is my commandment, Jesus tells his disciples, that you love one another, as I have loved you. The language of commandment is deliberate; the author of John’s gospel is making an explicit reference to God as law-giver to accomplish at least two purposes: to affirm Jesus’ divine mandate, and to help readers to understand the weight given to loving one another.
The law was given to Moses as a gift – the gift of a loving God who desires the best for God’s people. The requirements of the law are not a test that will be graded at the end of life; they are “requirements” for a life lived in God.
Jesus’ commandment to love functions in the same way. The commandment is not expressed as “love each other, or else.” Instead, Jesus reminds his followers that he has loved them, and they are to love one another in the same way – offering themselves to one another with humility, vulnerability, respect and delight. In John’s gospel, Jesus embodies his commandment by washing his disciples’ dusty feet before they eat together; he takes on the role of a servant. This makes it abundantly clear that his command to love is not about fond emotion, but about action. In order to obey Jesus’ commandment to love, his followers have to do something.
The early church history found in the Book of Acts gives us story after story of the earliest followers of Jesus trying to obey this commandment. As the stories of Acts unfold, it becomes gradually apparent that the first Christians are challenged, over and over, by the Spirit of God to reach past their usual boundaries in order to share the love of the risen Christ with surprising people. Apparently, when Jesus commanded them to love one another, he meant everybody: eunuchs, Greeks, women and even the Roman oppressors, which brings us to today’s story from Acts.
In today’s lesson, we hear the very end of the story of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, a Roman centurion. It’s a story you’ve heard before: Peter is praying on the roof, when he has a vision of a sheet full of unclean animals in the sky, and hears a voice telling him to get up, kill something, and eat it. In the meantime, Cornelius, who is described as a God-fearing man, also has a vision while he is praying, a vision that prompts him to send some of his men to fetch Peter.
Peter’s experience of the voice from heaven, telling him not to judge things as unclean that God has deemed clean, prepares him to go meet with Cornelius. It’s hard to overstate what a challenge this must have been for Peter; his culture and his religion both told him that going to the home of a gentile was both wrong and a little nauseating. Peter has to do something that is completely contrary to what he feels in order to obey the heavenly vision.
Peter manages to go to Cornelius and tell him about Jesus, or at least begin to. No sooner does he begin to speak than the Holy Spirit comes upon Cornelius and his household, and Peter is forced to realize that, though he thought he was making a big concession by agreeing to visit this gentile at his home, and though he thought he was bringing the Good News like a gift, and though he thought he had the upper hand, God’s Spirit bypassed everything he thought and came upon Cornelius and his household in some unmistakable way. Somehow, Peter must acknowledge this experience of the Spirit at work in people who look, speak and eat differently from him.
This is the continuing challenge of the church, as we work to heed Jesus’ commandment to love one another. It is human nature to want to draw a circle around ourselves and maintain borders that define who is part of us, and who is not. It is the Spirit’s nature to push us past our borders, and ask us to grow. If there’s a surefire test for whether the Spirit is prompting us or not, it’s this: if we think we are called to shrink our borders, include fewer people, be more selective in our society, we can be absolutely sure that those feelings don’t come from God. God’s desire, embodied for us in Jesus and demonstrated for us by the early church, is that we expand our understanding, make the effort to love people who are not like us and to accept with grace the fact that our vision of God and God’s kingdom is necessarily limited. We need to hear about the vision of others to broaden our perspective.
As Peter discovered when he went to the home of Cornelius, we do not have anything like exclusive access to God’s truth, God’s Spirit or God’s love. We have a piece of the puzzle, and others – people who in all likelihood don’t look or talk like us – have other pieces. God is bigger than we are, and by definition, not comprehensible in full by humans. It takes all of our puzzle pieces – and more – to begin to comprehend the reality of the Holy among us.
There is a humility required of us if we are going to manage to love one another as we are commanded to do. If a person believes that he or she has all the answers, that person has no need of community, except perhaps to make him feel superior. If, however, we understand ourselves to be limited beings, loving an unlimited God, we might choose to seek God wherever God might be found – in the least and the greatest, in the communities of which we are a part, and outside their borders. We might find ourselves stretching our boundaries, bother personally and in community, to include multiple voices, harmonizing the same theme: love God, and love one another.
It might be helpful to remember that Jesus loves us all. Jesus loved Peter, a Galilean fisherman with a tendency to speak first and ask questions later. Jesus loved Cornelius, a devout Roman soldier. Jesus loves you, and Jesus loves me. Jesus doesn’t love me any more than you, or vice versa. By grace, we are all beloved, and all have the opportunity to exercise that love in how we treat others.
The medieval mystics who contemplated the astonishing love of Jesus that we are commanded to embody found a perfect image to talk about it: they described Jesus as our mother. Anselm of Canterbury, a major theologian of the 11th century whose work dealt with such weighty questions as proving God’s existence and atonement theory, wrote: “Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.” He goes on to compare Jesus’ agony on the cross to the labor pains of a woman giving birth.
Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us. And the way he has loved us is with the sacrificial love a mother bears for her children – all her children. Like the early church, we are still caught up in the question about just whom we are called to love, just who belongs; but Jesus has no such questions. Elsewhere in John’s gospel, Jesus puts it this way: “I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” No asterisks, addenda, or exceptions.
We are one, in spite of all our pretending otherwise. And somehow we are also each unique. What we can learn from Peter and Cornelius is that not only are we in equal need of God’s love and grace, but we also need one another so that our vision of that grace can expand. Each person we meet and each person who meets us brings something to the party.
We are called by this story to step over borders and push through boundaries. We are called to seek commonalities, respect and honor differences, look for the spirit of God at work in the lives of people who are not like us, push ourselves to give and receive hospitality as a sign of the reign of God, where all are called to the table by God’s grace.
So. We are led, inevitably, to the table. In the Eucharist, we meet the risen Christ whose ongoing presence continues to fracture and remake the world of our understanding. We also meet each other, and the bread and wine are signs for us of that deep unity that undergirds and precedes all our differences. In the self-offering of Jesus, we find a model for the kind of self-offering we are called to do, across the boundaries that divide us. Every meal we eat, every bit of hospitality we offer, every encounter with the unknown in another reminds us of God’s deep, abiding grace that binds us, in spite of our differences, into one body.
Here is Anselm again:
“Lord Jesus, in your mercy, heal us;
In your love and tenderness, remake us.
In your compassion, bring grace and forgiveness,
For the beauty of heaven, may your love prepare us.”