June 12, 2022

The Power of Love

Passage: Acts 11:1-18

It is wonderful to observe random acts of kindness! We sometimes witness thoughtful gestures, spontaneous acts of helpfulness, such as assistance to a seniors  in holding a door open for them, or aiding  blind person or a wheel chair bound individual to cross the street. In times of accident, natural disaster or tragedy there is often a great response of care and love. Indeed one mark of society is how it treats its seniors, minorities and under privileged.

But on the other hands we witness all too frequently random acts of abuse, hostility or hatred. This is leveled at people of different races, colours, religions or cultures. The news of late all too often shows scenes like a man pushing another person down some stairs, a woman knocking over an elderly woman in a walker, a man attacking a teen age girl on a transit bus, teens swarming a lone teen, shootings in the lower mainland, tragic mass shooting in that  Texas school, a fire bombing of a Ukrainian priest’s home in Victoria.  And then there is the devastating attack  on Ukraine by Putin.

World history has been plagued by  violence, hared, prejudice and discrimination. Turning to the Bible we  read that such realities began when Cain was ticked with his brother Able and so killed him. Tragically the Bibles abounds with examples of our  society’s sickness. Jonah hated the residents Nineveh  and was fearful that God would forgive and bless them.  David, filled with lust, committed adultery followed by murder. The book of Psalms has numerous vindictives against their enemies. In Jesus day there was marked animosity between the Jews and  Samaritans summed up by the statement that the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans.

But Jesus walked to a different beat. He said that while it was written to love your friends and hate your enemies, his followers were to love one another including the enemies. Paul spells it out clearly “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female for you are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28)

I believe love is one of the greatest powers on earth. As Christians we are called to love one another. The power of love changes lives and binds people together. This is true in our own families and also in our second family, our church. A woman commented to me that no one from her own family lived nearby but she did have a wonderful family around her and that family was her congregation. We are part of a church family. Just like your family, our church family is not perfect but is held together and is strong because of the power of love.

The kind of love that binds our church together is the love of Christ. Hear Jesus words as recorded by John: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. As always, we must place scripture in its context. At Passover time Jesus came together with his disciples and did something most unusual. He was their teacher and leader but he wrapped a towel around his waist and washed his disciples feet.

That sounds strange to us but it was just as common to them as washing our hands is for us before we eat or to touch something that must be kept clean. In Jesus day the roads were dusty and therefore as people walked along the road their feet got very dirty. A common practice was to wash the feet of guests, a task usually done by a servant. So here we have Jesus doing a job of a lowly worker. He did this to set an example that Christians were to help and serve one another.

After Jesus had washed his followers feet, he told them the sad news that one of them was going to betray him. This seemed impossible so each questioned himself if he might be the guilty party. Jesus then proceeded to tell his disciples that he would soon be arrested and die and in that context he gave them that new commandment that they were to love one another as he loved them. There are four main words in Greek for love and the word used here is agape. That is a selfless love that reaches out to help the other person, to seek someone else's benefit  ahead of one's own.

Jesus had just washed his disciples' feet. He had served them. He told them that he did this as an example for they were to serve one another. This is what agape love implies. This command of Jesus to love one another was not new to the disciples for way back in Moses time the people were instructed to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. Why then did Jesus say he was giving them a new commandment? The key to understanding this is that we are to love one another as Christ loved us. His love was agape love at its highest. Christ had set before them his example of humble service.  But his love was far greater than such service for Christ was willing to go to the cross for us. He died that we might live. He accepted the punishment of our sin so that we might be forgiven and enjoy eternal life. That’s agape!

If love is understood as acting towards one another as God has acted towards us in sending Christ as our Savior and Lord, then our love for one another is to be much more than good relationships and helpfulness. It is a way of speaking and doing and being for one another according to the example of Christ. Love involves us in reaching out to help and encourage others. Love means we are willing to forgive others when they have wronged us. Love means accepting responsibility for our own actions and, as necessary, seeking forgiveness when we have been wrong.

When we consider this command of Christ to love one another as he loved us, we understand that he is here speaking of love within the Christian community. If we show that love, he said, we show ourselves to be his disciples. How tragic therefore when we find in the church division, hostility, stubbornness and selfishness. As Jesus wept over Jerusalem for its stubborn refusal to respond to the leading of God, so Jesus must weep over his church when it exhibits not love but rejection, not compassion but indifference, not forgiveness but alienation and not harmony but strife. The power of agape love makes you and me increasingly like Jesus. God grant us the will and grace to always love one another as Christ loved us.

But that commandment to love is also to be extended by Christians to all people, to the neighbor. We note one great example of this in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. If we are really honest with ourselves we know few people are totally devoid of racial prejudice. We also know that racial prejudice can be bitter and violent to the point of torture and genocide. We know therefore something of the meaning of the blunt verse of scripture which stated the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans. There was sharp division between Jew and Gentile, a Gentile being anyone non-Jewish. It is not surprising therefore that one of the great struggles of the early Church was the relationship of Jew and Gentile. The first Christians were Jewish and their inbred bias excluded Gentiles from inclusion in the Church.

But the power of love was not extended by God to Jews alone but also to Gentiles with the result that Jews and Gentiles are called to be brothers and sisters in Christ. The account therefore of the conversion of the Gentile Cornelius was a watershed in the early church. Cornelius was a Roman soldier and a god-fearing man. In a vision he was told by God to send for Peter who would convey to him a life giving message. At the same time Peter had a three-fold vision in which he saw a great sheet lowered in front of him in which there were birds and animals which a Jew was forbidden to eat. He heard  a voice saying, Rise Peter, kill and eat. Such to Peter was impossible for he would not eat forbidden food. Then came the reply, What God has made clean, you must not call impure.

 Peter then was commissioned to visit Cornelius. In so doing he broke two fundamental Jewish laws: he went in to the home of a Gentile, freely associating with him and he ate with Gentiles. I'm certain that he had great trepidation as he entered Cornelius' house and shared with him the good news of Jesus Christ. That day there were two conversions. First, Cornelius became a Christian as he was receptive to Peter's message that God had revealed himself in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Cornelius accepted Christ that day, he and many others in his home. God's Spirit was there in a powerful way bringing great joy in Christ. These new Christians were then baptised as a sign that they had become followers of Jesus. Gentiles were now included. God's love was for them also.

The second conversion that day occurred in Peter and the six colleagues he had brought with him. They had to learn and accept that historic prejudices were abolished in Christ so that people of all races are called to be equals, brothers and sisters in Christ. It was Paul who subsequently stated: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. The power of Christ's love can break down all human barriers. Peter learned that lesson in dealing with Cornelius. Sometimes the church today, sometimes you and I, have to learn that lesson afresh for God's love is for all people.

Jesus said, I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. Consider afresh the magnitude of God's love to you and your call to love others as God has loved you.