A New Commandment

This morning we are going to end up talking about love, and I thought we should begin with a definition of love. Available definitions run from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the concise to the comprehensive. 

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets of 14 lines each. No. 116 is a sublime definition of love, and my friend the late Hal Cole recited it at every opportunity. He insisted I learn the part that goes:

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken.

Several years ago, in the early years of the war on terror, I saw a picture that captures the essence of this sonnet as nothing else could.  A beautiful young bride, dressed in white, is standing next to her groom, a Marine in dress blues.  His uniform is sharply creased, his gloves are pure white, and his chest is covered with medals; but his face has been horribly burned.  “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds…” Over the years, I have prayed for that Marine and his lady many times over, and I do so today.

I need something lighter. One ridiculous definition of love was written by a friend, but never published. It is so memorable, I heard it once, more than thirty years ago, and I have never forgotten it.

Love is such a funny thing,
It’s shaped just like a lizard.
It worms its way into your heart,
And wraps around your gizzard.

There is a measure of truth here, for there is simply no accounting for what and whom some people will love.  In the movie “Silverado” one of the good guys, Paden, becomes a good guy when he falls out with his outlaw friends after one of them shoots a mangy old dog that Paden had adopted. The head bad guy says, “There is just no accounting for what Paden will love.” I can understand Paden’s love. I have a deep affection for puppies, and an even deeper affection for old dogs, especially when they are mangy, neglected or nearing the end of their lives. What or whom do you love beyond any reasonable explanation? Perhaps it is your task in life to love a person, once attractive, that everyone else now finds unlovable.  If you find yourself, like Abraham, trusting God, and hoping against hope on behalf of someone else, then you know the truth of love that is shaped just like a lizard.

A concise definition of love appears in the book, “Love Story,” by Eric Segal, which was made into a movie starring Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal in 1970.  In the movie, after the guy disappoints the gal in a minor way, says he is sorry, and promises never to do it again, the gal says, “Love means never having to say you are sorry.”   People have long debated what this means.  It may be purely accidental, but St. Paul’s comprehensive definition of love provides an answer. In 1st Corinthians 13 the apostle writes:

4   Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful;  5 it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  6 it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.  7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  8 Love never ends.

If we all loved as Paul says we should, then we never would have to say we are sorry.

In the text before us this morning Jesus offers his disciples a new commandment that expands upon several old ones, first laid down by Moses. In Deuteronomy 6:4 Moses declares:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD;  5 and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

And in Leviticus 18:19 Moses writes:

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”

Jesus knew these two commandments and regarded them highly. In Matthew 22, a lawyer, a Pharisee comes to Jesus, and asks him a question to test him saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”  And Jesus says 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.”

In his response to the lawyer, Jesus effectively reduces the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible and the 613 laws they contain to just two commandments that are the foundation of all others. 1) Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and 2) love your neighbor as you love yourselves. All three of the synoptic gospels affirm this formula, so do epistles by James and Paul. In James 2:8  the apostle writes, “If you really fulfill the royal law, according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well.” And in Galatians  5:14 Paul says, Gal. 5:14 “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  [Note 1:]

I think it is interesting that pseudo saints make things more complicated because they are stuck on the letter of the law and go to great lengths to preserve the letter.  Meanwhile, like Moses, Jesus, James, and Paul always simplify things, because real saints understand the Spirit of the law, and are quick to lift it up.

That brings us back to the new commandment. In John 13:34,35  Jesus says:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

I would briefly mention just three things about this new commandment.

First, this commandment is new because it does not just command us to love, it shows us how to love. “You (shall) love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus demonstrates service and sacrifice. Earlier in this same chapter, Jesus demonstrated service to his disciples when he took a towel and washed their feet. Then Jesus said, “(I have set you an example) If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Jesus then advances service to sacrifice. In John 15:13, Jesus says to his disciples, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  And then he does just that.  Some great saints like Abraham Lincoln sacrifice everything to do what God has called them to do.  Just weeks before his assassination,  Richmond surrendered, and Lincoln went into the city and walked the streets with a small guard of 10 Union Sailors.  Thousands of slaves came out to greet him. One woman called out, “I know I am free, for I have seen Father Abraham.” Another slave, a man, rushed to Lincoln and kneeled before him. The President lifted him up, and said, “Don’t kneel to me, kneel only to God and thank Him for the freedom you are soon to enjoy.” Lincoln saved the union and died an early death. His sacrifice sealed his service. Some live to serve and do so as they sacrifice lives a little at a time, sometimes in ways that others do not immediately notice. When I was a boy—not yet it double digits, we often traveled from Enterprise in Davidson County to my grandmother’s house on Cotton Street for Sunday dinner. She often cut up and served a single chicken. When she did, my mother was always first to pick a piece of chicken, and she always made a big show of it, but she always picked the neck. Years later I saw her cutting up a chicken over the sink at Pine Chapel parsonage.  She threw away the neck, and that is all I have to say about that.

Second, I would ask you to note that this commandment is aimed squarely at the “disciples.” For 20 centuries scholars have argued whether this commandment is just for the disciples. I long ago decided that Jesus cast a wider net than that, for in John 12:32, Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Jesus has set us a difficult task: It is really easy to love our family and friends.  It is relatively easy to love our neighbors and those who have attended church with us for decades. It is more difficult to love people we just met, and almost impossible to love our enemies.  We must. Jesus died not just for us, and for our friends and family, but for those whom we have never met, and for those who oppose us. I believe he is ultimately speaking to the whole human race when he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Third, I would have you note that it is because the disciples of Jesus love one another that everyone knows we are the disciples of Jesus. We do well to ask, what is the foundation of that love?  There has to be some “essential” thing that ties us together. Right?

From God’s side, the essential thing is the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit is the lowest common denominator of our discipleship.  As the apostle says in 1st Corinthians 12, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.”  And in Romans 8 he adds, “…anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him”  The Holy Spirit is essential from God’s side, but what is essential from our side?

Some people today are insisting that the essential that binds us all together in love is the Bible. Their intentions are good, but they are in error. At present there are more than 55,000 denominations, large and small, not counting all the independent churches, and most of these denominations and churches were formed when their members split off from another denomination, usually claiming they had some insight into the Bible the people who stayed in the original denomination did not have.

Let me ask you a question, if the whole Bible is essential, who will you trust to interpret it for you?  Will you trust the Pope?  Or will you trust me?  Or will you trust the people calling themselves, the Concerned Moravians?  All of us have good intentions. Right?

Today, some people are upset because the Moravian Church calls the Bible a ministerial and not an essential. What is the difference? 

A ministerial points beyond itself to something else. The Bible is “a ministerial” because like baptism and holy communion it points us to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

An essential is something we cannot live without. The Bible cannot be “an essential” because—in a pinch, we can live without it, and often have. For instance, for at least a generation the early church did without the New Testament and made do with the Hebrew Bible and the oral tradition. Over the years and generations, the early churches collected the books of the New Testament, and most were common before the end of the 2nd Christian century, but the New Testament Canon of 27 books was not fixed until the Council of Hippo in 393 A.D.  Likewise, very few people possessed copies of the Bible until Gutenberg invented his printing press in 1440 AD and started printing the Bible in 1455 AD. (Gutenberg printed less than 200 copies, but other printers took up the work). Before the invention of the printing press, the Bible had to be copied by hand and few people had it, and when they did, they often could not read it, either because they could not read, or because it was not in the common language.  Today, by contrast, Bibles are everywhere.  Does this mean that God loves us now, more than God loved people then?  I think not.

What then is essential?  In the New Testament, it is the content of the preaching about Jesus, which the apostles called “the Word of God,” “the Word about Jesus,” and “the Gospel,” and which scholars call the kerygma, for as Paul says in 1st Corinthians 1:21, “it pleased God by the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” The early Moravians summed up the kerygma in a single essential which it defined as  “A heart relationship with the One God who reveals God’s Self as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that issues in a life of faith, love, and hope.”

Or, if you prefer something from Scripture.  In Romans 10:9 Paul said, “If you confess with your lips, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  If you look deep enough into this verse you will understand how the early Moravians decided on what was essential and what was not.  It’s in there.

Some people will differ with me on this. I respect their right to receive and interpret Scripture as they feel they must. However, I do not acknowledge their right to tell me how I must receive and interpret Scripture, especially when I receive it and interpret it as a spiritual descendant of the Ancient Unity and have happily belonged to the Moravian Church for more than seventy years. Though I personally know and love many of those who wish to turn our denomination to Fundamentalism, there are times when I am tempted to say that I wish they would simply do as so many have done in similar situations in the past and just leave us. Of course, I know that is not the answer! Not only would I miss them, but the last thing we need is another denomination. 55,000 plus are quite enough. How much better that we learn to love one another, even in our differences, as a witness to the world.  The issues before us are complex, but the framework for dealing with those issues is clear.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”


Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

Note 1:  If you are worried that James and Paul dropped the command to love God, don’t be.  In 1st John 4, we read, “if you do not love your brothers or sister whom you have seen, you cannot love God whom you have not seen.” (Inclusive language added).

Bonus:  St. Augustine wrote re those having been instructed in the gospel:

…a man who is resting upon Faith, Hope and Love , and who keeps a firm hold on these, does not need the scriptures except for the purpose of instructing others.  Accordingly, many live without copies of the scriptures even in solititude, on the strength of these three graces…Yet by means of these instruments (as they may be called) so great an edifice of Faith and Hope and Love has been built up in them that, holding to what is perfect, they do not seek for what is only in part perfect–of course I mean so far as is possible in this life; for in comparison with the future life, the life of no just and holy man is perfect here.

De Doc. Christ. (The Doctrine of Christ)  I, 39, 43




This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.