You may be familiar with the “pay it forward” phenomenon which has hit drive-thru lines at fast-food places and coffee shops in the last few years. One person will go through the drive-thru line and pay for their own coffee, or meal, and then also pay for the car behind them in line. So, when that car pulls up, they are told that their purchase has been paid in full, and are handed their food, or their coffee. It’s a random act of kindness sort of thing.
This happened to me a year or two ago. I was in a line at Starbuck’s and I’d ordered my “usual,” a Venti Pike’s Place coffee. The total was $2.45. I pulled up to the window and the cashier handed me my cup of caffeinated wonder and said “your coffee has been paid by the car in front of you.” “Wow!” I said. “That’s so nice! I think I’d like to pay for the car behind me!” You know…pay it forward. The cashier smiled and said “certainly!” and turned to the cash register. A few seconds later she turned back and said to me “That will be $21.65” <gulp> I looked in my rear view mirror. A mini-van with 5 people in it. (grrr…always look first!)
But grace is grace. I just laughed and put my $5 bill back in my wallet and handed over my credit card.
In our Gospel text today, Jesus talks about how we spread love…how we share it from person-to-person. In fact, this small but powerful section of scripture is often called the “Love commandment,” but I think it could also be called, the “Paying love forward” commandment.
This “love commandment” is sandwiched in between two pretty well-known stories. Immediately before Jesus’ love commandment, is the story of Judas’ betraying Jesus. They were at the last supper, and during the meal, Judas got up and left to go get the soldiers to come and arrest Jesus.
Then, immediately after our Gospel text for today, comes the story of the disciple Peter’s denial of Jesus. Peter makes this great declaration of loyalty, but then Jesus challenges him: “Really? Will you lay your life down for me? No, three times tonight, you will be asked if you’re my disciple, and each time, you will say no.”
So there are these two powerful, and sad, stories, Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. But sandwiched right between them is what Jesus calls his “new commandment. To love one another.”
This really isn’t a new commandment. No, the commandment to love goes back much further than Jesus of Nazareth. It was part of Jewish teaching. The disciples had known it, read it, prayed it, and committed their lives to it since childhood. The commandment to love one another was familiar to them; that is until Jesus adds this one, little phrase: “As I have loved you….”
Now that part was new. “Just as I have loved you,” Jesus said, “you also should love another.” By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is an old commandment, suddenly filled with a whole new meaning: “Love one another, but remember that this love comes from me.” Jesus changes it; Jesus makes it new.
Brandon Stanton lost his job in 2010. An amateur photographer, Brandon moved to New York and began an ambitious project: to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street and hear their stories. Armed with his camera, he began crisscrossing the city, covering thousands of miles on foot, all in an attempt to capture images of New Yorkers. And he asked everyone he photographed one of two questions. He asked either:
- “What is your greatest struggle?” or;
- “Give me one piece of advice.”
Brandon’s portraits and captions became a blog called “Humans of New York” and now the project has over 20 million followers on social media.
One of those Brandon photographed was an older woman with wisps of grey hair sticking out from a furry cap, with a little bit of mascara under her wrinkled eyes, and fuzzy umbrella in the background. When asked to give just one piece of advice, she said, “When my husband, Moe, was dying, I said: ‘Moe, how am I supposed to live without you?’
He told me: ‘Take the love you have for me and spread it around.’”
Isn’t that just beautiful?
“Take the love you have for me and spread it around.”
How are the disciples supposed to live when Jesus is no longer with them in body?
This is what Jesus commands the disciples to do: Take the love I’ve shown you and spread it around…pour it out in the world. “Just as I have loved you…you also should love one another.”
And Jesus’ life, death and resurrection remind us that love is never easy.
Our oldest son, Nathan announced to us a few weeks ago that when he leaves for college this fall, he will be attending Pacific Lutheran University in Washington. Washington State. As in the Washington that’s 1,698.2 miles…over there.
Now let me be clear: We are proud of our son. He is a good student and will do well wherever he goes. And we’ve encouraged him to think, and to dream, and to wonder, and to hope. (We just wanted him to think, dream, wonder and hope somewhere within a 100-mile radius of Owatonna.)
But Pacific Lutheran University it is. And Lori and I had to take a breath, and all we could do was to smile, give him a hug and say “congratulations! We’re so proud of you.”
Because we love him. And because we trust God, and we trust Nathan, we can let him go.
But it’s going to be hard. Because love is hard.
Dr. Karoline Lewis, of Luther Seminary, wrote that “This is the nature of Christian love. It is a love aware of consequences. It is a love aware of challenges. But most of all, it is a love that loves anyway. A love that knows what it is getting itself into, and yet loves abundantly.”
Jesus calls us to love with the love that comes from him.
This has been a hard week in Owatonna. We had a contentious school vote on Tuesday. In the weeks leading up to, and now following the vote, I’ve seen a lot of disappointment, frustration, distrust, anger and pain from people on all sides of the issues. And to be honest, I’ve felt some of those emotions myself.
So, Jesus’ Word today about the challenges of love, is for me. He gives me a new command. To love. It isn’t always easy.
Jesus teaches us that when challenged by life’s circumstances, the response of those who follow Him is to love. So, I have to love. I have to love those I agree with. I have to love those I disagree with. I don’t have to like or agree with everything. But Jesus does call me to look at all these people through Christ’s lens of love. And I discover that when I do, my perspective changes.
And Jesus’ Word today is for you. He gives you a new command. To love. And whether the issue is a community vote, or a broken relationship, or a son moving far away, or feelings of betrayal or denial, it isn’t easy. But Jesus’ command is stuck smack-dab in the middle of everything we deal with every day; to love with his love. To pay it forward.
Jesus chose love. He chose love the night that Judas betrayed him. He chose love the night that Peter denied him. He spoke of love, he taught love, and he chose love when he went to the cross. And he chose love when he was resurrected.
He chose love for his friends and his disciples. He chose love for you. Each of you. Jesus loves you.
And because of that, we can love with that same love. Do not wallow in disappointment, or anger, in frustration or in pain. No…
Jesus says to you today: “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.” These tender words of Jesus speak to us loud and clear:
- Love when it’s hard
- Love when it’s easy
- Love when it’s painful
- Love when it’s beautiful
- Love when it’s joyful
- Love when you’re angry, or disappointed, or hurt
- Love with the love of Jesus.
- Love. Just love.
He is calling us to love. It is our new commandment. And it is this love that will be unleashed on the world. And it is this love that is worthy of paying forward. Thanks be to God.