A few years ago, Professor Charles Marsh of the University of Virginia wrote a book on spirituality and the Civil Rights Movement and said, "Jesus had founded the most revolutionary movement in human history: a movement built on the unconditional love of God for the world and the mandate to live that love."
It's true! Jesus of Nazareth began the most profoundly revolutionary movement in history. It was a movement of people for whom this Jesus--his teaching, his example, his risen life--became the epicenter of their lives, and whose way of love became their way of life. As a result, their lives were changed, and they in turn changed the world around them. It's not just about me, it's about we.
"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another just as I have love you."
I. The Last Supper
At the Last Supper, just hours before Jesus would be pulled from his knees in prayer and arrested, then tried and tortured and eventually executed by the empire of Rome, Jesus said this: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you should love one another" (John 13:34). The command wasn't new. New Testament Professor Amy Jill Levine of Vanderbilt Seminary in Nashville, commenting on our text, stops in place and asks, so what's new?
Jesus' teaching on love, which is the center of his message, is built on the teaching of Moses. In Matthew's Gospel (22:37-40) Jesus told a lawyer that the greatest law is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. He was quoting and referring to Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19. The command to love God, neighbor, and self is not new. It wasn't new then. Or now. Jesus made it the centerpiece of his message, but it wasn't new.
"So, what's new?" Professor Levine asks. Here's what's new: the words "just as I have loved you." I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. That part's not new. Then he says, "Just as I have loved you, so you should love one another."
You are to love as you have been loved by me, loved by God. You are to love and be loved, to give and receive, to do justice and to be treated with justice, to show mercy and to receive mercy. In other words, love is not just about you, it's about us. It's not just about me, it's about we. And that makes all the difference in the world. And that way of love is potentially the most revolutionary movement in all of human reality.
I never saw it this way before, but it's all over the teachings of Jesus. Just take a look at the beginning of John 13, where our text comes from. Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. That was never done. The teacher doesn't wash the feet of his students! The master doesn't wash the feet of the slave, the wealthy don't wash the feet of the poor, and on and on and on. But Jesus washes his disciples' feet. He turns the existing world order not only upside down but right side up. And Peter, if you read the text carefully, is the one who resists and says no, no, no, I should wash your feet, not the other way around. But Jesus says, "No, if you don't let me do it, you are not part of me, you have no share in me." Then Jesus says, "I have given you an example.” Wash each other's feet, live in equality, mutuality, and the reciprocity of God's beloved community. And it's soon after that that Jesus says, "A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you."
This is the way of love. You are to love and be loved, to give and to receive, to do justice and to be justly done unto. It's not just about me, it's about we. God made us to give and receive, to bless and be blessed, to love and to be loved, to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.
It's not just about me, but we! And brothers, sisters, siblings, that is a revolution.
I was about 12 or 13 when I had a conversation with my father that I still remember. I don't know what the subject matter was, but whatever I said my father blurted out, "You know, the Lord didn't put you here just to consume the oxygen!"
I don't think that was a considered, reasoned, philosophical, or theological statement. It was more likely a classic parental response to 13-year-old hormones expressing themselves. But whatever the case, he really said something important.
The Lord didn't put me here, he didn't put you here, he didn't put us here, just to consume oxygen. We are not just here for mere biological purposes. The key word in the sentence is "just." We are not here just to consume the oxygen. But we are here in part to consume oxygen.
Think about it for a moment. The world of living things is so constructed that there is an intimate, interconnected, symbiotic, biological, ecological relationship between various forms of life, between all humans, between human beings and other forms of life and existence.
In his letter from a Birmingham jail, Dr. King put it this way. "We are bound together in an inescapable network of mutuality. Tied in a single garment of destiny."
We are here in part to consume the oxygen. But not just to consume. Think about it. I've been out of school a long time, but if I remember correctly, the biological process of photosynthesis may be a parable of this principle. We, and all animals, inhale oxygen. And we exhale carbon dioxide. All forms of plant life in turn inhale, or take in, the carbon dioxide and they release, or exhale, the oxygen. In other words, they give us what we need and we give them what they need. Now, does anybody really think that's just an accident or coincidence?
The poet was right. The hand that made us is divine. That's not an accident. That's a parable.
We are here to inhale and to exhale.
We are here to receive and to give.
To be loved and to love.
To be cared for and to care.
To be justly treated and to treat others justly.
To have food, clothing and shelter, and to labor for a world where every man, woman and child has adequate food, adequate clothing, adequate shelter.
To be equally treated with the human rights intended by God for all, and to labor so that all are equal in our society and global communities.
No, the Lord didn't put us here just to consume. The Lord also put us here to give, to serve, to love.
The old Hebrew prophet Micah said it best: "You have heard what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."
No, my brothers, my sisters, my siblings, Jesus started a movement! The most revolutionary movement in history. A movement built on the way of love that teaches us how to live, not just for me, but for we. And that is a revolution.
III. Clint Eastwood
Now, I know somebody's thinking, this is fine, preacher. It's fine for church and good to talk about this king of love not just for me but for we, but it's a cold and cruel, tough world out there. I may be revealing too much about myself, but I'm a big fan of Clint Eastwood. Like many of you, I grew up on Clint Eastwood films: "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," "Hang 'em High." There probably is no greater sentence in the English language than, "Go ahead, make my day."
My wife knew that and exploited it once. She wanted to see "The Bridges of Madison County." She talked me into going by telling me that Clint Eastwood was in it. I thought it was a war movie. It was a love story with Meryl Streep. I have never forgiven her for that.
But beyond the shoot-em-ups, Clint Eastwood has actually made some significant and socially important films. Over the years, he has actually made some incredible films.
In the film "Bird" he told the story of the jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker.
In the film "Unforgiven" he taught us about forgiveness--maybe one of the most profound films about what it means to be forgiven.
In "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" he looked at the 2nd World War in the Pacific from the perspective of Americans and the perspective of Japanese.
In "Mystic River" he dealt with the pain of child abuse.
In "Million Dollar Baby" he dealt with deep relationships between human beings coming from different worlds.
In the film "The Mule" he dealt with hard decisions, drug dealing, the complexity of life's decisions.
In "Grand Torino" he dealt with racism and the possibility of redemption and even reconciliation.
But maybe his greatest achievement, or at least my favorite, was the film "Invictus"-- the story of Nelson Mandela and the people of South Africa-- the story of how a nation divided by race, class, color avoided a racial civil war between black, white, and colored, a war that would have rendered the streets of Johannesburg, and Cape Town, Soweto, red with the flow of human blood. "Invictus."
Early in the film, after Mandela had been released from prison, after a new democracy was being established and elections held and he was elected president, Mandela assumed office; he walked into the government complex, the equivalent of the White House. As he entered on this first day, you could see most of the white government employees emptying their drawers, packing their things, getting ready to leave. They assumed they knew what was coming. He ordered all the government workers to meet him in a large auditorium. All the previous staff were white. All of the staff from the African National Congress were black or colored. The same was true of the security details, and all were present and armed. He spoke to the two security details and said they must become one security detail. Needless to say, neither group was thrilled. Then he turned and addressed everyone in the room-- black, colored, and white alike. And he said something like this:
"The rainbow nation begins here...
Reconciliation begins here...
Forgiveness begins here...
And forgiveness is the power that liberates the soul.
Love begins today.
And today, the new South Africa begins."
When I heard that, something inside of me said, that's not the language of power politics. I took political philosophy in college. I read Plato about the philosopher king. I read Machiavelli's The Prince. I read Locke and Hobbes and Marx and Engels. I read Kwame Nkrumah's Africa Must Unite. I've read about politics. I've been around politicians my whole life, but I've not once heard one talk about reconciliation, forgiveness, justice, and love. That's not the typical language of power politics. That's the language of Jesus. That's what the Master taught us.
Love. Forgiveness. Reconciliation.
"What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with your God?"
What does Jesus say? Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
"Father, forgive them. They know not what they do."
"Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
"A new commandment I give you that you love one another.
A friend of mine, the Anglican Archbishop of Southern Africa, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, spent the last year and a half praying with Nelson Mandela as Mandela faced his own death. At the request of the family and with their permission, he published a book on that last year and a half. And he titled it Faith and Courage: Praying with Mandela. In the last few years of Mandela's life, the archbishop came to know that this was a man of profound and real faith who actually tried to follow in the footsteps and the way of Jesus of Nazareth and his love.
And when the record is written, it will show that Nelson Mandela and others like him led a revolution in South Africa, a revolution that did not degenerate into hatred and violence and bloodshed. It did not degenerate into a racial civil war. They led a revolution based on love and justice and truth and reconciliation that created a multi-racial society.
Do not be deceived. Love is the most potent reality in all of the universe. "A new commandment I give you...love one another as I have loved you." And you will discover that love is the greatest revolution possible.
God love you. God bless you. And may God hold us all in those almighty hands of love.