Since we are celebrating Youth Sunday at the 11:00 service today, I have been thinking a lot about school. Specifically, I have been thinking a lot about rules in school. In school you cannot do anything without getting permission. There is no eating in class. No chewing gum in class. Skirts have to be a certain length. You have to raise your hand in order to speak. You cannot be found in a hallway without a hall pass. For heaven’s sake, you cannot even use the restroom without getting permission!
Frankly, the best thing about being an adult is that you can use the restroom whenever you feel like it.
But, I digress.
Rules can feel arbitrary and annoying, even if you know they are for a greater good. When we hear any word that sounds like rules-laws, restrictions, regulations-we know that we are about to have our behavior corralled, directed, and controlled.
In today’s Gospel reading from John, when Jesus uses the word commandment to describe how he would like us to behave, we might have that same reaction. We might start to feel tense, wondering how he is going to restrict our behavior. After all, we already know about the Ten Commandments, which are pretty restrictive. We also know about the more than 600 laws in the book of Leviticus. What new boundary is Jesus going to place on us?
But Jesus’ tone does not feel domineering. Jesus says he is going to give us this commandment so that we can abide in his love and so our joy may be complete. Clearly, Jesus has a different understanding of commandment than we do. For Jesus, the word commandment is a gift, a rule that helps us gain intimacy with God.
And the specific commandment that he reveals in today’s lesson is this: “to love one another as I have loved you.”
And how does Jesus love us? He loves all of us, completely, to the point of death, whether we deserve his love or not. Jesus loves us whether we are mature or irresponsible. Jesus loves us whether we are spiritual or secular. Jesus loves us whether we are “cool” or “nerds”. Jesus loves us no matter what our skin color. Jesus loves us whether we are men or women. Jesus loves us whether we are gay or straight. Jesus loves us whether we are old or young.
This commandment to love is not just an arbitrary rule. This commandment is our marching orders. This commandment is our mission. This commandment is our deepest calling.
We are called to love everybody. Period.
And how well are we doing at this job?
I watched a documentary a couple of weeks ago called American Teen that was a look at the lives of five high school students in a high school in Indiana. One of the students, Meghan, was a typical mean-girl bully. What was so fascinating about her story is how vulnerable she actually was and how she dealt with anger over a sister’s death and general insecurity about being a teenager by lashing out and making other people miserable.
I wonder what would have happened if she had, at her core, a deep understanding of Jesus’ love for her and the knowledge that her whole mission in life was to love others as she was loved.
Bullying is not just a painful, inevitable part of school. Occasionally, intense bullying meets a particularly vulnerable child and devastating consequences ensue. Just last month, eleven year old Jaheem Herrera hung himself after being repeatedly teased and bullied for no reason other than being from the Virgin Islands and being a new student who was an easy target. Every day at school kids taunted him and called him names. He sought help from his parents and they sought help from the school, but no one was able to stop the teasing.
I wonder what might have happened, if just a few kids at that school had understood Jesus’ command to we love everyone. I wonder what would have happened if just a few kids stuck up for Jaheem, surrounded him with support and friendship. I wonder what would have happened if just a few bystanders had the courage to step up to the bullies.
Loving our neighbors is not just about feeling warm and fuzzy. Love requires concrete action, such as treating each person you meet with respect. Love means being patient and kind and helpful. Love means seeing the good in each person we encounter through the day and treating them like the valuable, created human being they are.
The command to love our neighbors takes great courage. Loving means standing up for those people who cannot stand up for themselves. Loving means risking our own reputations. Loving means putting ourselves out for another person. Loving our neighbors means teaching those who are bullied that they are wonderful, strong, beloved children of God who are worth Jesus’ very life. Loving our neighbors means teaching our bullies that all people are children of God who deserve to be treated with respect.
I have been called by God to love my neighbor. You, whether you are 8 or 80, have also been called to love your neighbor. Those of you who are still in school may not be allowed to eat in class or go to the bathroom without getting permission from an adult-but no one can stop you from obeying God’s commandment to love your fellow students. You have a chance to be heroes by being kind and respectful to everyone in your class and in your school. You have the chance to be heroes by standing up for kids who are being teased. If you are a bully, you have a chance to be a hero by apologizing for your behavior and starting over by being kind to your classmates. . . or family. . .or employees.
And when we do live a life of loving our neighbors, we will draw closer and closer to God. Loving other people helps us to understand how much God loves us. By loving other people, we will abide in God’s love and experience the deep joy of Christ. What other rule can do that?