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What Matters Most

As the passage opens, Jesus is at the table with his disciples, whose feet he has just washed. After completing that act and talking with them about it, Jesus has become agitated and announced that one of them is about to betray him. We pick up just after Judas leaves the table.

John 13:31-35
When Judas had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 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.

 

Final Matters:

In a 2012 book, Randy Richards tells a story of living with his family in Indonesia, where they had a household helper whose name was Sonya. He writes this:

“My instinct was to [describe] our working relationship by defining job expectations and determining compensation. What time should she arrive and leave? What did we expect her to do around the house? How much would we pay her for her time? I was trying to establish rules, a contract.

I soon learned that in Indonesia, expectations are determined by relationship. So in the end, Sonya came “when needed.” On top of her wages, I paid her medical bills—not because we had agreed on a contract, but because I was [understood to be] her “father” [or patron]. Who else should pay them?

Even though we left Indonesia fifteen years ago and Sonya went on to marry a fine young man, our family’s relationship did not end. “How does one quit being a ‘father’? Indonesians would wonder. We continue to pay the school bills for her children. I’m Opa, [Grandfather]; of course we’ll pay for their school. When the children marry, I suppose we’ll pay for the weddings. What kind of lousy grandfather would refuse to take care of his grandchildren?

Of course, relationships are always two-sided. After the tsunami in 2004, I led a relief team to Indonesia, and we needed household help. It had been ten years, but there was no question regarding whether Sonya would come. As always, she came when she was needed, even though it took her five days to reach us by boat. We never discussed whether she would come or what we would pay her. We have a relationship with all kinds of strings attached.”[1]

Friends, if we are to find our way into today’s reading from the Gospel of John, it helps to realize that Jesus, too, is assuming a network of relationships with all kinds of strings attached. The passage before us is the very beginning of what is referred to as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. Judas’ departure from the table signals that Jesus’ arrest is impending. The next time we encounter Judas, he will be accompanied by soldiers and police who will be bearing weapons and coming to arrest Jesus. So there is an urgency about this portion of the Gospel of John. This is Jesus’ opportunity to say last things, to deal with final matters.

Social Scientists point out that in the United States, where economics is the main driver, final words and testaments deal with the disposition of goods. In Mediterranean antiquity, however, where kinship was the focal institution, final words dealt with concern for the tear in the social fabric that resulted from a dying person’s departure.[2] Jesus’ words to his followers convey what they need to do in order for the community to remain alive to his presence.

The instruction could not be more simple—or more difficult. Jesus says “love one another.” Jesus refers to this as a “new commandment” but what here is new? God’s love is woven through the whole of the Hebrew scriptures, and in Leviticus there is an explicit command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”[3] Jesus says that his friends are to love one another as he has loved them. Jesus has embodied God’s love for his companions in a way that will continue to transform and empower them if they will remain open to that love and committed to each other.

The context in which this command is given prevents us from being sentimental about this directive. In verse 21 we learned that Jesus is “troubled in spirit”—a verb that suggests anger and agitation. He has just washed his disciples’ feet as a sign of how they are to care for each other, but Jesus knows that his friend Judas is about to betray him and his friend Peter is about to deny him.

Jesus embodies here a love that stays constant even in the face of betrayal and denial. This is not a love predicated on reciprocity or dependent upon warm feelings. Nor is it a love we can summon on our own. Jesus says that this love will have to flow through us in the way that sap flows through a branch that is firmly attached to a vine. This love originates in God’s commitment, God’s faithfulness. This love knows no limits.

Debbie Thomas notes that “Jesus follows his commandment with an exhilarating and terrifying promise: “By this everyone will know…”  meaning, love is the litmus test of Christian witness.” Our love for each other is how the world will know who we are and whose we are.  …What Jesus seems to be saying is that if we fail to love one another, the world [may not] know what it needs to know about God, and in the terrible absence of that knowing, it will believe falsehoods that break God’s heart….Such is the power we wield in our decisions to love or not love ….Such is the responsibility we shoulder, whether we want to or not.”[4]

We never know when someone might we watching. In Out of Africa, E’sak Deen’e-sen “tells the story of a boy named Kitau. He appeared at the author’s door one day to ask for a job as a domestic servant. She hired him, but was surprised when after three months he asked her for a letter of recommendation to Sheik Ali bin Salim, a Muslim who lived in a nearby town. Dinesen offered to raise Kitau’s pay in order to keep him, but money was not his interest. Kitau had decided to become either a Christian or a Muslim, and his purpose in working for Dinesen had been to see, up close, the way a Christian lived. Now that he had worked for Dinesen and seen the ways of Christians, he would go to Sheik Ali to see how Muslims behave; then he would decide. The author remembers how she wished Kitau had told her that before he came to live with her.”[5]

Whether we like it or not, friends, the world is watching. As those who bear his name, we have the opportunity to inhabit God’s love in a way that witnesses to the transforming power of God. But I need reminders. I need a reminder when I am facing a deadline at the office and have become more focused on my task than the needs of my colleague. I need a reminder when I am jockeying for position in traffic. I need a reminder when I can’t find the words and my well has run dry. I need a reminder when I just turn away from a person in need. In such moments you and I need to be re-minded. We need to be reminded of how deeply we are loved—in spite of our denials, in spite of our betrayals—so that the capillaries of our hearts can open again to the love that wants to flow through us. We can be those reminders for each other. I can’t tell you how many times you have been that reminder to me.

So this morning as this community steps boldly into a new season of ministry, let this be your reminder of how deeply you are loved and how urgently you are needed. The world for whom Christ died is waiting.

[1] E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading the Bible with Western Eyes, IVP 2012, 161-162

[2] Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Augsburg Fortress Press, 2003, 222

[3] Leviticus 19:18

[4] Debie Thomas, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2216-if-you-love

[5] as quoted in Feasting on the Word-Year C-Lent through Eastertide, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009

Margaret LaMotte Torrence , Interim Pastor

Email: margaret@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 111

Bio:

Margaret came to serve as UPC’s interim pastor in September, 2017. She expects to remain in Chapel Hill until a new pastor is called, likely in 2019. She grew up in Sarasota, Florida, living across the street from the church her father served. Margaret met her husband, Lee, when they were first-year students at Davidson College. She did not sense a call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament until she was in her 30s. By that point their family also included a son, Nate, and a daughter, Hanna. They all moved from California to Princeton—to begin seminary, kindergarten and preschool respectively—while Lee worked to make it all possible. In the intervening years, Margaret has served churches in New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. She and Lee live near Asheville, in a home they share with Margaret’s parents. Margaret considers it a great privilege to serve in community with others who are seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow that leading. She is grateful for the many sisters and brothers who have shared their lives and stories along the way. When she is at home in the mountains, she finds particular joy in hiking, gardening, stacking stones, and volunteering with a remarkable ministry known as the Haywood Street congregation. Margaret frequently leads conference worship in Montreat.