It was early on an ordinary Sunday morning. James Shaw Jr. sat with his friend at the local Waffle House outside Nashville. Amid the clank of diner crockery and silverware, shots crackled and bodies folded. When the shooter paused to reload, James decided to act: he jumped him, wrestled the gun away, saving many lives. “I’m just a regular person,” he said. This regular person quietly went to see the other injured people, and has also raised more than $200,000 for the victims’ medical expenses.
The First Letter of John tells us that “we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” Now, was James Shaw trying to obey God’s commandments? He didn’t say so – he says he just acted because he wanted to keep on living. But in doing so, he followed the second great commandment that Jesus gave us: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In loving himself, protecting himself, he loved his neighbors too. And thank God he did – many more could have been killed.
Sometimes Christianity is accused of having too many rules and regulations – do this, don’t do that, don’t have any fun. Historically, this has been true in some groups that prohibited dancing, cards on Sunday, and other innocuous activities, groups who require certain dress or behaviors. None of that is mentioned by Jesus.
But Christianity is not a rule-based religion. That’s why Jesus reduced the entire catalogue of Old Testament rules and regs to two simple ones: Love God, and love your neighbor has yourself.
That’s why this letter of John can say, “God’s commandments are not burdensome.” There are two commandments to love. It’s that simple. (Compare that to the rules of the road you must memorize to pass a driving test at the DMV!)
Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were sitting in a local Starbucks, waiting for a business meeting, in the tony Rittenhouse Square section of Philadelphia when suddenly police – 6 police officers! – were walking toward them. Soon they were handcuffed and led away, without resistance. They spent hours in jail, until a district attorney declined to prosecute them. What would be the crime? Sitting while black?
Starbucks has since apologized, and scheduled nationwide anti-bias training on May 29 – a small step, but more than many companies have done. What is notable is that Mr. Nelson and Mr. Robinson have chosen not to sue the city for the appalling police behavior. Instead, they’ve reached a settlement for a token $1 each in damages. The city of Philadelphia will also fund a $200,000 grant program for high school students aspiring to become entrepreneurs.
That’s loving their neighbors as themselves. They suffered mistreatment and gross indignity, but only wanted society to benefit from their abuse. These two incidents – the Waffle House and the Starbucks – show the long way we have to go as a society to live up to God’s commandment to love – to care for and truly respect one another. But these individuals are showing us the way. James Shaw chose to risk everything to help himself and others. Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson chose to decline compensation and benefit many young people in Philadelphia. The choices they’ve made make me think: would I be as brave, and as magnanimous, as they?
Each incident is a case of love in action, love in practice. We should lift up this way of living when we see it…teach this to our children…and try to “go and do likewise.”
That could be the end of this sermon on “loving the children of God.” But I’ll add one more question. I have to admit I’ve always struggled with the idea that we can be commanded to love. Can love be commanded? Or must love come from within us – an inner impulse? Or if God commands us to love, then does God also plant in us that impulse, that desire to love others, that is necessary to fulfill the command?
Perhaps it depends on the kind of love we’re talking about. We use one word to mean everything from trivial preferences – “I love ice cream” – to romantic attraction. Somewhere in the middle is the peculiarly Christian kind of love, called agape in Greek. This is a freely given love for God and for other people which is considered the highest form of love: charity. It does not depend on human relationship or affinity or receiving anything in return. God, who is love – agape, fills us with this love, and gives us the capacity to offer it to others.
We’re about to celebrate, in ritual form, an agape meal. For the earliest Christians, this was a real meal, meant to feed and nourish people. People brought what they could, and all was shared. The modern day equivalent is a pot-luck supper! Like many things in religious practice, it became ritualized, and ended up involving just a morsel of bread and a sip of wine – our Eucharist. It still represents a shared meal, and the nourishment that God provides to us, so that we can persevere in agape, in love for our neighbors, ourselves, and our God. I kind of wish it were still a full meal myself. But we do a lot of eating together here in church, and that’s good.
So there are just two commandments for us to worry about, and those are the commandments to love. And God gives us the resources we need to obey these commandments – God feeds us, and we feed each other. It can happen in a Waffle House, in a Starbucks, and yes, here at church. Let us be encouraged when we see such love, and inspired to go and do likewise. AMEN.