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John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

December 30, 2008

Be excellent to each other

The older I get, the more bittersweet the Christmas holiday becomes for me, as it may be for you. That’s because I know a lot of people who are hurting.

It starts to hit me when the Christmas cards begin arriving, filled with personal notes about loved ones who have died during the year or who are living with cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

We are all being affected by our country’s tough economic situation. Many of us are worried about our jobs. I know people who are in the military or whose spouses or relatives are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some friends of mine have taken in relatives who need a place to stay. Others are caregivers for our dear family members. For some, our own health is the issue.

There are a lot of hurting people out there—people we know and interact with every day. Sometimes they're dealing with illness or death, sometimes with financial problems. Sometimes they are weighed down with caregiving or heavy responsibilities. They are a lot like us, doing their best in difficult circumstances. And sometimes, they ARE us.

The privilege of bearing each other’s burdens

God gives us the incredible honor of bearing each other’s burdens. It may be hard to start doing, we may feel awkward when we try, but I know from experience what it could mean to the person to whom you’re ministering.

I’m talking as somebody who is compassion challenged, for whom this does not come naturally. I came into the game late and am still not very good at it. Yet I know how important this is—it is one of Jesus’ most important commands to us. So I am working at it.

I did not understand why being compassionate was so important until I was on the receiving end of it a decade ago. My dad, who had the long-term disease scleroderma attacking his lungs, wound up in the intensive care unit with pneumonia. He was incubated and put in a drug-induced coma so he wouldn’t fight the breathing machine.

Many people we knew from church, plus our relatives, friends, and my dad’s co-workers, frequently stopped by the hospital to see how he was doing. Even though he could not detect their presence, they showed up. And their presence ministered to us in the immediate family.

What I experienced in those days was a feeling of worth and deep love. These people had recognized my dad’s situation, and the situation of our family, and they were acting on it. Even if all that they could do is to stand beside us as we went through what we were going through, that was enough.

We weren’t asking our friends to change the situation of my dad’s disease or his condition in the hospital. We did not expect them to fix anything, and we didn’t want them to offer “solutions” or miracle cures. They didn’t do any of these things.

But they did pray with us and for us. They did stop by often and offer their presence. They listened to us rehash what was going on, and they did small favors like checking the mail, bringing us food, and so on. And because most of these people were church people who knew God, we very much felt like their caring for us was an extension of God caring for us. There were other people who came who weren’t Christians, and the interesting thing was that for them, we felt like it was a chance to witness to our faith to them.

My dad did actually recover from that bout with pneumonia, and we were able to enjoy his company for three more years before he died. But the thing that stood out the most for us when we look back at those days was how much our family and friends cared for us, and how that let us know that God did too.

We found it all very mysterious, and to this day it is something I carry around with me in my heart. It is a touchstone to me whenever I am tempted to think that God does not care about me, or that living as Jesus wants is just too hard to do. I think back on those times and I’m reminded about the reality of God’s love.

And it all happened because people obeyed Jesus and made room in their lives to be compassionate to me.

What does Christ have to do with it?

Christmas is a time when we celebrate God breaking into life on earth in a dramatic way. God coming to us in human form as Jesus and explaining to us what he considers most important. Living an example of the kind of life he expects us to live.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
—Luke 10:25–29

The lawyer wanted to do two things here: test Jesus and justify himself. He had read his Scripture, of course, being an expert in God’s law. And so he already knew what God’s most important commands to people always have been:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

This is the Shema, from Deuteronomy, which the Jewish people—and Christians today—recognize as God’s two primary commands to us humans. Jesus congratulates him on having the right answer. And the lawyer is probably impressed that Jesus had the right answer too. But the lawyer also wanted to justify himself, Luke tells us. He wanted Jesus to let him off easy, to tell him that the way he was living—which I’m pretty sure did not include treating everyone as his neighbor—was OK.

In other words, he wanted a narrow, literal interpretation of Scripture from Jesus. It says neighbor, right? So if you define neighbor literally, it’s those folks who live in close proximity to you, who are probably a lot like you and share your values. Because, you know, you could legitimately look at that command, and justifiably interpret it that way. The easiest way. The way you might already be living. The way that if you went to court and you said, you know, this is in fact what the Scripture literally says here, letter of the Law, and no one would be able to find fault with that.

Jesus’ reply is to tell the story of the good Samaritan. The man comes down the road and is robbed, beaten and left for dead. Two good religious people come across him and could help him, but do not. Then someone you wouldn’t expect to help—a person from an outcast ethnicity and religion—comes by and offers aid, going above and beyond what was required. The point of that story is, of course, that everyone is our neighbor, no exceptions. But the point is also that people who know what God wants them to do should do what God wants them to do.

Like us, the lawyer was not prepared for the answer. Everyone is our neighbor, Jesus says, and everyone is capable of being that compassionate person.

I remember in the situation with my dad, some of the most comforting moments came when people I did not know very well—casual acquaintances of my family—were the ones to stop by. Pretty much any gesture, even when you feel out of place, is going to be appreciated.

In Galatians 6:2, Paul wrote, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” What is that law? That we love one another.

You can look through the whole Bible and the theme is consistent. God wants us to love each other. It is the main way that we can obey him and show we love him.

Jesus said, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

The challenge to us

So here is the funny part. We want other people to care about us, but we find it hard to care about them. We come to church and mistakenly think this is a place where other people are here to provide things for us: good music, sound teaching, something for the kids and the youth, help when I need it.

But Elizabeth Steele, writing in Congregations magazine, said, the “Christian faith has always been about giving, not receiving.” She says church is a place where “people struggle together to draw closer to God and express this in how they live and interact with the world.” Which of course has always been the point as far as God is concerned.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

It’s what the lawyer who was questioning Jesus knew was the right answer. He was just trying to narrow it into something more manageable, something he wouldn’t have to try very hard to do.

Each one of us has much to give—more than we think. When we are in church, we are here not to primarily be recipients of church service, but to become participants in Jesus’ mission through the church. Paul got Jesus right: we are here to bear each other’s burdens. That’s how we do what Jesus wants.

My challenge to myself, and to you, is to reach out to people you know are hurting. Send someone a nice text. Write something nice on their Facebook wall. Send them an email. Give them a call. Draw them a picture. Help to bear the burden of another.

Can you have an encouraging conversation with someone? Do something tangible for them? Are there people in your neighborhood who are by themselves? Perhaps you could invite them to your place for dinner. Maybe you’re like I am, in a place where friends and family are dealing with serious illness? Think of ways you could reach out.

Be excellent

One of my guilty pleasure movies is Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I seem to have a soft spot in my heart for the “dumb teenager” genre. Anyway, in this movie, two high school guys are in danger of flunking history, with dire consequences. They have to do a big presentation in front of the school to save their grade, but they don’t have a clue about anything historical. A mysterious visitor takes them on a trip back in time where they collect famous people from the past, and much hilarity ensues. They call Socrates “So-crates,” they refer to Billy the Kid as “Mr. the Kid,” and so on. In the end, of course, they bring all these people back with them and ace their presentation.

At one point in the movie, they travel into the future, where apparently they are revered as sages. Important Future People crowd around and ask them for a word of wisdom.

Caught off guard, Bill recovers nicely and pronounces, “Be excellent to each other,” as the Important Future People ooh and ahh appreciatively.

What comes to my mind when I think of that statement is part of the Shema—the “love your neighbor” part. Isn’t this what God has been trying to get us to do ever since he’s made himself known to us—to be excellent to each other? That’s what is behind God’s commands to the Hebrews to take care of the widow and the orphan and “the alien in your land.” It’s at the heart of Jesus’ Good Samaritan, his “cup of cold water” to the “least of these,” his injunctions to go the extra mile, to love our enemies. It’s all “Be excellent to each other.”

However he came to that conclusion, Bill got it right.


He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

—Luke 10:27