John 13:31-35: When he 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.”
If it weren’t for all those other people! Have you ever said that to yourself? When you’re caught in a traffic jam? When you’re in line at a grocery store? “If it weren’t for all those other people, I’d be out of here in no time?”
Or have you ever been at a tourist attraction – and I’m asking you to think back a few years – when you couldn’t see because of all the other people, or couldn’t hear the tour guide because of all the cameras clicking, and said, “I would really like to visit here without all these other people.”
Or maybe you identify as a Republican, and you think “if it weren’t for all those Democrats, our country would be in much better shape!” And vice versa.
Or if it weren’t for that newly conservative Supreme Court, or if it weren’t for our latest president, our nation would be on the right track.
If it weren’t for all those anti-vaxxers, this pandemic would be over.
Have you ever landed a wonderful job that was spoiled by some of the other people who worked there?
Or exclaimed about your church, “This is such a wonderful church, but there are certain other people here who are really a problem.”
I suspect we’ve all had these thoughts and faced similar frustrations. Even being socially distanced, and feeling confined, we’ve still had to interact with other people. Every day, whether virtually or in person, we have to share our streets and houses and workplaces and churches with lots of other people. And some of those people can really push our buttons. Some of them are so difficult that we get grouchy, hard too please, and absorbed in talking about “those other people, those problem people.”
We’re not meant to live like that. God doesn’t want us to live like that.
God made the world and filled it with those other people. Then Christ died for each one. In his church, every kind and shape and age and color and gender has been accepted into the family of Christ. We’re commanded not only to get along with the whole bunch, but also to love them, whoever they are and however strange or difficult.
Jesus said, “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.”
Each of us has to figure out ways to deal with all those other people. God has a way, too. God has planned for us to engage and connect with those other people, no matter how difficult it may be or how much of a problem they are. And fortunately, God provides us gifts to deal with one of life’s biggest challenges: all those other people.
One of the quickest ways we deal with people is the judgmental way. That’s looking at appearances and deciding what’s wrong. And somehow it’s always those other people who look bad, not us. There’s a collection of sayings that goes:
When that person takes a long time to do something, they’re slow; but when I take a long time to do something, I’m meticulous.
When the other guy doesn’t do it, he’s lazy; but when I don’t do it, I’m too busy.
When that woman goes ahead and does something without being told, she’s overstepping her bounds; but when I go ahead and do something without being told, that’s my initiative.
When the other guy strongly states his side of the question, he’s bullheaded; but when I strongly state my side of the question, I’m being firm.
When someone overlooks a few rules of etiquette, they’re rude; but when I skip a few of the rules, I’m original.
When that other person does something to please the boss, that’s polishing the apple; but when I do something that pleases the boss, that’s cooperation.
When that woman gets ahead, she sure had the lucky breaks; but when I manage to get ahead – it’s just my hard work that did it.”
Judging by appearances wasn’t Jesus’ way, and it shouldn’t be ours either. The old Native American saying is right: Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins. Jesus came to walk in our shoes and to feel our human experiences and to show us how to accept, not judge, others.
Most of us at some time have treated people in an exclusive way, meaning that only certain people are our kind of people. Unfortunately, it starts early. Little boys and girls like to have secret clubs and passwords to keep out the kids they happen to dislike. Big boys and girls have other ways of shutting people out, and so we end up with political polarization and culture wars.
The Jews of Jesus’ day wanted to shut out the Samaritans. They had no dealings, no words, and avoided all contact with them. It would never occur to them to call any Samaritan “good,” but Jesus, with one quick story, made the Samaritan the hero on the Jericho road of life. And Jesus sends us out to be good neighbors to the world.
Another common way we respond to those other people is with criticism. To tear down, walk on, and pick apart comes easily to us – that’s why we have Twitter. Like a contagious disease, it spreads.
Jesus probably had more criticism thrown at him than any of us can imagine. He was hounded by critics, but it never soured him. Do you know people who make you wonder what they say about you as soon as you walk away? But everyone was safe with Jesus, and he always took the part of those being scorned. Parents who brought children to see him were criticized for bothering the Master. He opened his arms to the children and commanded us all to be like little children. A blind man cried at the top of his voice for healing and was criticized for making such a racket. Jesus stood still, welcomed, and healed the beggar.
Yes, it’s easy to criticize. But people are fragile, and they’re meant to be handled gently. If we have a critic’s tongue and eye, we too need Jesus’ healing touch. Jesus heals us all, if we’re willing to let him.
Another common way to deal with people who have stepped on us or injured us is to bear a grudge. We’re hurt and angry. We seek sympathy from our friends against them, discuss our hurt and anger at length, and when possible, return the injury they gave to us. The author Frederick Buechner describes anger this way: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
What was Jesus’ alternative? Forgiveness. When there’s nothing bothering us, it’s easy to extol the virtue of forgiveness. It’s another thing when we’re the one hurting and our wounds are bleeding. And it was when Jesus’ wounds, his physical wounds, were bleeding, that he prayed, “God, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
Finally, another way of dealing with troublesome people is to withdraw from them. But that’s not really possible – even in a socially-distanced day and age! – and it adds to our misery by making us concentrate on ourselves, which is one of our biggest problems to begin with.
Jesus tried to get away from all the people for a rest, but throngs of people rushed toward him. With deepest compassion he ministered to them all. He didn’t withdraw from the most difficult, which included his own disciples at times. He welcomed sinners, to the horror of the pious. He turned no one away – Samaritan, Jew, or Roman. He welcomed all, and he still does. We as his followers can’t withdraw from life, people, needs, or the world.
There are now almost eight billion of us people on this planet. God is great enough to love us all equally, endlessly, and God is willing to receive any who seek God’s loving embrace.
We draw small circles around our lives to shut in the ones we like and accept, and to keep out all those others. God has only one circle, and God wants all of us to get in it too. God welcomes us all into this church, this body of Christ. God needs us for the care of a suffering world, a world which is full of all those other people.
“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” Amen.