Follow Week 4: Relationship building or rule following?
Follow Week 4: February 28, 2021
The Rev. Megan Collins
Most of you know our kids aren’t really kids anymore. We have two sons who are now seventeen and fourteen. There are definitely advantages to having kids that are older. For example, the board games are actually fun. If you play a board game with your teenagers you get to play something like Settlers of Catan or Poker. More often than not these days they destroy us at these games. But when they were little the games were more simple. You can’t have a lot of rules for a game when kids are little because they are still learning. Texas Hold 'Em is definitely not an option.
But you play the games with them anyway even though they aren’t exactly exciting as an adult because you aren’t playing the game to win. You are playing it to build a relationship with them. We played a lot of these kinds of games when our kids were little. Especially when they were really small I felt like it was important to let them win every so often to build up their confidence.
One afternoon when our oldest son was really young I was playing a game called Chutes and Ladders. You roll the dice and you move forward. If you land on a ladder, you get to go up the board and skip over some squares. If you land on a chute you have to go down the chute and start back at that square. First person to the final square, wins.
There are two things you need to know at this point in the story. First, I wanted to let our four year old win this particular game of Chutes and Ladders. Second, we had been playing this game for an hour which was about all I could handle as an adult. My son was nearing the end of the board. There was only one more chute between him and the final square. But this chute was a particularly long one that I think was created to break a parent’s spirit. He rolled the dice and I did a quick mental calculation. If he moved the number of spaces on the dice he would land on the chute. The game would effectively start over. But if i accidentally let him move one extra space he would skip over that last chute. The game would draw to a close. I might not lose my mind. I gently scooted his piece forward over the line when he wasn’t looking.
He moved his piece. One two three, just past the chute. The chute that takes you all the way back to the beginning. The plan had worked. Maybe I had broken a small game rule but I was still building the relationship with my son and preserving my sanity. Here’s what I didn’t know. Dave had quietly walked in and seen this whole thing unfold. I heard him behind me. I looked at him, my eyes wide. I try as hard as I can to communicate without speaking. He did not understand my silent eye language. Dave says “Wait a second - you went one space too far! Your piece should land on the chute!” at which time I silently stood up, handed my Chutes and Ladder piece to Dave and left the room.
We spend a lot of time learning and following rules. In fact, when it comes to being a Christian we talk a lot about rules. We talk about the commandments, especially the Ten Commandments. We like those so much we put them up on walls and plaques.
Rules are good. They help set boundaries for us. They give us direction. Jesus talked about rules too. He talks about one specific rule right at the end of his life. We know this must be a really important rule for exactly that reason. Last words are usually the most important thing. It’s the thing you want someone to remember, the thing you want to make absolutely sure they understand. Jesus is almost out of time with his disciples, and he wants to make sure they hear this teaching from him. What does he say? Let's look at the gospel of John, chapter 13 starting in verse 34:
“I give you a new commandment,”
Oh boy. A new rule, and it’s going to be the most important rule. We better be serious about following this one. What is it?
“that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
The new rule isn’t telling the disciples to behave. It isn’t about what they shouldn’t do. In fact, Jesus, it doesn’t sound much like a rule at all. It sounds an awful lot like . . . a relationship. That’s exactly what it is. The new rule, the most important one that he wants them to remember isn’t really a rule at all. It’s a relationship. Having this be one of his final teachings is pretty on brand for Jesus. For his whole life, Jesus was always about the relationships instead of the rules. Jesus was more concerned with relationship building than rule following. When the rules said someone was unclean, Jesus got as close as he could to them. When the rules said someone should be stoned for their behavior, Jesus stood with them. When the rules said you couldn't work on the sabbath, Jesus healed people anyway.
It made the super religious leaders furious. The Pharisees couldn't get past Jesus’ rule-breaking, people centered way of living. It was too complicated. It was too messy. It was too uncomfortable. The way Jesus lived still makes religious people uncomfortable. It turns out you can belong to a church and even be a Christian without letting go of your death grip on the rules. But to follow Jesus is to live the way he lived, to love others the way Jesus loves us. So how does Jesus love?
He loves by putting himself second to others. He did things like washing the feet of his disciples. He loves by including everyone even those who misbehaved or were outcast or people thought were unclean. In fact, he seemed to seek out those people more than anyone. He loves sacrificially, giving up everything, even his life. He loves first. He loves before that love is deserved or reciprocated.
Jesus loves by relationship building instead of rule following.
Jesus loves you this way. Jesus gave his life for you. Jesus loves you even though you don’t deserve it and he loves you before you even love him back. To follow Jesus is to love like this, to love others the way Jesus loves you. Church, this isn’t easy. Let’s look at what gets in our way. If we know Jesus calls us to love others, to relationship building more than rule following, why do we keep falling back to rules?
Because people are hard to love. We think “surely Jesus didn’t mean I should love them.” Some people are especially hard to love. But instead of letting Jesus change you into someone who can love them anyway, it’s easier to look for the ways they fall short. Instead of saying “Jesus, help me love them” we say “look at all the ways they are breaking the rules, Jesus.” We will file this one under the it’s a good thing Jesus isn’t like us category. If we had our way, people would get their act together and then we would love them. We would much rather focus on the speck in our neighbor's eye than the plank in our own. But Jesus loved us before we were lovable. We still aren’t lovable. Jesus loved you not because of who you are but in spite of it. Then he told you to go love other people that way. Yes, people are hard to love. But loving like Jesus means loving them anyway.
Maybe you are thinking “Okay. I want to follow Jesus like this. I want to love others the way Jesus loved me. Where do I start?”
Some of you might really want to love people but you aren’t someone who naturally notices people. You can see that there is someone sitting in the room with you but you just aren’t wired to know what they are feeling, to think about what they might need. This isn’t a personality flaw. This is a personality type. It’s how your pieces are put together. Maybe life for you is a little more black and white. If you were in the Matrix, you would see everything in code. We were talking to a couple of friends about this. One friend can walk into a room and instantly feel what the other person is feeling, even before a word is spoken. He can tell just by the way a person is sitting or the inflection in a voice what the other person is feeling, and then . . . he feels it too. He was sharing about this one day and our other friend looked puzzled. “What do you mean you feel someone else’ feelings? That must be exhausting!” If you are in this first category, you don’t have to change who you are to love like Jesus. You don’t have to be someone who oozes love and empathy and compassion to follow Jesus. But you can’t use being analytical as a way out of obedience to this teaching either. The good news is this loving stuff can be broken down to be really practical.
When you come into a room, and someone is sitting there, you don’t have to know what they need to love them. You can ask them. You can say things like “is there something I can do for you today?” Or “how can I pray for you?” Or “how are you feeling?” Seriously. It can be that easy to get started. But (and this next step is critical) the next thing you have to do is . . . listen to their answer.
There are others of you who can walk into a room and know what someone is feeling and how to love them. You are the ones who notice someone who is on the outskirts of a group. You see someone you don’t even know and can feel that they are sad from fifty feet away You are probably great at relationships. You are listening to this thinking “relationships over rules?” No problem.
But the temptation here is to forget that we are loving others by following Jesus. If you are super good at relationships it can be tempting to say “step aside Jesus. I’ve got this.” You will love and love and love until you find yourself exhausted. Jesus said love others just as I have loved you which means you have to let Jesus love you first. Before your feet hit the floor in the morning, let Jesus love you. Spend time with him. Let Jesus pour into you so you can pour into others. You are not the line leader. Jesus is. Follow him.
To follow Jesus is to love like Jesus.
There is a lot at stake for us in doing this. The last part of our Scripture for today says “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” When we, as the church, choose to love instead of condemn, choose radical inclusion over separation, choose relationships over rules, then people see that we are following Jesus. It might just make them want to follow too.