Last weekend I saw the movie 42. It’s about the first African-American player in major league baseball. His number happened to be 42 and his name was Jackie Robinson. Throughout the movie we saw how the public reacted to this tear in the fabric of society, and it wasn’t pretty. Other teams refused to play with his team, hotels turned them away. There were threats to Robinson’s life, and baseballs were thrown directly at his head. But even more telling was the way the members of his own team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, reacted to his presence. In the beginning, they circulated a petition refusing to play if Robinson was on the team. Then they grew to tolerate him, mainly because he was good and he helped them win games. But gradually, they came to admire him and stick up for him.
One of the things that Robinson always did was wait to take a shower in the locker room after everyone else on the team had finished showering. He said he didn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, so he accommodated their prejudice. The real climax of the movie comes when he realizes that his teammates have accepted him as their equal. He finally takes a shower with the rest of his team and they don’t even notice. It’s the story of an outsider becoming accepted, which, I suppose is what every person who is marginalized hopes for.
It seems there are always people in our society who are insiders and there are those who are outsiders. I wonder if that is inevitable. Is it just the way we’re wired? Do we have to be that way? Or is it possible to include everyone in the circle of those we love?
There’s a verse in John’s gospel that doesn’t seem to help a whole lot. It comes from a section that begins with the Last Supper and the moving story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, including Judas, the one who was about to betray him. The disciples are confused. And in the midst of all the tension and drama, Jesus offers these words, “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.” Jesus is about to die on a cross, and of all the lessons he could have chosen to leave with his friends, he gives them this one: that they love one another.
That’s what Jesus says. But it’s what he doesn’t say that I get hung up on. He tells them to love one another -- within their own community. But what about people who are outside their community? Does this new commandment apply to them, too?
John’s gospel is the only one that gives us this commandment of Jesus: love one another. You can’t find it in Matthew, Mark or Luke. In fact, there are things in the other gospels that even contradict it. In Matthew, during Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” Jesus says here that it’s no big deal if you love your friends. Anybody can do that. The real challenge, he says, is to love your enemies.
In another place, when he’s asked which is the greatest of all the commandments, Jesus is very clear. He says we’re supposed to love God with everything we have by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. When asked to clarify, just who is my neighbor? Jesus told a great story about a man who was beaten and left for half-dead beside the road and everyone passed him by. But an outsider saw him, and had compassion on him and took care of him. It was the outsider who proved to be the neighbor to the poor man on the side of the road. Jesus teaches that a neighbor is not just someone in our inner circle of friends.
This is yet another example of why we can’t pull one verse out of the Bible and make it the law for our lives. Everything has to be read in its context. That includes its context within the entire Bible itself. The commandment Jesus leaves with his disciples in John, that we love one another, is only one piece of the story. So, it can’t be interpreted as love one another, period. There has to be more to it than that.
Consider how the direction of the Bible always moves outward. The circle of those who would be included in the people of God always expands. It never shrinks and it never stays the same. There’s a story from Acts that’s a perfect example of how this works. Peter thought that the Church was reserved for those who followed Jewish rules, including their strict dietary laws. And he wasn’t about to eat with Gentiles, people who served impure food. So, when a Roman soldier named Cornelius invited Peter over for dinner, he had to decline. But in a vision he came to understand that this was all poppycock. And a door was opened to include people in the Church who had been excluded. The circle of God’s people expanded.
You could read the whole story of God and his people following this thread of an ever expanding circle. Because that’s the way the story of God and his people always goes. And that movement toward including more and more people in God’s circle of grace didn’t stop once the ink was dry on the pages of the Bible; it’s still the way God and his people always goes.
My favorite definition of God is that God is a circle whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere. I like it because it describes where the love of God is located. Everywhere. With everyone. And it has no limits. You can never find the place where the circle ends. No one is excluded. God is a circle whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere.
But, of course, we humans aren’t there yet. We’re gradually expanding our circle of those we would include in our community as we “love one another.” You see, I don’t think that Jesus’ command to love one another is really limiting. But who we would see as one another may be. In other words, the command to love those who are in our circle is on the mark. The problem for us may be that our circle is too small. The work of the Spirit in our lives is always pushing us to expand that circle. As long as there are those we can say are them while we are us, our circle is too small.
If you’re a member of a church, it’s good to consider what that means to you. Although church families are often closed groups composed of people who are basically like us, becoming part of a closed group won’t do a whole lot for us if our goal is following Jesus. But a good reason for becoming part of a church family is join one where we are expected to challenge one another to expand our circle to include people we would otherwise be inclined to push to the margins.
The best churches are like little love laboratories where members learn how to love one another, so that they can use what they we’ve learned in their church with the rest of the world. In that respect, loving one another is more important than we may realize. If we can’t get it within our church family, we can’t get it anywhere.
The congregation that I’m a part of has been a wonderful place to welcome people who have often felt on the outside of other faith communities: people who are divorced, single parents, gays & lesbians, transgender persons, families with special needs children. All are welcome. But I know there are still some people who make us squirm. There are still some we would rather keep out, whether intentionally or unintentionally. They might be people who make us uncomfortable, or people who just bug the heck of us. They might be people we perceive to be against us, or people we’d just as soon ignore. Perhaps it’s the person who doesn’t speak our language. Or the one who has committed a crime that makes us shudder with fear and loathing. Maybe it’s just someone who doesn’t want to do things our way and disrupts our nice little world. The Spirit is always nudging us to expand our circle so that it comes closer to matching that circle whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere.
So, getting back to Jesus’ commandment that we love one another… The question for us is not just about whether we will love one another. But here’s the larger question: Who are the one anothers we will love?