By Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner
The United Methodist Church
“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.” John 13:34-35
These days the words “change the world” are very popular here in the United States, and perhaps some form of that phrase is popular where you are as well.
This summer has been a time when it is easy to see the things in the world that we would like to change. The typhoon that slammed the Philippines. The Ebola virus sweeping parts of the African continent. The persistent violence and heartbreak this summer in Israel, Palestine, Iraq, and the Ukraine. The struggle of African Americans in the United States to feel that their young men’s lives are safe after multiple deaths of unarmed men at the hands of law enforcement in places like Ferguson, Missouri. The voluntary and involuntary movement of refugees across many borders around the world; along with the hospitality or lack of hospitality those sojourners receive.
For those who would command that the world must change, Jesus offers a different commandment: “love one another.” Even in moments when the world’s problems and pains and turmoils seem so overwhelming that we do not know where to start, Jesus tells us exactly where to start. Start within yourself. Start with your own heart. Start with your own actions. For how can we dream of changing the world, if we cannot change ourselves.
A quote, attributed to Ghandi, puts it succinctly: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Several years ago, when I was in seminary, I had just these feelings. I felt fired up to change the church and to change the world. When I was invited to a conversation at my seminary with Archbishop Elias Chacour (who would later be one of our WMC 2011 speakers), I was eager to ask this bold peacemaker how to go about this work of world-changing and church-changing. In what I thought would be a very clever question, I explained to him how much we wanted to change things and asked him how to go about changing the church. He simply paused, cocked his head, and said, “First: You must change.”
And we must.
If we want this world to be a place of love, we must start by making our churches places of love. And if we want to make our churches places where people are loved, we must start by being loving ourselves. This, Jesus says, is how people will know our identity. Our love is how they will know we are followers of Jesus; our love is how they will see God at work.
This love must be the kind of love that, like God’s love, transcends borders, alliances, ethnicity, race, language, nationality and politics. None of these things hold back God’s love; and none of these things can hold back those who love the way God calls them to love. This kind of love crosses borders, reaches through the bars of prison cells, breaks down walls that divide, builds bridges between the formerly divided, and knows no obstacle that can bar its way. This kind of love does not always insist on its own way, but strives and struggles to understand the other’s position and perspective.
This love starts to change the world by how we interact with those around us, as well as with whom we choose to interact. We can never love one another in a way that changes lives and changes churches and changes communities – and changes the world – unless we begin to talk to one another. We can never begin to act like a family that transcends racial and national barriers, if the only people we treat like family are those who look like we do. We have to learn to cry when our family cries, to laugh when our family laughs; to behave as if each heartbreak is our own, and each triumph brings light to our eyes. We must live as if inequality makes as little sense as a parent spooning out a heaping plate for one sibling while handing an empty plate to another.
If we want to change the world, we need look no further than the example of Jesus. Jesus did not mount a global offensive, or call a meeting of Presidents and Prime Ministers. Jesus loved the people in front of him in a way that they had never been loved before. The ripples of that choice have echoed through the centuries; the stories of that love will continue to be told for all eternity.
Love. That is how you will change the world.