Sunday 19 May 2019
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
For the past several weeks, we have been hearing post-resurrection stories from the Gospel of John. We have heard about Jesus’s appearance to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, and the way that he sent her out as an apostle to the apostles, to tell them the story of his victory over death. We have heard about how Jesus appeared to his disciples as they were hidden away in a locked room on the evening of the resurrection, how he told them to conquer their fear and go out in his name. We heard how he appeared to them a week later, while they were still hidden away up in that locked, upper room. We heard how he appeared to many of them a third time, while they were out fishing, and how he encouraged Peter, “If you love me, feed my sheep.”
Now we have to rewind back to an earlier part of the story. It’s no longer after Easter, in the wake of the resurrection; now it’s before Easter. It is the night before Jesus’s crucifixion, as he shares a meal with his disciples. In John, this isn’t the Passover, and Jesus doesn’t institute the sacrament of Holy Communion. But it is Jesus’s last meal. He spends most of it talking. Four entire chapters of John are taken up with Jesus talking at his last meal. We call it the farewell discourse. And the passage we have today comes toward the beginning of that discourse.
As Jesus gathers his disciples together for a final meal, he shocks them by acting like a servant and washing their feet. They don’t understand it. Peter tries to stop Jesus. But Jesus goes ahead with a selfless act of service. He washes the feet of each of the twelve. Not just Peter, James, and John, he washes all of their feet, even Judas. And he tells them that just as he has washed their feet, so they should wash one another’s feet. “I have given you an example,” he says. “Just as I have done, you also must do.” He shocks them with his ability to give of himself, and he calls on them to imitate his self-giving love.
As the night goes on, they move to the meal, and Jesus predicts that one among his disciples will betray him. “The one who eats my bread has turned against me.” When they ask him who it is, he replies, “It’s the one to whom I will give this piece of bread once I have dipped into the bowl.” And then he dips the piece of bread and gives it Judas. Even at the end, even knowing that Judas will betray him, he offers Judas one last gift. Evoking themes of eucharist, Jesus gives him a piece of his bread.
After Judas leaves to set in motion the plan that will kill Jesus, we arrive at the reading assigned for today. Still at the meal, Jesus speaks to his disciples about his impending death, which in the Gospel of John is always imagined as a glorification. Jesus is always in control, he hardly suffers, and even when he is nailed to a cross, John describes it as Jesus being lifted up.
It is in that vein that Jesus speaks here of his death, that is, his glorification. “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 the Son of Man in himself and will glorify him immediately. Little children, I’m with you for a little while longer. You will look for me—but, just as I told the Jewish leaders I also tell you now—‘Where I’m going, you can’t come.’”
It is no wonder that the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about when he speaks so obliquely, so metaphorically. Who would guess that when he says he will be glorified that he means he will be crucified? Who would guess that when he says he is going somewhere his disciples can’t come that he means he is going to death? But this is indeed how Jesus speaks of his death, even as he is only hours away from it. And it is as Jesus is facing his own death—a death that he calls glorification—that he gives a new commandments.
Now that is a rather striking thing, giving a new commandment. Traditionally, there are 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible, what we sometimes call the Old Testament. So why would we need a new one? Aren’t 613 of them enough?
Apparently not, because John’s Jesus tells his disciples that he is about to give a new commandment. And here it is: “Love each other.” Just that simple. Love each other.
Is that really a new commandment? Is it really possible that God’s people have never before been commanded to love each other? Well, not exactly. You might recall that in the other three gospels, Jesus gets into discussions about what is the most important commandment in the Hebrew Bible, and in them we emerge with what we often call the Great Commandment. The Great Commandment is actually two commandments that Jesus has taken from different parts of the Hebrew Bible and sewn together into one connected saying. The first comes from Deuteronomy 6:4: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” Jesus cleverly pairs this commandment to love God with another Hebrew Bible commandment about love, this one from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus says that this dual commandment, to love God and to love neighbor, is a summary of every other commandment in the Bible. If you love God with your whole self and you love your neighbor as yourself, then you will inevitably follow every other commandment without even trying. Love for God and love for neighbor is what it’s all about.
But in the Gospel of John, Jesus takes a different approach. In John, Jesus gives a new commandment. And the new commandment is to love each other. Now, as we’ve just noted, that isn’t exactly a new commandment. And it is isn’t, not on its own. But the next part is new. “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you must love each other.”
The command to love the other is not new, but the way we understand that love is new. It’s no longer based on our own actions. We aren’t to love the other in the same way that we love ourselves. No, that isn’t a good enough model. Instead, Jesus makes the commandment new by making himself the example of love. Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another.
And he has just lived out the model for them. He has taken off his robe, taken the towel of a servant, and washed the feet of his followers. Even though he is their teacher, even though he is their leader, even though he is their lord, even though he is their God, he takes on the role of a slave and washes their feet. Not just the ones who understand him; none of them understand him. Not just his best pupils or those with the most potential. He washes the feet of each and every one of them. Even Peter, who will deny him in the coming hours. But much more remarkably, he even washes the feet of Judas, whom he knows will be the one who betrays him to death. Judas, whom we are explicitly told was a vessel for Satan. Even evil Judas gets his feet washed by Jesus. And in fact, it is Judas who is singled out by Jesus to receive the gift of a piece of bread from his own hand.
You want a model for love: that is your model for love. Look at that Jesus-love. Look at the love that serves both friend and enemy. Look at the love that acts as a servant. Look at the love that sets aside Godliness in order to take on human form, to demonstrate God’s love for us. Look at the love that lays down one’s life for one’s friends. Look at the love that endures death so that we might understand the depth of God’s grace. This is love. This is how you should love one another.
And that is extraordinary. The love of God demonstrated to us in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is beyond comprehension. The love of God demonstrated to us in the ongoing gift of the Spirit, in our continuing relationship with God in Jesus Christ is astonishing. And that is the kind of love that we are commanded to have for each other. Not just for our families. Not just for our friends. Love for strangers. Love for enemies. Love for all created beings. We are to love with the unimaginable love that Jesus has demonstrated for us.
And that is a difficult ask, isn’t it? To love the way that Jesus loved. To love with that kind of unselfishness. To love with that kind of compassion. To love beyond boundaries of difference. To love despite past wrongs. To love in a way that wishes the best even for those we despise. That is difficult. It is a humbling prospect.
But I think even that is not nearly as humbling as what Jesus says next. “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other,” he says. And then he says, “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”
This is how everyone will know you are my disciples, when you love each other. It hits me like a punch in the gut. Jesus says that an extravagant, selfless love should be the marker of our identity. Reckless love is the sign that should tell others that we are disciples of Jesus.
But that certainly isn’t our reputation, is it? If you asked a non-Christian in our culture to describe how a Christian behaves, I’m not sure that selfless love is the first thing that would roll off their lips. In fact, we Christians have often developed a reputation for exactly the opposite: for bigotry, for exclusion, for a myopic obsession with rules and social convention, for a holier-than-thou attitude, for a sense of entitlement and privilege. And in many cases that reputation has been well-earned. How far away from the commandment to love we have fallen, with crusades, slavery, a doctrine of discovery, with oppression based on race, religion, nationality, sexuality. None of that is consistent with Jesus’s commandment to love. None of that is comparable with what Jesus says should be the marker of our faith. None of that is consistent with love.
But along with that tradition of lovelessness, there is another tradition that does not always get as much press. It was Christian love that introduced the concept of care for the poor to the western world. It was Christian love that invented the hospital. It was Christian love that drove the abolitionist movement. It was Christian love that founded schools and universities. Christian love contributed to temperance, women’s suffrage, civil rights, addiction recovery, prison ministry, chaplaincy, the hospice movement. And it is Christian love that every day prompts one person to forgive someone, that prompts one person to share with another, that prompts one person to raise their voice for the freedom of another.
We don’t have a perfect track record. But if we ever need to know what it is that makes us Christian, here it is: the command of Jesus to love the other. May God continue to show us, in Jesus, how to love the other, how to serve the other, so that we can honestly say that the world will know we are Christians by our love.