With our Gospel reading today we seem to have been pulled back into Easter. (In terms of the lectionary of course, we have.) We are back in the upper room with the disciples and Jesus. Wet cloths, pitchers and bowls in the corner. Supper has been completed and Jesus has spoken at some depth to all those in the room. He has appeared troubled at times.
Just before our reading starts a strange and lengthy conversation is held between Jesus and Judas. Its strange because only the two of them know what Judas is about to do. The others have no idea. Judas receives dipped bread from Jesus and with clean feet departs into the night.
So our text begins.
When he (Judas) had gone out, Jesus focuses on his mission and preparing his disciples for what is to come. He speaks of being glorified and of glorifying God, which in Johannine language is a reference to his elevation on a cross. Then he tells his disciples in tender words (“little children”) that he will be with them only a little longer, and that where he is going, they cannot come.
Then we come to perhaps the most oft quoted words in all the Gospels:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
Just as I have loved you. How then has Jesus shown his love at this point in the Gospel. Well Jesus has, since he gathered the disciples, shown them how he has constantly loved them. He has taught them by his actions. Sitting with outsiders whether at a tax collectors table or at a Samaritans well. He has healed numerous times – especially the poor and people of little account. He has feed the disciples, kept them safe.
He has shown them how he has loved by his words, instructing them into the mysteries of this new way of being. He has patiently answered their questions and put up with their failures to understand. He has put up with their squabbles and jostling for pre-eminence. He has welcomed their families into his circle, taught them to understand the Torah from a new perspective. Many of these actions and teachings were dangerous for both the Roman and Judean authorities would have regarded much of what he said as blasphemy or insurrectionist.
In other words, he has demonstrated his love time and time again.
At this point in this sermon I could then ask, “how do we demonstrate our love to one another”. As a Deacon I could talk about my experiences at the Mission. We could explore the various forms of love found in scripture – but I’m not going to do either for I think that for our today we can take those understandings and knowledge for granted (albeit imperfectly).
No for today I’m not so much interested in how many ways we can show our love – I’m not even interested in how many ways Jesus loved – but I am interested in HOW he loved. Let me explain.
Jesus knows he is about to die. And not die gently.
How then can Jesus even begin to talk about love of those who have been with him from the earliest days and yet are about to betray him? How can Jesus begin to talk about love in the face of the devastating events that will soon befall his community?
For clues lets recall the context within which our reading is situated.
Before our text begins, we are told of the betrayal by Judas.
After our text ends, we hear Jesus telling Peter that he will deny him three times.
The horrific fact is that these two small sentences about love are bracketed by two acts of betrayal. One of total betrayal to death and the other a denial by one of Jesus closest followers.
Seeing these two verses in this context reveals a radical kind of love.
In this context Jesus doesn’t talk about love in a general sense. His words are spoken in an intimate setting to those who have travelled many miles together, have broken bread together and who have come to know each other deeply. He speaks simply to his followers without elaboration in the knowledge that soon they will truly comprehend the radical nature of his love.
Only in hindsight will his followers recognise the ferocity of total dedication that Jesus brought to his loving. How he immersed himself in his unique selfless task of loving. How he did this by drawing from his unique well of spiritual knowing, his total faith in his God and his understanding of how the world works. Jesus demonstrated, in his short life, a total focus on his mission.
This degree of focus seems almost inhuman, almost beyond us as humans … and yet.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a fascinating vignette of an intriguing neurological difficulty. Tourette’s Syndrome is a mental disorder that causes victims to have any number of physical and verbal tics. Some Tourettic people have constant facial twitches, others find themselves uncontrollably uttering verbal whoops, or words they wouldn’t normally use. Dr. Sacks recounted a man who was given to deep, lunging bows, a few verbal shouts, and an obsessive-compulsive adjusting and readjusting of his glasses. This behaviour was constant.
Now that man was a skilled surgeon! Somehow and for some unknown reason, when he donned a mask and gown and entered the operating room, all of his tics disappeared for the duration of the surgery. He lost himself in that role and he did so totally. When the surgery was finished, he returned to his old quirks of glasses adjustment, shouts, and bows.
I understand that Sacks did not make any spiritual comments on this, yet we can find in this doctor a remarkable example of what it can mean to focus or be totally immersed in a way of being.
We know from the lives of the saints both ancient and modern that there really can be a great transformation of peoples lives when they focuse on just one thing – focus to the point that bad traits disappear even as the performing of normal tasks becomes all the more meaningful and remarkable.
As humans we can perhaps just grasp the extent of love that drove Jesus – in the scripture stories we hear time and again the very humanness of love inducing situations that require a radical intervention. We are called to respond to need in an all consuming way.
We are called to feel a depth of compassion that’s gut-wrenching – the look on Lazarus’s family’s faces moved Jesus to raise him after four days of death. We are called to feel a depth of outrage at injustice, Jesus anger at injustice resulted in the clearing of the temple – a love of justice so fierce and so urgent that Jesus used a whip in the holiest place in the nation.
A radical kind of love indeed.
Something like this surely is our Christian goal.
To do this, we need an infusion of a kind of love that does not arise naturally from the context of the world as we know it.
To love in the manner that Jesus loved the disciples, reveals an utterly self-giving, all-consuming desire to live together no matter what, and, in whatever sense is called for. Even to lay down our lives for each other.
Moravian pastor Frank Crouch recounts the story of the Greek Orthodox Bishop Chrysostomos on the island of Zakynthos in 1944. At gunpoint, the Nazis told the bishop and the mayor Loukas Carrer to surrender a list of the names of all the Jewish residents on the island. When the list was presented to the Nazis by Bishop Chrysostomos, it contained only two names: Mayor Carrer and the Bishop. The bishop bravely told the Nazis, "Here are your Jews. If you choose to deport the Jews of Zakynthos, you must also take me, and I will share their fate".
The bishop explained to the Nazis that Greek Orthodox Christians believed Paul's teaching in Galatians that there is neither Jew nor Greek.
The fact that the Bishop survived the war (as did all of the Jewish islanders) in no way diminishes his ultimate self-giving.
That same war saw some 2720 priests incarcerated in Dachau Concentration Camp. 1034 perished – the majority (868) were Polish.
Such example are not of everyday stuff – yet we can’t discard the fact that in committing to loving as Jesus did anything can happen that could challenge that love. Perhaps one of our greatest challenges however is not to be found in the heroic or remarkable but in the everyday events of our lives.
When we understand the significance of the foot washing, we realise that the kind of love that Jesus talks about can be found in the mundane happenings in our lives. We can only emulate the how of Jesus love by paying attention to the little things of life – for how else will be prepared when the big things come along.
The last words of our reading today “By this everyone will know.” speaks to a future that the disciples can probably hardly guess at. Love will become the litmus test of a Christian. Exhilarating – yes and perhaps terrifying. For to love to the depth that Jesus did will require all that the disciples have to give. And give they did. All were executed in enacting the love that was commanded of them – all with the exception of the generally recognised writer of this Gospel who died in his bed. And it is to John we turn for our last words.
It is said that John, in his old age, would remind those around him to love one another. When questioned why he told them this so many times, his reply would be,
“Because it is what our Lord commanded. If it is all you do, then it is enough.”