By this every one will know ...
| John 13:31-35
||Sun, May 13, 2001
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Jesus gives his disciples one new commandment. One. Not five or
ten or twenty. One. Yet how many of those who worship in
Christian congregations in North America this morning could name
that one straightforward new commandment from memory? One
suspects that most could recall the ‘Golden Rule’ - “do unto others as
you would have them do unto you”. But a little homespun research
will quickly reveal that, when it comes to Jesus’ new commandment,
much of the church in North America has developed a serious case
of amnesia. This forgetfulness overcomes even many of those who
celebrate the giving of this new command (in Latin ‘maundatum’)
with a day named in its honour - ‘Maundy Thursday’. Let us
promise ourselves at least this much - that if we remember anything
about this morning in the year to come that it will be these simple
words of Jesus to to us:
“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.”
“Love one another”. That shouldn’t be so hard to remember. In fact,
it sounds pretty standard. We’ve been hearing basically the same
message from our Mothers ever since we can remember ... and we’re
grateful that, in family, love is the law. And even if we can’t
remember Jesus’ new command from memory we still know
intuitively that love is to be the law in the church. There’s nothing all
that surprising about this ... as long as we don’t listen too closely. Did
you hear it? The trouble, I mean. Did you hear the trouble in Jesus’
new commandment? There is a reason why we have developed
corporate amnesia when it comes to this command to the church.
There is always a reason when children ‘forget’ the rules of the
household. It would be fine if Jesus had simply instructed his
followers to ‘love one another’. Then it would be left to us to freely
interpret the law, to imagine that we might be fulfilling it with a
handshake here and a ‘pat on the back’ there. But Jesus adds a
qualification: “love one another, as I have loved you”.
“As I have loved you”. Jesus has welcomed all manner of strays,
stragglers and sinners into his company. “As I have loved you”. He
gives the new commandment as the disciples’ feet are till freshly
washed ... servant’s feet washed by the hands of their Lord and
Saviour ... inverting all their expectations of who is to do the dirty
work in the community. “As I have loved you”. The disciples are not
commanded to offer one another a generic ‘love’. Jesus does not say:
“I give you a new commandment, that you be nice to one another”.
No. He lays down the law: “Love one another, as I have loved you”.
This is the reason that every week in every l’Arche Community
around the world all members of the community gather to wash one
another’s feet. In establishing these little Christian communities Jean
Vanier realized that the new commandment of Jesus must never be
forgotten. Instead, it is to be at the heart of the life of a community
that seeks to incorporate all manner of disabled people in a
household of joy and care. In these communities there are not
caregivers and care-receivers. All - able-bodied and disabled - receive
and offer care. And the washing of feet is but a small symbol - a
sacrament - of the commitment to one another that is lived out every
day. When Jean Vanier was here at VST in March we discovered that
he is soon to film a series for Vision TV. The subject matter? The
Gospel of John. This comes as no surprise ... for the Gospel of John is
the one and only place in the New Testament that records this bold
new commandment of Jesus.
Of course, there is a problem with erasing our corporate amnesia.
Remembering this commandment means that now we are
confronted with the problem of keeping it ... or not. That is why I
make John chapter thirteen, verses 34 and 35 my standard response
to that classic refrain: “Oh, I am a Christian. I believe in God and I
follow the teachings of Jesus. I just have no interest in organized
religion or in the church. “Nature is my church.” It is such a
tempting possibility. To imagine that one can believe in God and
follow the teachings of Jesus and not get involved with others who
are seeking to do the same. Of course, to adopt this answer to the
problem of the church is to conveniently break Jesus’ new
commandment: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
Remember. With this new law he is not commanding the disciples to
love their neighbours or their families or those of their choosing.
Jesus says that with him it is the law to love his other disciples. It is
their feet that we are to wash. And they are the ones who are to wash
our feet. And, of course, that is precisely the trouble with the
organized Christian religion. Because, you see, the people who show
up next to us and in front of us and behind us in church aren’t
always the people to whom we would choose to offer the
compassion of Christ if we were given a choice. Sometimes it is easier
to send baskets of food to the poor at Main and Hastings or money to
fund clean water in the Dominican Republic than it is to care for the
disciples we meet up with here. Perhaps you are beginning to
understand the forces that have silenced Jesus’ new commandment
in the church. At times we just wish that it could all be forgotten. It
seems so impossible.
Yet it is precisely a community of surprising love and care ... a
people of radical hospitality and compassion ... that the world seeks.
The organized Christian religion gets a bad name precisely when it
forgets the new commandment which Jesus places at its very
constitutional core. Strangers, newcomers, outsiders, neighbours see
the ‘Everyone Welcome’ sign on many a church lawn and, believing
it, venture in the door on a Sunday morning. Too often they quickly
learn that the sign does not tell the whole truth. Not all those with
heavy burdens are welcome ... nor are all those who wish to offer
their gifts received with care. It turns out that keeping Jesus’ new
commandment in community is easier said than done. In a way, it is
this very conundrum which lies at the heart of the Doctor of Ministry
studies that I will be continuing in Atlanta over the next two weeks.
In those studies we are struggling to discern how to cultivate
Christian communities that remember and live the self-giving love of
Christ in ways that cause their neighbourhoods to sit up and take
notice. As preachers we would love to imagine that, somehow, all
that is missing is good preaching. Use creative images and powerful
words to tell the community to ‘love one another’ and surely it will
respond. Well, those of us who have heard more than a few lectures
from our well-intentioned Mothers know that being harangued into
love isn’t likely to produce the desired result. In the end, we know in
our bones that we are loved into loving one another.
That is why we begin in Christian community with Jesus. Those who
are gathering each week to consider Baptism and Renewal of
Baptismal Vows are at the heart of the matter this morning. Today
we consider the third question asked of those who come to the font.
It concerns the desire to turn to follow the way of Jesus, the one who
is our Saviour and Lord. Some wonder why we cannot simply begin
with promises to love one another. Isn’t that enough? Why do we
insist on continuing to use this ancient language of Jesus as Saviour
and Lord? Why Saviour? Because the love which saves us is not first
a command but is first all gift. Just as a Mother’s love is first
experienced and only then obeyed, so the love known in Christian
community is all response to God’s great gift in Christ. The love of
God which is revealed in the life and death and new life of Jesus
saves us. He is our Saviour. And he is also our Lord, the one who is
worth serving. He is worth serving because he is the only Lord we
know who does not lord it over us but, instead, gets down on his
knees to wash our feet. He is the only Lord we have ever run across
who lets go of his authority to rule in order to become our servant. So
when he commands: “Love one another, as I have loved you” we
find ourselves saying ‘yes’ ... and in that ‘yes’ naming Jesus as the
one who we call Lord.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have
love for one another.” By this everyone will know. This is how the
Word spreads. Evangelism is nothing more than neighbours passing
the word to neighbours that something good is happening in the
neighbourhood. This is the good news that they gossip about: that
the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ saves ... and that this good
news is being revealed right now in a people down the street who
are in the process of being saved into a new life by that same love.
Which, to my great delight, is precisely what I tell my neighbours
about what is happening to us ... here ... now. Thank God.