In the gospel lesson today (John 13:31-35), Jesus explains that he is going somewhere that his disciples cannot follow, but he’s leaving behind a to-do list. The list is short and sweet, “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.”
Short and sweet, “love one another”, but Jesus says it THREE times in the two verses I just read to you. “love one another”.
Well of all the things a thoughtful, smart, and demanding messiah could ask us to do…this seems to be a pretty easy set of departing words. “love one another”
But here’s the thing about “easy”. Rarely is it ever the truth.
This set of five verses has been taken right out of the bigger picture of John’s gospel and placed in front of us without any context. And reading any part of the Bible out of context is a dangerous thing to do. If we don’t understand the larger movement behind Jesus’ new commandment, we might think it means that we are only obligated to love other Christians. Or we might find it easy to believe that when Jesus speaks of love he means affection, fondness, warmth, attachment, or endearment. We might talk ourselves into thinking that time in prayer for the person in the pew next to us or delivering a casserole for someone on the prayer list or sewing a quilt for someone we like is fulfilling that commandment. And while all of those things are good and can be expressions of love, without deeper thinking, we might be tempted to look at love as a shallow feel-good kind of fun thing to do in your spare time after the grocery shopping or soccer games or the latest episode of, well, whatever.
Let’s step back and look for a moment of the bigger frame for this lesson. Jesus and his disciples are at the Last Supper. He has washed the feet of his friends making himself symbolically among the lowest servants in a household. He has broken bread with them. And he has just seen Judas rise from the table to go about the business of betrayal, setting in rapid motion the arrest and execution of Jesus and the gospel according to John says that Jesus knew exactly what was about to go down.
And if we continue to read after our appointed selection, we see that the very next thing to happen in this tumultuous dinner hour is that Simon Peter...always determined to be the best, the most, the greatest...Simon Peter declares his great love for Jesus by promising to die for him. But Jesus, knowing Simon Peter (and the rest of us) all too well, says, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”
When we look at the command from Jesus to “love one another as I have loved you” in its proper context, it begins to feel a little more weighty, doesn’t it?
Judas has betrayed him. Peter will deny him. But Jesus is focused on love. His last sermon to his friends is not focused on blame or shame or what could have been. Instead, Jesus lovingly prepares them for what is to come and promises that in love for one another they will be bound to one another and in that binding be bound publicly and eternally with Jesus.
Elizabeth Johnson, a theologian in Cameroon, says, “Jesus demonstrates his love for the same disciples who will fail him miserably. Jesus washes and feeds Judas who will betray him, Peter who will deny him, and all the rest who will fail to stand by him in his hour of greatest distress. The love that Jesus demonstrates is certainly not based on the merit of the recipients, and Jesus commands his disciples to love others in the same way.
We as disciples of Jesus have continually fallen far short in our love for one another as well as in our love for those outside the community of faith. Theological, (moral), and ethical arguments often descend into personal attacks and name-calling; personal interests often trump the common good of the community; those in need of compassion find judgment instead.
Jesus could not be clearer: It is not by our theological correctness, not by our moral purity, not by our impressive knowledge that everyone will know that we are his disciples.”
They will know we are followers of Jesus by our love.
So if prayer and cooking and quilting can be expressions of love but are not the totality of love, what is?
To understand the love of which Jesus is speaking, we only need look at his life and at his death. Jesus, in every interaction in every gospel lesson in every account, calls for justice. Love in action in the life of our incarnated God is the insistence on justice for everyone.
“Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that “Peace is not the absence of war but the presence of justice.” Our world changes when justice prevails. When we love one another -- no matter who they are -- justice and peace become part of our reality. When we work for justice and equality we are fully living into the love we are commanded to show one to the other by Jesus.”
Last weekend, I was in Washington, D.C., with approximately one thousand other people of faith as we went about the business of preparing to speak with our Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill about issues of justice which we perceive to be of particular importance (Ecumenical Advocacy Days). This year, we were talking about international trade practices and their human and environmental (Creational) impact and about restoring the ability to vote to thousands of Americans. I was tasked with speaking to our elected officials from Alabama. (A couple of volunteers from Tennessee accompanied me. Thanks be to God.)
While we were there, we saw thousands and thousands of people (one might even say a multitude) flood the Hill and the Supreme Court to advocate for immigrants, for families, and for all sorts of things that were and are heady intellectual political issues…issues I thought were best settled by folks who know more than I do. I am NOT an expert on trade agreements or on immigration policy by any means. But, it turns out, I am becoming an expert on what fairness is, on what justice looks like, and on how listening, really listening, looks a lot like love.
And as I walked in my clerical collar (which felt like a very brave and foolish thing to do on Capitol Hill) among my sisters and brothers who were there to seek justice for themselves and for folks they’d never met (saw a couple of black women from New York State holding hands with displaced immigrants from Alabama…and as I slowed near them, I was greeted with ‘hey, Sister!’ and ‘!hola, Mama!’), in that moment, I understood that what I was doing there was using my voice inspired by my faith and by this commandment and so I was part of a greater movement across the nation, not for political gain…not once all weekend did I hear anyone cite the name of a presidential candidate or recite campaign speeches…but for justice and the restoration of morality in our country with an impact throughout the world. Justice and equality for all people. Restoration for Creation. Love for one another. That is where our faith and our politics ought to intersect.
The Aboriginal Activists group in Queensland has said, “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
When I understand that my freedom is bound up in yours, that my livelihood is dependent upon yours, when I understand that my comfort, my hope, my very existence and salvation is wrapped up with yours, and not just yours but all the world’s, then, I can begin to speak about loving my neighbor, loving one another as Jesus loves us.
As Karyn Wiseman of Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia says, “This text focuses on love but the justice piece for many is that all of Jesus’ disciples will be known by their love of others. For Jesus, love did not mean a sweet sentimental feeling. It meant action. It meant actively loving -- putting one’s love into real world activities.”
Living faith in the public square. Inviting others into the conversation.
I heard a rumor that that very thing is the directive Rebecca left with us this weekend (as you all evaluated our redevelopment together).
How do we do we live our faith in a way that is meaningful and bold, out there beyond the safety and sanctuary of our church walls? What does the seeking of justice look like in Prattville? How do we show love, real, deep and abiding love, to our neighbors?
How do we bear a loving and just witness to a living, loving, and just God with our words, with our actions, with our lives here in Autauga County and even into Montgomery?
How do we show love to one another, to all people, when we know that somewhere among us in here or out there resides a Judas or a Simon Peter? These are the questions we have to address as faithful followers and lovers of Jesus.
It feels risky. Because it is risky. But it is the kind of life and love to which Jesus calls us.
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” We know that Jesus loves us past the point of disappointment. Past the point of uncomfortable-ness. Past the point of humility. Past the point of death.
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
In one little sentence lies all of law and all of gospel. You are freed, you are forgiven, and you are loved. Go, tell the world, and do the same.
Boldly. Deeply. Sacrificially. Out loud. And in the public square.
Take courage and be bold. Jesus loves you.