Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Thu is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for this week, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter 2022

Reading: John 13:31-35

St John has brought Jesus’ public ministry to a close at the end of chapter 12 of St John’s Gospel. This is the chapter before the chapter from which our Gospel reading for this week is taken. In chapter 12, St John has described how Jesus has entered Jerusalem to the cheering of the crowds that have come to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. Jesus appears to be a success, and it seems that there is nothing that can stop him. This is certainly how it appears to the Pharisees. They are despondent and say to one another that the whole world has gone after him (John 12:19). In fact, things are far more complicated than they seem.

The crowd who was there when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead continue to ‘testify’, to use St John’s word (John 12:17). They can’t stop talking about it, but that doesn’t mean they are ready to make the commitment to follow Jesus that Jesus asks for. The crowds who cheer Jesus as he enters Jerusalem, symbolically riding on a donkey, cheer him as a celebrity or as the Messiah they hope will deliver them from the pagans, but they do not believe in him for whom he claims to be.

Earlier in the Gospel, at the first Passover of Jesus’ ministry, many people also appeared to believe in him in the way it appears to the Pharisees that people believe in him after he has arrived in Jerusalem for what will be his final Passover. St John told us in his account of Jesus’ first Passover that Jesus did not entrust himself to them because he himself knew what was in everyone (John 2:25). Jesus knew when people’s faith was real and when it was not. He knows now, at this final Passover before his death, what is in those who shout his praise. Despite all appearances to the contrary, they do not believe in him.

At this moment, although Jesus seems to be at his most popular, Jesus knows that the hour of his death has come. What seems to signal its arrival is that some ‘Greeks’ at the festival ask to see him (John 12:20). When Jesus is ‘lifted up’ he will draw all to him (John 12:32) and the Greeks coming to him are a trailer for what will happen in the future. But first Jesus must be glorified, which means Jesus must die, for that is why he came.

Now is the moment for the judgement of this world and for the ruler of this world to be judged (John 12:31). The crowd, however, don’t know what Jesus is talking about; Jesus’ talk of dying doesn’t fit with their understanding of what the Law says it means to be the Messiah. As far as the crowd are concerned, the Messiah will live forever (John 12:34). If Jesus is the Messiah, how can he be lifted up and die?

After three years or so of being with them, it is, then, a somewhat bleak picture. There is interest, but not commitment. St John’s own assessment of the situation is stark. St John writes:

‘Although he [Jesus] had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.’ (John 12:37)

Interest isn’t enough. Regardless of their interest in Jesus, they don’t believe in him. St John acknowledges that there were many, even among the authorities, who seemed to believe in Jesus, but they would not come out in the open about their faith for fear of the Pharisees. St John is damning in his opinion of them. He writes that ‘they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God’ (John 12:43).

St John, however, gives the last word on Jesus’ public ministry and of this section of the Gospel to Jesus himself. St John writes that Jesus cries aloud (John 12:45). Jesus wants what he is about to say to be heard. It is important. Jesus is going to give a summary of all he has been saying during his public ministry before he departs from them. This, then, is Jesus’ own statement of his message.

Jesus says that anyone who believes in him believes in the One who sent him. All those in Galilee, Samaria, and Jerusalem who have seen him have seen the One who sent him. Jesus came as light into the world, so that anyone who believed in him would not remain in darkness. He does not judge anyone who hears his words and does not keep them. He didn’t come to judge world but to save it. There will, though, be judgement for those who have not responded to him and his words by believing in him. The word Jesus has spoken will be their judge on the Last Day. This is because the word Jesus has spoken is not his own. His Father who sent him has given him a commandment about what to say and speak.

The Father’s commandment is eternal life (John 12:50).

The theme of Jesus’ teaching during the past few years he has been speaking to them has been eternal life. This is what his Father told him to speak about. It has been the theme of the first section of the Gospel. St John has described how God sent Jesus the Word made flesh as the Light of the world, but the world has not believed in him. Now the world is to be judged and its ruler dealt with. The world has had its chance. But it is still not too late for anyone who believes in him. Jesus has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). All who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:25). These are the words his Father commanded Jesus to speak. This is God’s commandment. This is what Jesus’ coming is all about.

Chapter 13, then, begins a new section of St John’s Gospel. It’s now the night that Jesus will be betrayed. This is what it has all been building up to. Jesus knows that his hour has come to depart the world he came to save but which has rejected him. He has loved his own who were in the world, and he hasn’t stopped loving them. The Devil has already put it into Judas’ heart to betray him (John 13:2). The stage is all set for the final drama. Jesus, however, has something he wants to do before it takes place, and what he does takes them completely by surprise.

During the Last Supper, Jesus gets up from the table and starts to wash their feet. This is shocking, and Peter won’t let Jesus wash his feet. Jesus tells him that unless he washes Peter’s feet, Peter doesn’t belong to him. Peter then enthusiastically accepts. If being washed by Jesus is an indication of how much you belong to Jesus, then Peter wants his hands and head washed too! Jesus then explains what he has done. Jesus says:

‘For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’ (John 13:15)

Jesus is preparing the disciples for the time and task ahead. He uses the phrase, ‘Amen, amen’. This is often translated as, ‘Very truly’. It is a phrase Jesus uses to emphasize the importance of what he is about to say. Jesus tells them:

‘Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.’ (John 13:20)

After this, Jesus is very troubled. St John told us Jesus was troubled shortly before this when the Greeks came to see him, and he realized this was the ‘hour’ (John 12:27). Jesus is troubled again now, as he knows that one of those whose feet he has just washed will betray him. Satan has already put the idea into Judas’ heart, now as Jesus gives him a piece of bread, Satan himself enters Judas (John 13:27). Immediately, Judas goes out to do Satan’s work. St John writes simply and powerfully, ‘And it was night (John 13:30).’ The light of the world is about to be put out.

Jesus knowing this tells them that where he is going they cannot come. He has washed his disciples’ feet to give them an example of how they are to behave towards each other. Now he makes it explicit. Jesus says:

‘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)

Jesus is sending them out and anyone who receives them receives him. People will know they belong to Jesus by their love for one another. It is from ‘mandatum novum’, the Latin for ‘new commandment’, that we get the word ‘Maundy’, as in Maundy Thursday.

Jesus tells them he is going away and that they cannot come with him to where he is going. Peter, not unreasonably, asks where it is that Jesus is going. Jesus replies that Peter cannot follow him now, but he will later. As we saw in the sermon for Maundy Thursday this year, Peter asks why he can’t follow Jesus now. He will, Peter says, lay down his life for Jesus. Jesus replies that rather than Peter laying down his life for Jesus, before the cock crows, Peter will deny him three times.

We don’t hear again from Peter until they are in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Peter attempts, but fails, to give his life for Jesus (John 18:10-11). Peter is prevented from doing so by Jesus himself. Peter thinks that laying down his life means taking someone else’s in the process, and Jesus won’t let him. The next thing, Peter is denying Jesus three times.

But that was what we thought about in the sermon on Maundy Thursday. This week’s Gospel reading focuses on Jesus’ ‘new commandment’ to his disciples. In what sense, however, is Jesus’ command to his disciples to love one another a new commandment?

Commentators, in attempting to answer this question, often begin by asking what the old commandment is, and naturally think in terms of the commandments of the Old Testament.

The first three Gospels each record Jesus’ teaching about the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). Interestingly, St Luke, in his account, records that Jesus is asked by a lawyer what the lawyer must do to inherit ‘eternal life’. Jesus replies by asking the lawyer what he reads in the Law.

We read Jesus’ own answer at every Eucharist. Jesus, quoting from Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 6:5) and Leviticus (Leviticus 19:18), says that the greatest commandment is to love God completely and that the second is to love their neighbour as themself. St Luke tells us that Jesus has to clarify for the lawyer who his neighbour is, but Jesus’ answer makes clear that the commandment to love is not itself new; it is, as Jesus says to the lawyer, to be found in the Law.

Given, then, that the commandment to love is not itself new, commentators argue that what is new about the commandment is that the disciples must love each other as Jesus has loved them. Jesus has just shown the disciples what this love looks like by washing their feet, and in just a few hours he will give the definitive demonstration of it by dying for them. It is Jesus’ command that their love for each other must be like his love for them that makes the commandment new.

It is certainly true that we see love in a new and vivid way when we look at Jesus, both in the way he ministered to people and, supremely, in the way he died for us. While it may be a new way of thinking it about what it means to love, the commandment to love, even with Jesus’ qualification of it, still doesn’t sound like a new commandment as such.

So why does Jesus describe it as a new commandment? The answer, I think, to this question lies not in going back to the Old Testament commandments and seeing them as the background to what Jesus says, but in asking whether there are other commandments in St John’s Gospel that Jesus might have in mind. Jesus has previously used the word ‘commandment’ in two other contexts in St John’s Gospel.

The first is in chapter 10. After Jesus has described himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, Jesus says:

‘For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’ (John 10:17-18)

Earlier in the Gospel, St John has written:

‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:15-16)

In chapter 12, St John explains that the phrase ‘lifted up’ refers to Jesus’ death (John 12:33). In chapter 10, Jesus having explained how he lays down his life for the sheep says he gives his sheep eternal life (John 10:28). Jesus is commanded by the Father to lay down his life so that those who believe in him may have eternal life.

The second time Jesus uses the word is again in chapter 12, when, as we have already noted, Jesus summarizes his teaching. Jesus says:

‘… for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.’ (John 12:49-50)

The whole purpose of Jesus’ ministry has been to offer people eternal life. This has been the central theme of Jesus’ ministry, as St John describes it in the first part of the Gospel. By his words and works and by being willingly prepared to die, Jesus is obeying the commandment given to him by the Father to reveal eternal life to those who believe in him. This commandment to reveal to people how they may receive eternal life by believing in Jesus will also be given to Jesus’ disciples, as they are sent by Jesus as the Father sent him. The Father’s commandment is eternal life. Jesus obeyed it by dying so that those who believe in him can receive it. We obey it by telling people about Jesus.

To this commandment, Jesus now adds another. It is not simply to love, but specifically and deliberately, more narrowly and exclusively, to love one another.

St John, in using the phrase ‘love one another’, has been seen as limiting love only to those who are members of the community of believers. This is not, however, what either St John or Jesus are doing. Jesus, in giving this command, is not concerned here with how his disciples are to relate either to God or to those in the world, but how they are to continue his work as they are sent as the Father sent him. As they are sent with the command to offer people eternal life in Christ, they are also given the command to love one another. It is by loving one another as he has loved them that they show people they are Jesus’ disciples and demonstrate what his love looks like. This is a love people can share in by believing in Jesus and receiving eternal life for themselves, something Jesus has made possible by his death.

The disciples are sent by Jesus with the command given by the Father to offer people eternal life by believing in Jesus and also with the new commandment given to them by Jesus himself to love one another as he has loved them.

There is another reason why they will need to love one another, as they are sent out by Jesus. Later in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus repeats the command to his disciples to love one another (John 15:12-17). This time, Jesus links their loving one another with bearing fruit for him. Immediately after repeating the command though, Jesus warns the disciples that the world will hate them as it hated him (John 15:18-19). They do not belong to the world, if they did the world would love them as its own. Jesus, however, has chosen them out of this world, and this is why the world hates them.

The disciples will show the world they are his disciples by how they love one another. On the one hand, some people will be drawn into that love, as they believe in Jesus and receive eternal life. On the other, by showing they are Jesus’ disciples by their love for one another, Jesus’ disciples will also attract the world’s hatred and persecution.

The disciples’ love for one another, however, will help them face the hatred from the world. They are to take courage; Jesus has conquered the world (John 16:33). In loving him and loving each other, the disciples will know Jesus’ peace and conquer too. St John will have more to say about this in the Book of Revelation.

The hatred that Jesus’ disciples face in the world from the world helps us to understand why Jesus’ new commandment is so important. Jesus knows that he will be the one who is responsible for them being hated after he has returned to his Father. Jesus will not, however, leave them comfortless, he will ask the Father to give them ‘another comforter’ to be with them forever (John 14:16), but he also gives them each other.

Before leaving them, Jesus seeks to create a community of love to counter the world of hate he is sending them into. He wants them to support each other when the world persecutes them. He gives them a family they can belong to as the world rejects them.

St John’s Gospel has been severely criticized for offering a limited moral vision and for having a narrow ethic of only loving those who love us. This is to miss the point. Jesus is preparing his disciples for the reality of what life will be like when he leaves them and as they undertake the work he is sending them to do. They are going to need each other.

What is more, this new community of mutual love that Jesus is creating by his new commandment is God’s alternative to the world that has had its chance, and which has already been judged. God’s love is not to be found in the world, but in the community of those he has chosen (John 14:21). It is to these believers who love him and keep his word that the Father and the Son will come and make their home (John 14:23). This they will do by the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive (John 14:17).

I want to highlight three aspects of Jesus’ new commandment.

1. ‘That you have love …’

The English word ‘love’ causes all sorts of problems for us. It is impossible for us to think of love without thinking of it in the way it is used in popular culture. Firstly, it can be used simply to describe things we like, as in, ‘I love ice-cream’ or ‘I love watching football’. Secondly, it is more commonly used, of course, in the context of romantic and sexual love. Thirdly, and related to this, it is often used to advocate a lifestyle that is free of regulations and restraint: ‘all you need is love’. What matters, it is said, is that you love; anything you do is alright as long as it’s done out of love.

Love as Jesus means it, however, does not merely mean ‘like’. It is much more than that. Nor is Jesus talking about romantic and sexual love. And the fact that Jesus describes it as a ‘commandment’ at least suggests that Jesus doesn’t have in mind the removal of all restrictions on how we live.

The problem is that in English, at least, it is hard to find an alternative word, so we find that we have to try to explain its meaning, as I am trying to do now. The encouraging thing is that when St Paul wants to tell believers in the Church at Corinth to love, he finds he has to do the same. We have one of the greatest chapters in the Bible, 1 Corinthians chapter 13, as a result.

To help us understand what he means by love, Jesus adds the phrase ‘as I have loved you’. Later in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus repeats the command adding:

‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.’ (John 15:13-14)

We are not normally called to lay down our lives for each other, but we are called to ‘wash each other’s feet’. Jesus has already given his disciples and us a practical demonstration of what the love he is talking about looks like in action. What washing someone’s feet and laying down our life for them have in common is that both require a willingness to put another person’s needs before our own. They involve giving up what we want for ourselves for the good of another.

St Luke, in his account of the Last Supper tells us that the disciples argued about who should be regarded as the greatest among them (Luke 22:24-27). Jesus tells them he is with them as one who serves and so it should be with them. Love, as Jesus means it, means being willing to make sacrifices and to put ourselves out, not worrying about our rights and reputation as we do so. As Jesus’ followers, we all know we should love like this, but it easier said than done. Even when we are trying to do it, we can’t help ourselves, and our pride and ego, our regard for ourselves, gets in the way.

I can’t help finding it mildly amusing how often church leaders when they are appointed to a position in the church will often talk about how they see their appointment as an appointment to service and to serving others. Then, once in their appointment, they insist on being treated with greater honour and respect and being addressed not by their Christian name, but by a title. What could be more contrary to the teaching of Jesus?

It is as we give up our claim to position and privilege and give ourselves instead to the needs of others that we love as Jesus tells us to love. Jesus by dying for us gave us life; he also showed us how to live that life. Our Lord on his knees, washing the disciples’ feet, and nailed to the Cross, dying for our sins, is the be our role model as we too seek to live for him.

2. ‘By this everyone will know you are my disciples …’

It is impossible to hear this new commandment of Jesus without being ashamed and embarrassed. Even if we only have a fleeting knowledge of church history, we know that all too often in the past those who have claimed to believe in Jesus have failed miserably as believers to love another. Believers have condemned each other, fought and killed each other, and separated from each other. Whether it is in the language we use about one another or in the divisions we are willing to tolerate, and even encourage, among each other, we still fail to love one another.

It is very easy to criticize the Church both past and present for its failure in areas where we have no personal control or influence. But what about closer to home in our own local churches that we personally are members of? What do we do positively by way of loving one another and what negatively do we do to hurt and injure one another? How is our behaviour contrary to the love that Jesus commands?

We all have a personal and individual responsibility to help each other in practical ways in whatever way we can, but we also have a collective responsibility to do what we can to promote and preserve our unity and to love one another as Jesus’ disciples, so that people can see by that love that we are Jesus’ disciples.

At the very least, this means everyone of us not thinking highly of ourselves or considering ourselves better than others. It means metaphorically taking off our outer robe and washing each other’s feet. It means getting ourselves dirty, so that others may be clean. We do this because this is the love we owe one another as fellow members of the body of Christ, but also, Jesus tells us, so people who do not believe in him may know we belong to him.

Jesus at the beginning of the Last Supper speaks about sending the disciples out and of how anyone who receives them, receives him, and whoever receives him, receives the One who sent him (John 13:20). But how are people to know who they are and who it is who has sent them? Jesus says it is our love for one another that will show we are his disciples. Our love for one another is a visual aid for people as we are sent by him into the world to speak his word. People are to see what we mean by our words in our relationships with each other.

There are, however, two sides to how people will react when they see our love for one another and realize we are Jesus’ disciples. Some will indeed respond positively and will want to join us and become Jesus’ disciples too. This is how we normally understand Jesus’ words. Others, however, will respond negatively, and will react violently as they reject the message we bring.

When Jesus repeats his command to his disciples to love one another, he speaks of how he has chosen them to bear fruit, fruit that will last (John 15:16). But, after again repeating his command, Jesus immediately continues by saying:

‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.’ (John 15:18-19)

Not everyone will be drawn to Jesus when they see our love for each other just as they were not drawn to Jesus when they saw him in person. If they persecuted him, they will persecute them, Jesus warns them. If we love as Jesus commands us to love, they will persecute us too. We won’t be popular or liked, but whether the reaction is positive or negative, we are to obey Jesus’ command knowing, as St John writes in his first letter, that we love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).

3. ‘One another …’

As I have said, St John’s Gospel has been criticized for limiting the command to love to disciples only. It has been seen as an exclusive rather than an inclusive love. What Jesus says about the world hating his disciples and persecuting them, however, explains why it is so important for them to love one another. As Jesus is about to be crucified and leave them, it is an absolute priority for Jesus to see his disciples are not left alone.

Jesus, by this point, has spent three years talking to them about how they should live and how they should love even their enemies. But that is not his concern now. In what he has to say to his disciples before he leaves them, he wants them to know about the Holy Spirit who he will send to them to be with them forever (John 14:16) and who will guide them into all truth (John 16:13).

In giving them this word of command to love one another, Jesus tells them:

‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’ (John 14:23)

The Holy Spirit abides with them, Jesus says, but he will be in them (John 14:17). In them, that is, individually as a person believes in Jesus, but in them and at home with them as a community that hears Jesus’ words, keeps his commandments, and loves him and each other.

As Jesus sends the disciples into the world that hates them as it has hated him, a world to which they do not belong, Jesus wants them to know they belong to him in a community of love that provides a radical alternative to the world from which they have been saved. In this community, they will receive the teaching and the fellowship they need to follow Jesus faithfully and to serve him selflessly in the world into which they are sent.

Jesus offers us a vision of the Church as place where the values of Jesus can be lived out in a loving commitment to all who belong to it. Tragically, it is a vision that we have largely abandoned. We don’t obey the Father’s commandment of eternal life either by holding it out to people or living it with those who experience it. We have other priorities. We want our needs to be met rather than to meet the needs of others. We want to stay where we are in the comfortable and familiar rather than to go out and testify to Jesus. We want to be relevant in this world and prefer sitting at the tables of power and having influence rather than kneeling at someone’s feet and becoming the least. Like those of the authorities who believed in Jesus but kept silent, we too love human glory more than the glory that comes from God (John 12:42-43).

So, our churches rather than being radical communities of love are more like performance venues where we can be popular, or preservation societies where we can escape to the past, or pressure groups where we can strive for prestige and position.

I have to take my own share of responsibility for this. I may criticize church leaders, but I am one of them. As one of the clergy, it is all too easy to go with the flow, to accept the status quo, and to live in an easy conformity with the world, rather than following him who calls us to die to self, to abide in him, and to speak of him in a world, which will hate and persecute us. I confess to a strange peace in facing up to my own failure, but at the same time to a sense of grief and loss at what might have been if only I had had the courage to be more faithful.

The world is, I believe, becoming progressively more hostile to those who have faith in Jesus and who follow him. In China, the Church is seen as promoting the religion of a foreign power and in the west, it is accused of having attitudes and values that belong to a colonial past. In both east and west, persecution is the result. But with the persecution comes the opportunity for believers to decide whose side they are on. Do we make peace with the world in the hope of gaining recognition in it? Or do we trust him who gives us a peace that is not as the world gives (John 14:27) and which leads to rejection by it?

The command to love one another as he loved us will identify us as Jesus’ disciples. He loved us by laying down his life for us. Those who love as he commands must be prepared to do the same.

May the Spirit he has sent us give us the courage to do so.


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