A meditation on Jesus’s new commandment to love one another. Preached Maundy Thursday 2021 in the Parish of the Noth Peace.
Where the other gospels address Jesus’s last days in the last few chapters, most of John’s gospel is focused in on Jesus’s last days, expanding verses in the other gospels into chapters of his. Here we have the story of Jesus’s last supper, last words, to his apostles expanded and made available to us. This is how he prepared those who were to go and make disciples for his death and resurrection, turning those who were called into those who served, those who were served into those who serve, those who serve into those who have seen and have been sent. There are many things to meditate on when it comes to Maundy Thursday. We could meditate on the washing of the feet. We could meditate on Peter’s denial of who Jesus says he is. We could meditate on what was happening between Jesus and the devil over the soul of Judas. We could drink deeply thinking of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. We could talk about the stripping of the altar. We could wonder at how the Father glorifies the Son with his downfall. We should think on all these things.
Yet this night I want to draw our attention, our hearts and our minds now that our souls and bodies may follow after, to the last two verses of the gospel we heard tonight:
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Brotherly love was always part of Israel’s aspirations. We see it in the psalms:
How wonderful, how beautiful, when brothers and sisters get along! It’s like costly anointing oil flowing down head and beard, flowing down Aaron’s beard, flowing down the collar of his priestly robes. Ps. 133:1-2
Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem is built up as a city that is at unity with itself. Ps. 122:2-3
But such love was difficult to attain in reality. Genesis is virtually a book of brothers in strife, Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. When they were settled in the land Israel thought a king would keep them united and strong, two generations later they were divided into two kingdoms. Proverbs puts the reality this way: A friend loves at all times, but a brother is born for adversity(17:17). We like talking about loving each other. The actual work of loving each other we maybe don’t like so much.
Jesus is not making a suggestion. Jesus is not giving us advice. Jesus is not opening up a key for success to us. Jesus is giving a new covenantal command, a command as a mark of identity, a command as a mark of God’s promise. Jesus commands us to love one another. May he give us obedience. Loving someone means seeing them, hearing them, quieting ourselves enough to leave room for another. He doesn’t say “don’t hate each other” not here. He says even more than that, to seek the highest good of others in the community of the supper of the lamb. To care for and build up, to share life together, with people we didn’t choose but who God puts us in Christian community with, that’s what Jesus is expecting of you.
And not just any love, not love as the world defines it, not love as we define it, not affective feeling, nothing mushy or pretty or dignified or politically correct about this love. For Jesus says the love we are to have for one another is to look like the love he showed to the apostles. The love he calls us to looks like a grown man stripping himself down to a loin cloth, getting down on his knees, and washing the feet of the dregs of society. The love Jesus calls us to give to each other is one of self-emptying humility, it is lavish, it is costly, we are not capable of it by our own power, and it is something the world sees as worthy of ridicule. We are commanded to love each other as Jesus loved the apostles.
Our God is a man suffering to death upon a cross, in this image is Jesus glorified, in this image we learn what love is. 1 John puts it this way: This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (3:16-18).
This is how we are to love other Christians.
Jesus says that obedience to this commandment is the mark, is the sign, is the identity of Christian community. If you go to a church and the people in that church do not love each other after the love of Jesus it is no church. In so far as we fail to love each other and to love other believers beyond our walls selflessly, generously, practically, sharing in their joys and sufferings, we fail to be the church. Without this love our worship and our sacraments, our songs and my preaching, our buildings and evangelism are worth nothing. They may as well be thrown on the flame, cursed and burned away. They are a clanging symbol, a nuisance to God and the kingdom. But in this love we will find all of these things made new.
But loving other Christians is hard, hard because we did not choose them for ourselves, hard because they are unpleasant sinners, hard because we are weak sinners. Without the power of God at work in us it is impossible and hopeless. But God has given us his Spirit to burn within us. Where we repent, where we seek to change our ways, our attitudes and our behaviours, the power that rose Jesus from the dead works in us. It brings us down. It makes us new. May God pour out his Spirit in us, may he choose us and love us, may he wash our feet and transform us that we may be equipped to love as he loved us. May we be transformed by so loving. May we be known by such love. Amen.