John 13: 31 – 35
The lectionary can sometimes seem a little odd. We have been through Good Friday and Easter day, but suddenly the Gospel reading has looped back to Holy Thursday and the Last Supper. The Gospel reading is from that part of John’s Gospel which we call the farewell discourse: Jesus’ last teaching to His disciples before his arrest and passion. In a way that is no bad thing, because it reminds us that the passion and resurrection of the Lord are at the heart of the Christian faith.
The passage contains perhaps the two best known verses in 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. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
That theme runs through the entire discourse. It is picked up again in Chapter 15 where we read:
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
And a little later in the chapter:
I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Of course this could be just a huge cliché – a ten minute sermon on the theme of wouldn’t it be nice if everyone were nice. But the thing about clichés is that they often embody profound truths. The difference between a cliché and a life changing insight usually boils down to the way in which we engage with it.
So it is with this. We can sing ‘All You need is Love’ with beery tears in a pub karaoke. We can agree that we must love one another and experience a rosy feeling of affection – and then go on our self centred way. This is the path of the worst of all clichés: the religious cliché.
Or we can take it seriously. The context of this commandment is really important. It comes at a horrifying time in Jesus’ life. He gives this command immediately after He has seen one of His disciples leave to betray Him. He gives this command in the knowledge of his imminent violent and agonising death. This is a deeply serious moment, and we need to understand that, to understand the seriousness of this command.
We also need to consider just what Jesus meant by love. In John 15, after repeating the commandment to `love one another as I have loved you’, Jesus says:
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
John clearly links this understanding of love to Our Lord’s death. This is the type of love into which Our Lord calls his disciples, not an emotion, not a transient feeling, but a total commitment to the beloved, a commitment with a profound depth and seriousness, a commitment which calls us to give our lives away. There is nothing easy or comfortable in this call.
Most of us will not be called physically to die for others. But there are other, intensely practical ways in which we can give ourselves. The command is immediately preceded by the drama of the foot washing. Jesus takes on the role of a slave to serve His disciples. It is a very real, very human service. There are no warm feelings involved, there is no eloquent expression of sentiment. There is just dirty feet, clean water and a towel.
I know of one family, currently coping with caring for a very severely handicapped baby. Their worshipping community has been assiduous in providing frozen meals and other practical household help. I know that this helps both by providing a solution to practical challenges, and also by demonstrating the care of the community. I know that they have drawn strength from this care. From time to time, every family experiences illness or troubles. From time to time, everyone needs support. This is the sort of practical love that Jesus commands. Thoughts and prayers are great, but sometimes casseroles are better. Sometimes making a casserole for the family of a sick friend is an act of prayer.
Sometimes practical love is simply a matter of listening; sometimes it is a gift of our attention to someone who is grieving, anxious or in pain. Being open to the pain of others, simply being there for them is an act of love.
Our lives are full of opportunities to love, opportunities to give ourselves to our friends and neighbours. They don’t have to be dramatic, they are usually extremely prosaic. They are rarely associated with strong emotions.
Sometimes we are not even aware that we are loving. I remember returning to England after my mother died, to organise her funeral and her estate. I was supported by my oldest friend, with whom I was at primary school, and by her sisters. I don’t think she knew how extraordinary her family’s many small kindnesses to me were.
In a sense, practical love is like muscle memory. We practice the task repeatedly, until it happens automatically, done without thought. Like any skill, if we do not practice we do it badly, if at all.
I love this section of John’s Gospel. I love it because it speaks to us of community, of a community of faith that incarnates the love of the Father to the Son, and the Son to the disciples. It speaks of a community that is open and welcoming. It speaks of a community without borders and without exclusion, a community in which all of us have a place and all of us are honoured and loved. It shows us that it is in a community like this that we meet and know the risen Lord.
And that is the sort of person I want to be. That is the sort of community I want to live in, to give myself to. And though I know that I often get it wrong, that Holy Mother Church herself often gets it wrong, that together we fail to be what Jesus and John call us to be, this is nevertheless, what Church is all about. I stand here, this Eastertide, because I can be nowhere else.