A sermon, based on John 13.1-17, 33-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Maundy Thursday, March 29, 2018
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”
What’s new about Jesus talking about love? When asked about the greatest commandment, he said, “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself,”(1) thereby combining two great teachings of the ancient Hebrew Torah.(2)
So, again, what’s new?
The newness of Jesus’ love is in the nowness of the moment he proclaims it. Jesus knows he is soon to die. Loving his friends “to the end,” his end, he gives his last will and testament: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Love no longer to the extent that you love yourself. Rather love with the totality, the finality that Jesus will demonstrate on the cross. What’s new about this love is that it has no qualifications that restrict when love loves and no quantifications that govern how much love loves. This love is wholly, holy unconditional.
In attempting to love in this unqualified and unquantified way, our loving one another still can fall short. For no matter how accurately we perceive one another’s need and no matter how faithfully we respond, others may want or need more. And we can’t increase our love by doing more, much less by being more. Nevertheless, in any given moment, who we are and what we have to give is all that we can give. And it is in the how of our giving, as we choose to give the totality of ourselves, that demonstrates whether we love other as Jesus has loved us.
A final word…
The newness of Jesus’ love is related to his dying, demonstrating the total and final extent to which his love goes. And he summons us, as he always does, to follow him in his self-denying, cross-bearing, life-losing way. Yet when Jesus issues this command, “By this (love), all will know that you are my disciples”, I do not believe that he is calling us to die for one another. If we did, there would be no community. What Jesus is calling us to do is to live for one another, in each and every moment, totally, without qualification or quantification. And this is infinitely harder than dying for one another. Living for one another takes longer and lacks glamour. Living for one another means enduring the daily difficulty of our familiarity with one another and, therefore, dealing with those moments when we may not like one another.
Yet, know this, the mission of Jesus, the reason Jesus came into the world was that we might have life and have it more abundantly(3) – totally, unqualifiedly, unquantifiably. And though we may not have an opportunity to die for one another, each of us, in each and every instant, has a life to live for one another. And if we attempted to do that, that would be new!
(1) Mark 12.30-31, adapted. See also Matthew 22.37, 39. Here, honesty compels my confession that I wrestle with the second part: loving my neighbor as myself. For I don’t always love myself. At times, especially when I’m aware of the worst of me, I find it difficult, well-nigh impossible to see through the shadows of my disappointment, aye, despair, to behold and claim for myself the bright light of God’s unconditional benevolence toward me and for me. So, if I’m to love others as I love me, there will be times when I can’t love others. I behold the same dilemma with the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7.12; Luke 6.31). Though intended as a guide for goodness (and, given the reality of human malice, the more practical rule may be this: Do unto others before they do unto you), whenever I don’t know what my own good is, I can’t do unto others very well.
(2) Deuteronomy 6.4-5 (Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might) and Leviticus 19.18b (You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord)
(3) John 10.10b