Love Each Other – Sermon on John 13:31-35 for Easter 5C

May 19, 2018

We seem to be hitting the rewind button during this season of Eastertide – we keep going back over events that led up to the crucifixion. I think the disciples must have been doing the same thing in those weeks just after the resurrection, too – remembering the stories, what Jesus said, how the events played out just as he had predicted. They were cementing in their collective memory the gospel that would be preached throughout the world.

It’s the same gospel we proclaim now: Christ died, was buried, rose again, and ascended to his Father’s side to rule the kingdom of God. That kingdom is already present among us, and we who claim Christ as Lord and Savior are part of it. Rehearsing these stories again and again keeps us in the faith, and keeps the faith alive in us. Repeating these stories for each other keeps them from becoming diluted or distorted over time.

Today’s passage takes us back to that final meal Jesus shared with his disciples. John doesn’t describe this as a Passover meal like the other gospel writers do – this meal happens on the night before Passover begins. According to John, “Jesus will be crucified at about the same time that the lambs are sacrificed in the Temple in preparation for the Passover meal.”[1] But John gives us something the other gospel authors do not: he tells us in great detail what Jesus said to his disciples during this final night they have together.

So, put yourself back in that upper room with the twelve. Find your place at one of the tables that have been arranged around the room in the shape of a “U.” As the host, Jesus is sitting near the end of the U shape, and John is on the end, next to Jesus. John is in the “right-hand man” spot, ready to get up and provide anything the host requires during the meal. Since he is sharing a dish with Jesus, Judas must be reclining on Jesus’ left, which is the guest of honor spot. … Peter is probably on the other end of the U shaped arrangement, where he can get John’s attention and keep his eyes on Jesus throughout the meal.

Jesus has washed the feet of each disciple, demonstrating the kind of servant-hood he wants them to show one another. But after he has washed their feet and returned to his place, Jesus becomes troubled, and announces that one of the twelve will betray him. It’s the guest of honor, the one who is dipping his hand into the same dish as Jesus. Judas leaves, and Jesus turns to his disciples to teach them one last time.

When he [that is, Judas] had gone out Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’
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 13:31-35)

In these few verses we find three major themes: Christ’s glorification, preparation for his upcoming departure, and the new commandment to love each other. Paradox is laced through all three of these themes.

Here’s the first paradox: Christ’s glory is only revealed because of betrayal. Remember that Jesus says these things to his disciples just after Judas has left to betray him, and just before he tells Peter, “before the rooster crows you will deny me three times” (v 38). Betrayal is woven throughout this chapter. And bound together with that betrayal is the glorification of Christ.

Think about it. Unless Judas betrays Jesus, there is no crucifixion. Judas is the instrument God uses to glorify Christ “at once.” This glory will be revealed immediately, as Jesus dies on the cross. For God to be glorified in Christ, Jesus has to be lifted up in death, and that can only happen if Judas turns him over to the authorities.

When Peter denies being associated with Jesus, he sets the stage for God to glorify Christ in the future. For Christ to be glorified in himself, Jesus has to be lifted up in resurrection, redeeming us all from sin and death. Peter’s redemption depends on his initial denial. Peter’s reinstatement after the resurrection will bring glory to God through the establishment of Christ’s church.

How often do we get caught up in the paradox of glory? Either we fall into the temptation to bring glory to ourselves instead of giving glory to God, or we fail to see how our lives glorify God’s grace by the very fact we need redeeming. Either way leads to death.

But when we give God honor and our full attention, God’s glory is revealed in our lives, and it is a far greater glory than we can possibly command on our own. And what does this word ‘glory’ really mean, anyway?

Omar Rikabi is a Methodist pastor from North Texas who sometimes writes for the Seedbed Daily Text. Pastor Rikabi describes the glory of God as “the character, nature, and revelation of God found in the relationship and actions between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” In other words, God’s glory is God’s character revealed through the interactions of the Trinity.

Your glory is your character and nature revealed in what you do and how you interact with others. Glory is our true self, showing through. You might be thinking, “that’s not necessarily a good thing. My true self is weak and selfish. My true self is … sinful. I’d just as soon nobody saw my ‘glory.’”

Yet, in Christ, your glory is transformed. The Apostle Paul writes that God’s Spirit bears witness “with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:16-18).

For God’s glory to be revealed to us and in us, we must experience God’s grace. That brings us to the second paradox: the One who says, “Follow me” also says, “You can’t come where I’m going.”

Back in chapter eight, Jesus said this to the crowds, and they asked “What are you talking about – are you going to kill yourself?” (John 8:21-22) In the very next verse after today’s passage, Jesus will say it again when Peter asks, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus will say, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow me afterward” (v. 36). Peter will protest, “Why can’t I follow you now? I would lay down my life for you!” (v. 37) and Jesus will say, “Really?”

Aren’t we just like Peter? Impetuously declaring our intention to follow Jesus at all costs, but when it comes down to it, when our identity is challenged, when we think following Jesus makes us look weird or won’t help us fit in with the people we want to impress, we downplay our commitment. We soft-pedal our devotion. We’d rather deny knowing Jesus than face ridicule.

Peter knows exactly how we feel. And just as Jesus knew exactly how Peter would react under pressure, Jesus knows our hearts. He still says, “Follow me,” even as he says, “There’s more beyond what you can see now. There’s more beyond what you can experience, given your human limitations. There’s more, and you can’t go there yet, but you will. In the meantime, here’s what it really means to follow me: Love each other. ”

This is the third paradox in today’s passage. The Old Testament commandment is made completely new. Because he is going away, the disciples need a new way to identify themselves and be identified by the world. That way is love.

This is the ‘new commandment’ Jesus gives, but it sounds a lot like the ‘greatest commandment’ Jesus recited from Deuteronomy and Leviticus when the young lawyer in Matthew’s gospel tried to test him (Matt 22:34-40). That commandment can be summed up as “love God, love neighbor.” What is “new” is the way this command teaches us to love our neighbors, not as we love ourselves, but as Christ loves us.

This raises the bar, doesn’t it? Because I have to confess that I don’t always love myself very well, so loving my neighbor as I love myself might not be so difficult. It might not require very much from me. But if I am going to love someone as Christ has loved me, I have to be willing to lay down my life for that person. This is the kind of sacrificial love Christ commands us to have for each other. Loving each other as Jesus has loved us identifies us as belonging to Christ.

The command to love is not a command to feel something. It’s a command to do something. It’s a command to serve each other, take care of one another. How we do that shows the rest of the world what it means to follow Jesus, and what it means to be loved by God.

John opened this chapter with the statement that, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). He loved his disciples fully, to the end, every one of them. John closes the chapter with the new commandment from Jesus to love one another, just as Jesus has loved: fully, to the end, every one of us.

Just as Jesus could wash Judas’ feet, and feed him the bread and cup he shared with all the disciples at his last meal, he expects us to offer grace and hospitality to all our sisters and brothers, even the ones who insult us, even the ones who talk about us behind our backs. Even the ones who don’t much like us. Jesus “loved them to the end” so that we might love one another in just the same way.

James Lamkin writes, “We sit at Thursday’s table with the beloved disciple, knowing the identity that marks us most is not the noun (disciple) but rather the adjective (beloved).”[2] It’s this identity that shapes us into new people.

From the island of Patmos, John will later write a letter that says, “We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:19-20).

The line from Christ’s glory, through following him into a future we can’t see, to this old/new command to love as Jesus loves leads to one end: our transformation. How are we changed when we know we are loved? How are we changed when we love someone else? How does the way we love bring glory to God, and keep us following Jesus even when he’s gone from our sight?

The United Methodist mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I think sometimes we forget that transforming the world has to start in us. We have to allow ourselves to be transformed by Christ’s redeeming love before we can offer it to anyone else.

In recent months, tension has continued to grow with the United Methodist Church. A specially called General Conference was supposed to settle the question once and for all about how the church should minister to, with, for, and through persons who identify as LGBTQ+, but it only served to raise the level of concern and create even deeper divisions among us.

Instead of making it possible for churches, conferences, and individuals who disagree to find common purpose in mission and ministry, the stage was set to separate from one another. Instead of opening doors, hearts, and minds – as the Methodist motto goes – tighter boundaries were drawn, and violating those boundaries will result in severe penalties, beginning in January, 2020. Instead of finding ways to love each other, the denomination seems to be determined to see us turn our backs on each other.

I don’t think this is what John Wesley had in mind when he preached a sermon on “Catholic Spirit” that said, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.”

I have to wonder, how does fighting over whether or how to minister to, with, and for LGBTQ+ persons demonstrate the kind of self-sacrificing love Jesus calls us to show when he says, “Love one another as I have loved you”? How does this kind of division honor Wesley’s call to be ‘of one heart, though we are not of one opinion’?

I have to tell you that I don’t think the future looks good for the United Methodist Church to remain ‘united’ very much longer. But I’m not too worried about the denomination dissolving. I’m not too concerned about an institution coming to the end of its usefulness, or a legalistic structure falling in on itself. Human beings develop institutions to serve human purposes.

We belong to something greater. We belong to the Kingdom of God. Our identity is not in an institution or an organizational structure or a legal system. Our identity is in Jesus Christ, who loves us, who died for us, who rose again, who rules over heaven and earth, and who will one day come in glory to call us to himself.

Our purpose, as beloved children of God, is only this one thing: to love. To love without judgment. To love without fear. To love without bias, or qualification, or exception. To love as Christ has loved us.

We are to love the people we want to love and the people we can’t stand.
We are to love the people who live the way we think they should, and we are to love the people who don’t.
We are to love the people who are just like us, and the people who are so different from us we can’t see how we have anything in common.
We are to love as Jesus loved, including people in our lives, walking beside them, eating with them, caring for them, listening to them, including ‘them’ as an integral part of ‘us.’

Because that’s what Jesus says. Love. Each. Other.

Each other. Each and every other. Until there is no longer any division. Or, as the Apostle Paul writes to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female: for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). Love each other, until the kingdom of God is completely filled with people God has chosen in his infinite mercy to love.

[1] Audrey West, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=292
[2] James E. Lamkin, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2, 278

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