A new commandment

Easter 5 – 2010

John 13:31-35

Marian Free

May God who is love give us love in our hearts and in our community. Amen.

“When he had gone out.” This is a strange place to begin a reading. Who has gone out and why? What is the context of this short reading? What has led up to Jesus’ triumphant statement: “Now has the Son of Man been glorified and God has been glorified in him”? Where is Jesus going and why can’t the disciples go with him? How does any of this relate to the command to love?

Chapters 13 to 17 in John’s gospel comprise what is known as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. Set in the context of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, these chapters record Jesus’ final teaching to his followers – teaching which is intended to prepare the disciples for Jesus’ departure and at the same time to establish some sort of grounding for the community which will be formed in his name. This teaching is presented to Jesus’ inner circle. It is not meant for the general public but is specific to those who will lead the community when Jesus has departed.

Within the New Testament context, these chapters are unique to John’s gospel. The other three provide a description of the meal, but do not include any teaching or final instructions. However, a final discourse is consistent with other Jewish literature in the time between the second century BCE and the third century CE in which are recorded the farewell speeches of a number of significant Jewish figures. Such speeches had a number of common elements – the prediction of the leader’s death and departure, predictions of attacks in the future on the leader’s followers, an exhortation to ideal behaviour, a final commission, an affirmation of and renewal of the never-ending covenant promises of God and a closing doxology. A number of these characteristics are recognizable in Jesus’ farewell speech in John’s gospel.

Today’s command to love belongs in this wider context of the gospel and concludes the introduction to the speech. The time is before the Passover, and Jesus is in Jerusalem with his disciples. They are having supper when Jesus leaves the table to wash his disciples’ feet – a service which Peter at first rejects because he does not understand. When Jesus sits down to the meal again, he explains his actions. His disciples are to model this style of servant leadership. In the new community loving service is to prevail. Not all is right however, Jesus is troubled. He knows the disciples so well, that he is aware that one of them will be unable to conform to this model of service. Judas’ treachery is exposed and he is forced to leave, which is where our reading began: “When he had gone out..”

Judas’ departure leads to a shout of triumph from Jesus: “Now is the Son of Man glorified.” The hour which Jesus has been predicting has come, Jesus will “be lifted up” in a final act of self-giving which will draw all people to himself. This is the moment he has been waiting for; this is the reason for which he came. He realizes however that the crucifixion will leave the disciples distressed and confused – they cannot go where he is going – at least not yet. Jesus’ concern for them is obvious. He addresses them as “little children” (an expression he will use again when he is on the beach the morning after the resurrection). They do not yet have the maturity or the faith to comprehend what is about to occur.

Finally, despite everything, Jesus entrusts them with the commandment which is to form the basis of the new community – the command to love one another with the same love with which he has loved them (a love, which from the context, will involve them in the self-gift which leads to death).

In the three chapters which follow, Jesus expands on this key theme of love – the Father’s love for Jesus, Jesus’ love for the Father and Jesus’ love for the disciples. It is this love which he commands them to perpetuate in their love for one another. Jesus’ expectation of and hope for the disciples is an extraordinary one given that he “knew whom he had chosen” (13:18). He knew that Judas would hand him over to the authorities; he knew that Peter would betray him; he knew that the disciples would abandon him. In full knowledge of his disciples’ ignorance, failure, misunderstanding, their lack of nerve, betrayal and denial, Jesus asserts his love in word and action and asks them to follow his example.

Love is central to the future of the community. Those who love Jesus will be loved by the Father. Jesus will reveal himself to those who love him and he and the Father will come to them. Over and over again, Jesus repeats the commandment to love one another and, using the image of the vine alerts them to the costly nature of this love: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” If they so love, the disciples will be set apart from those around them. Jesus prays that the disciples “may be one, so that the world may know that he is sent by God and that God loves the disciples even as he has loved Jesus” (17:21). He prays that God’s love for himself may be in his disciples in order that they might be one even as he and the Father are one. The community formed and commissioned by Jesus’ farewell speech is to be a community united by servant leadership and by self-sacrificial love.

The love which Jesus models and teaches is the love we are called to show to one another. It is a love which reverses the expected patterns of behaviour. It is a love so radical that it cannot help but make the world sit up and take notice – 35”By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”. Jesus models and envisages a community in which service not competition is the model and in which self-giving love takes precedence over self-serving ambition. The community which Jesus asks his disciples to be is a community which reflects that love between the Father and Son, a love so complete that they are indistinguishable one from another.

It has been millennia since anyone said: “Look at those Christians, see how they love one another.” The question that we must ask ourselves over and over again is this: Does our love for one another set us apart from the world around us in such a radical way that people notice? If not, why not and what are we doing about it?


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