Seeing the whole picture

Easter 5 – 2019

John 13:31-35

Marian Free

In the name of God when loves us and calls us to love each other. Amen.

You probably know the story of the six blind men and the elephant. One had hold of the tail and insisted that it was a piece of rope. Another reached his hands around a leg and thought it was a tree. A third grabbed an ear and declared that it was a fan and so on. Because they were unable to see none of them had a complete picture of what was before them and each believed firmly in their own experience and denied the possibility of any other answered . To take another example. Imagine that you are traveling with companions in a foreign country and are invited to share a meal with a local family who have slaughtered a beast in your honour. Because you are guests you are served the choicest parts of the animal – the eyes, the heart, the skin. None of you taste the tender, juicy meat and leave with a firm belief that that particular animal is one that you never want to eat again. Having tasted only a part, you have no appreciation for the whole.

If our experience of something is only piecemeal it is easy to mistake a part for the whole or to come to the wrong conclusion based on only a fraction of the information. We know this to be true and yet this is how we often read our bibles. Again and again we return to the passages and stories that are familiar and comforting to us and we fail to see them in their proper context thereby missing the wider implications and the subtleties within the passage. Unfortunately this is what happens in our Sunday readings. Few of us have the time or the attention span to listen to a gospel in its entirety, so it is served up to us in bite size pieces which do not allow us to hear the whole story.

Such is the case this morning, our reading makes little sense on its own, because it belongs within the wider context of chapter 13 which in turn is belongs to Jesus’ farewell speech (13-17). The few verses that we have before us this morning make little sense. There are three (even four) sub-stories. ‘When he had gone out,’ refers to Judas’ leaving the group to hand Jesus over – an act that Jesus sees as a decisive and maybe essential part of his story: ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified’. In John’s gospel Jesus’ death is not seen as a defeat but as a victory. It is the cross, not the resurrection that is the place of Jesus’ glorification. Jesus then warns the disciples that he will be with them only a little longer before giving them instructions as to how to live in his absence.

The complexity of the passage explains why preachers (including this one) focus on the last two verses: “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 shall everyone know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

If we begin at the beginning we see that the context of Jesus’ words is a Passover meal. We are told that Jesus knows that the end is near. (In fact we learn that he has foreknowledge not only of his death but of how his disciples will act in the next 24 hours). Despite this ‘Jesus, having loved his own, loved them to the end’. One way that Jesus demonstrates this love is that he leaves the table, takes a towel and washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus washes the feet of Judas whom he knows is soon to betray him. He washes the feet of Peter whom he knows will shortly deny him and he washes the feet of the remainder – all of whom will desert him when he needs them most. When he returns to the table Jesus explains that his behaviour is an example for them to follow. Jesus’ love is demonstrated by service, by humbling himself and putting the needs of others before his own. Before he commands his disciples to love, Jesus shows them how it is done.

On his last night on earth, Jesus thinks not of himself, but of his friends. He continues in chapters 14-17 by preparing them for his departure, assuring them he is going ahead to prepare a place for them, letting them know that they would not be left alone, teaching them how to live together and instructing them on the nature of love. ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down their life for their friends’ (15:13). ‘They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them’ (14:21).

Jesus knows what the future holds and he knows the caliber of those whom he has chosen. In his final hours he chooses not to accuse them or to remonstrate with them. Instead Jesus demonstrates his love for them – love that recognizes but overlooks their collective and individual frailties. By his own behaviour at the meal and on the cross, Jesus shows the disciples what it is to love.

Seeing the whole picture tells us not only where our passGe fits in the gospel as a whole, but helps us to interpret Jesus’ meaning. Jesus commands his disciples to love as he has loved, with a love that is humble and non-judgemental and that is self-sacrificial to the point of death. Jesus’ love of the disciples is a love that is shared by the Father and a love that will ensure that even in his absence Jesus will be a present reality.

As the poet Leunig says: ‘Love one another, it is as easy and difficult as that.’

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