Blessed be the Name of God
Love. That’s the subject at hand. Almost all I have to say to you on this rather ticklish subject, almost all I have to say this morning, you have likely heard before. Please do you best to stay alert.
Our reading from John’s gospel this morning is the conclusion of the story of the Last Supper. Each of the gospel writers has an account of the last meal Jesus had with his closest friends. John’s is unique in that it does not focus on the account of the meal like the others, but centers on the washing of feet.
It is often John’s gospel that informs Maundy Thursday. As common as foot washing is on some Maundy Thursdays, the occasion does not take its name from that action. The title, “maundy,” derives from what Jesus says, not so much what he does. “Maundy” comes from the Latin novum mandatum, a new commandment. “Little children…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.” [Jn 13.33a, 34-35] You will doubtless recognize the hymn that goes, “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
Indeed! I want to explore this bit of wisdom this morning and to do that in a cautionary fashion. You’ll see what I mean as we go along. The punch line is that I hope that what the text and the song say is true, but we need to be careful.
The Gospel of John is a treasure, solid food that has nourished the Church from near the beginning. We know the stories John tells. We know the images [“In the beginning, was the word…]. We know the devotion to Christ that is recorded and announced in every instance. It is the author’s devotion that will need our consideration down the way.
We also know that John’s gospel, like the others, was written at a particular time in the life and evolution of the Church. That is to say, the Gospel of John has a historical context, and that context, like the one we live in, informs what he sees and what he reports.
John’s Gospel is seemingly the last one written, likely near the end of the first century of the Common Era. More important, really, than the dating of the text is its setting or circumstance. It seems that the Christian community of which the author was a part, had, perhaps recently, separated itself or been separated from a larger Jewish community . The separation was apparently an uneasy one, painful perhaps, and in its own way, incendiary.
John, our evangelist, wants very much to nourish and sustain his community, to make it strong, to help it form its emerging identity, to give it an identity that will allow it to sustain its life and to flourish. By all accounts, he was very successful in that, since here we are, sustaining our life with God through our Lord, Jesus, and striving to flourish. Yes, even to now, John’s gospel and his intent have come to life.
What we recognize in this text, upon closer reading, is that Jesus’ admonition to love here is inclusive of the group to whom it is addressed but exclusive of those outside that circle. “Although the ‘love commandment’ is often seen as denoting the love for all humankind, in the context of [John’s] Gospel it has a narrower meaning referring to the love among the believers, which is not extended ot unbelievers.” [The Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 206]
“They will know we are Christians by our love [for each other],” but what about everybody else?
Well, perhaps, Matthew 25 can help. Here Jesus tells of what we might call the expression of love. Giving food to the hungry, whomever they are; slaking the thirst of the thirsty, whomever they are; clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison, whomever, wherever, whenever. No boundaries, no limits.
We have Luke 10.27 to help us widen the circle. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your souls, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Here Jesus is augmenting Deuteronomy 6.5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
And of course, to stretch the circle to its most expansive, we have what Jesus says in Luke, chapter 6, “…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Do to others as you would have them do to you.” [6.27, 31]
So, with the help of other Gospel writers and other sayings of Jesus, we get beyond the love we are obliged to have for each other, those in our household of faith, to essentially everyone else. As if to say, yes, they will know we are Christians by our love for each other—and for our love of everyone else.
Now we need to ask the next and most obvious question. What does this love look like? What’s its texture or content?
To explore that, we turn to Paul’s First Letter to the Church in Corinth. Here, at the end of chapter 13, Paul summarizes his teaching by saying, “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” [v. 13] You will doubtless know this verse very well.
Earlier in this chapter, Paul describes love in detail and I’ll get to that in just a moment. It happens, however, that I have found an earlier rough draft of chapter 13, one that has only recently been discovered. Never seen or heard before, it seems to have been a scribbling Paul did as an observation. What he settled on, happily, is the description I will read in a bit. But this rough draft, discarded and nearly lost, this rough draft must be observations he made while aiming at something better. Perhaps this is what he saw. Mind you, Paul was clearly in a cynical mood!
In this discarded text we read, “Love is possessive. Love is spiteful and mean. Love is unforgiving. Love is narrow and self-absorbed. Love gets even. Love has its limits. Love looks out for #1.” Dear Heavens, how good it is that Paul chose not to send this to Corinth. Clearly, these scribblings were rightly crumpled up and thrown away.
Happily, what Paul wrote instead was this, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…” [vv. 4-8a]
This is how Paul understood the textures and contours of the love of God as it is to be expressed by the followers of Jesus. Extravagant, boundless, inclusive, inexhaustible, self-forgetful.
What John the Evangelist gives us this morning is Jesus’ directive that we love each other. Easy in some cases; not so easy in other cases.
Not long ago, right here with you, I invoked the name of the contemporary prophet Tina Turner. I asked you the question she posed so memorably, “What’s love got to do with it?” Dismissively, she spoke of love as a “secondhand emotion.” I took exception to her cast off answer, of course, and used Paul’s Corinthian text as my rebuttal. All the while, wishing, as I do now, that for us English speakers, we had a different word, or a collection of words that would be more explicit, specific and unique for what Paul and Jesus speak about. Yes, I love God. Yes, I love waking up each morning with Amy. Yes, I love the jambalaya at Gordon’s restaurant in Freeland. Yes, I love living on Whidbey Island. Yes, I love Chuck Garrett new suit. Yes, I love walking along the water and in the mountains. And so it goes.
At the end of the liturgy, there will be a blessing that Amy will pronounce over us. This benediction will ask the Holy One to “bring [us] compassion and peace, and bless [our] lives with joy.” When I hear these words, I hear something that calls the love of God to mind. Suggesting to me, as it does, that this is what we should be acting upon toward, and praying for, each other, for everyone, even for our enemies. The expression and experience of compassion; the presence of peace; the enrichment of joy. The love of God.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [Jn 13.35] Not even Jesus thought this would be easy.
Blessed be the Name of God