5 Easter, Year C
John 13:31-35 (ESV)
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
This reading takes place in the shadow of Judas Iscariot. Judas has just left the Last Supper, and it suddenly seems that the palpable insider vs. outsider dynamic, full of uncertainty, that has permeated this unusual Passover can now be dispensed with. Jesus announces his and the Father’s glory to the eleven insiders only after the ultimate outsider has been driven away. The end of the story is the glory – but he will not say that while Judas is around.
Jesus already knows the timeline of the next few days: he had told it plainly to the disciples. He will be betrayed to the chief priests and scribes; unjustly condemned; beaten; crucified; three days later to rise again and ascend to the Father and be glorified. It is true what Paul says: For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, despising its shame. Jesus kept his eyes on the glorification to come, not on the humility in his immediate future.
Then, just as the eleven were getting used to feeling like insiders, Jesus gives them the same vague answer about his itinerary that he gave to the opposition: where I go, you cannot come. They may be insiders, but Jesus must do this task alone. What emotional confusion the disciples must have experienced! Are we in or out? Are we with you or not?
Then comes a new commandment – one which sounds suspiciously similar to existing commandments. Is this new love commandment just a rehash of Jesus’ own summary of the Law? No, it is more focused. Though Jesus certainly wanted his followers to fulfill he general obligations to love God and love neighbor, now he gets really specific: love one another, the insiders, the faithful, the Church with the same selfless, sacrificial love that Jesus knows he is about to display on the cross. This is not a general obligation, but a very specific and pointed command that his disciples of Jesus should love like Jesus, especially in-house. So important is this internal organizational value that Jesus restates it: it should be the one defining characteristic of all Christians that no matter what else is going on, they love each other with a sacrificial love.
Seventeen hundred years later, preachers George Whitfield and John Wesley, once dear friends, had become theological opponents and occasionally exchanged sharp words. Nevertheless, they respected each other. Charles Spurgeon told this story of the two: “Mr. Whitefield was one day asked by a partisan, ‘Do you think that we, when we get to Heaven, shall see John Wesley there?’ ‘No,’ said George Whitefield, ‘I do not think we shall.’ The questioner was very delighted with that answer, but Mr. Whitefield added, ‘I believe that Mr. John Wesley will have a place so near the Throne of God and that such poor creatures as you and I will be so far off as to be hardly able to see him!"’ (Spurgeon Sermon no. 2936)
Churches sometimes excel at chewing up and spitting out our own. Church splits, theological differences, even the color of the tablecloths in the parish hall can set off a flurry of demonization, fight-or-flight responses, and all-around bad behavior. In a time of political, cultural, and theological polarization in America, in Dallas, and in the Episcopal Church, what would it look like if the Christians of the Diocese of Dallas all considered that their brothers- and sisters-in-Christ might, like Wesley, be closer to Christ than they themselves? Can internal, Christian-to-Christian love become our one distinguishing characteristic?
The Rev. John Thorpe is chaplain for St. John's Episcopal School