Before getting started, Working Preacher, a quick word of thanks: the response to both our new donor challenge and the Sermon Brainwave challenge (where Rolf, Karoline, and I put up our own money for the challenge) has been tremendous. Thank you very much.
And if you haven’t yet given, this week we’ll start one of our most exciting challenges yet, where each and every dollar given will be matched 1:1 up to $8000. Again, thank you for your support and, even more, for your hard work to proclaim the word of God for the people of God. Okay, on to this week’s passage!
Dear Working Preacher,
Sometimes the most familiar passages are the most challenging to preach. This Sunday’s gospel reading is a great example. Containing Jesus’ famous “love command,” it’s one of the better known passages in the Bible and for that very reason is challenging. The passage is so familiar that most people assume they know it before they hear it. Moreover, what can you really add to “love another” – words that are simultaneously ridiculously easy to understand and ridiculously hard to do? The key, I think, is to find a new angle into the text so that folks can experience this familiar passage anew. Here are two suggestions to help do just that.
First, set the context. Because we’re hopscotching our way through John’s Gospel this Easter season, it will be helpful to take a few moments to remind people where we are. In terms of the larger structure of the Gospel, we are early into the “second book” of John (the first being the “book of signs,” chapters 2-12) that relates the story of Jesus’ “glorification” in the cross, resurrection, and ascension.
This section begins with the account of the Last Supper and the moving words that summarize the whole: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” As this particular passage commences, Jesus has already washed the feet of his disciples, Judas has just departed to betray him, and the rest of the disciples are in a state of confusion. At just this moment of drama and tension, Jesus’ offers these words, “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.”
Which tells us, I think, a great deal about the kind of love Jesus is talking about. This surely isn’t romantic love, nor is it simply being nice, nor is it only loving those who love you back. Think about it: when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, Judas was there. Further, he will now demonstrate just how much God loves the world by dying for those who manifestly do not love him. Love is hard because it is self-sacrificing. It means putting the good of the other first, even when it hurts.
I find it striking that these are the words Jesus’ leaves with his disciples. I mean, he could have said, “Go out and die with me.” Or, “keep the faith.” Or, “when I am gone go out and teach and preach to all the world.” Or, well, any number of things. But instead he offered this simple and challenging word, “love another.” Why? Because this kind of love is the hallmark not just of God and Jesus but also of the Christian church. As in the old camp song, Jesus agrees that the whole world will know we are Christians not by our sermons or our sacraments or our festivals or our buildings or our crucifixes or our family values … but by our love. It’s just that important.
Second, having set the scene so that we can hear again and anew the import of these words, remind us that we actually can and often do love one another. Sometimes the love command seems so challenging we assume it’s an ideal, a lofty goal that none of us will ever reach. But while we may not love perfectly, we do love, and sometimes one of the most powerful things you can hear in relation to a command is the affirmation of your ability to keep it.
So invite your hearers to recall a time this past week when they chose love. Perhaps it was looking out for the interests of a colleague, or overlooking the slight of a friend, or putting aside one’s own goals to help someone else achieve theirs. Maybe it was a large act of love, or maybe it was much smaller. But each of us, I’d wager, did in fact “love one another” this past week and it would be good to call that to mind.
But then invite us to think about a situation over the last week or two where we found it difficult to love one another. Maybe it’s been incredibly hard to forgive someone who has hurt you, or difficult to move beyond the disappointment caused by a family member or friend.
Ask folks to remember both occasions simply because the truth of the matter is that we do love, regularly, and we do fail, regularly. And church, I think, should be a place where we can give thanks for the former and pray about the latter.
But then do one more thing.
Take us back to the setting of this scene one more time and remind us that above and beyond Jesus’ command to love is his actual act of love. Jesus goes to the cross to demonstrate that, in fact, “God so loved the world.” Jesus did not go to the cross to make God loving, or to satisfy God’s justice, or to take on our punishment. Jesus went to the cross to show in word and deed that God is love and that we, as God’s children, are loved. So whether we succeed or fail in our attempts to love one another this week, yet God in Jesus loves us more than we can possible imagine. And hearing of this love we are set free and sent forth, once again, to love another.
As I said at the outset, Working Preacher, sometimes familiar passages are the most difficult to preach. And sometimes they’re the most important as well. Because these words – about the command to love that is anchored in Jesus’ love – needs to be preached again and again because when they are spoken, heard, and lived, we find ourselves in that foreign land and strange country of mercy and grace we call the kingdom of God. Thank you, Working Preacher, for your part in the speaking, hearing, and living. What you do matters. And I am grateful for it.
Yours in Christ,
Questions for Easter 5 – John 13:31-35
- What do you think it was like for the disciples to hear Jesus say to them that in a little while they would no longer see him and not be able to find him?
- What do you think the relationship is between the “glory” Jesus talks about and his command to “love one another”?
Questions for Easter 6 – John 14:23-29
1. After reading this passage, what do you think Jesus’ “word” is that he commands his disciples to keep?
2. In what way is Jesus’ peace different than the peace the world gives? When have you sensed that peace in your life?