April 28, 2013 - The Fifth Sunday of Easter

5 Easter, Year C
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
John 13:31-35

Here we are, in the middle of Easter, surrounded by the new life of Spring, and our Gospel reading today transports us back to the time before the tomb was found empty, before the death on the cross, before the passion, before the betrayal, to the night before he died. Our Gospel today takes place on that final night. The last supper has been eaten, feet have been washed, Judas has left to betray him. After Judas left, Jesus teaches the disciples more about what is to occur. "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him." Jesus gives them a framework for what was happening, for the betrayal, for his suffering, for his death. He is trying to prepare them to see what was to happen not a tragedy for them to mourn, but an opportunity to see the glory of God in the resurrection. And then Jesus gets to the heart of this Gospel reading: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." 

A new commandment? At first glance this doesn't seem all that new. There is nothing new about commanding us to love. We could generally say that most of what Jesus is teaching us to do is to love, but more specifically, the other Gospels all have Jesus commanding love much earlier in his ministry, when the lawyer asked him what the greatest commandment was. And Jesus responded to love the God your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. And even that wasn't new. The loving God part was quoting Deuteronomy, and the loving your neighbor part was quoting Leviticus. Nothing new about the requirement that we love. But look a little more carefully at these commandments. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love one another just as I have loved you. The difference here is subtle but important. In the first, the love we are to offer is at the level that we love ourselves; in the second, the love we are to offer is at the level that Jesus has loved us. 

Think about that for a moment: Loving at the level we love ourselves vs. loving at the level that Jesus loves us. Loving our neighbor at the level we love ourselves is a great guideline in many ways, but it also can be fraught with potential problems. It assumes that we love ourselves, but what if we don't love ourselves? Or don't love ourselves as fully or properly as we could? What if we treat ourselves poorly, unlovingly even? And then treat another poorly also, just as we have treated ourselves? Loving our neighbor as ourself assumes that we already know what love is. But as people prone to sin, prone to hurt others, prone to be greedy, prone to wander and leave the Lord who loves us and whom we love, do we really know what love is? 

So what Jesus offers in the Gospel reading really is a new commandment. Jesus continues that same thread of love that we see throughout all of Scripture, but we have a new benchmark for that love. Not loving as we love ourselves, but loving as Jesus loves us. To love as Jesus loved means that, just as Jesus did in his incarnation, we have to be present with people. That's what incarnation means: God became flesh. God became one of us. Out of love, God dwelt here with humanity. And to love like Jesus, we have to dwell with humanity. We can't cut ourselves off too easily from others. Now, there might be reasons, like safety in situations of abuse, where we do have to protect ourselves by creating boundaries. But in general, to love like Jesus, the incarnate one, means to be present with others in their lives, and to reject the all too common tendency to cut ourselves off from those that we disagree with, those that frustrate us, those that are different from us, those that challenge us, those that are a scandal to us, like the sinner, and the tax-collector, and the prostitute, you know, the ones with whom Jesus so often ate. Even though we rejected God again and again, and did all kinds of stupid and foolish things, in the end, what did God do, but get even closer to us. 

To love like Jesus loved means that, just as Jesus did in his resurrection, we are to bring new life to this world, transformed life in the Risen Lord that we celebrate this Easter. This world is so full of death - literal and metaphorical - explosions taking lives too young, a car accident taking away the ability to walk, a diagnosis of cancer, a marriage breaking down, debilitating anxiety derailing life's plans, depression robbing life of its joy. And to love like Jesus loved means to bring life to that death. Not to try and unto the death, but to bring life up from it. Not to look back and try and restore the past, but to look forward with the transformed Christ, who was the same and yet different. Did you notice that detail in the Resurrection stories we have been hearing this season? Yes, it is clearly him, still with the wounds of his crucifixion, and yet, he isn't quite the same, as they don't know him right away, Mary even mistakes him for a gardener. Resurrected life has connections to the past, and yet it is transformed in such a way that it is not exactly like the past. And to love like Jesus means to bring this new, transformed, resurrected life to all of the death in this world. 

To love like Jesus loved means that we are to see the ways that he loved from his birth, through his life, through his death, through his resurrection. It means to not look at our own lives for examples of how to love, With all of its limitations and struggles, but to look at his life the life of one who loved more purely than any other. 

My sisters and brothers in Christ, we are the Body of Christ in this world. By virtue of our baptism, we are Christ's body. We are his feet to run to those in need. We are his hands to reach out in love. We are his eyes to see with compassion, we are his ears to hear the needs of this world. These words we hear in our Gospel reading are being spoken to us today. We have been called by Christ to love one another as he loved, to steadfastly follow his steps, by incarnating that love of Christ in this world, and by showing forth the love of the Resurrected life of Easter. Amen.