24 Apr 2016
5th Sunday of Easter, Year C
Sometimes we just don’t know the meaning of something; maybe a concept or a word. And so we go that font of wisdom and knowledge—we turn to Google. And there’s nothing especially wrong with that; it’s actually pretty helpful.
Now, today we hear Jesus say what he’s said a thousand times before: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” And so I went to Google and typed in “love”—because Jesus says we’re supposed to love one another, and I wanted to know how to do that. So I typed in “love,” and then looked to see what images would come up (because sometimes it takes too long to read words).
So I typed in “love,” and all these images of hearts came up. There was one where two hands were coming together to make a heart shape. There was another one where there was a tree in it, except that instead of leaves on the tree, there was a bunch of hearts; and underneath it was a silhouette of a boy and girl holding hands.
There were candy hearts, construction paper hearts, hearts with candles and, of course, the word “love” all over everything. And then I looked at the definition of “love” as Google gives it. It’s “an intense feeling of deep affection; a romantic attraction to someone; a great interest and pleasure in something.” And it comes from the Old English word “lufu,” which means “to desire something pleasing.”
So there I had it! Jesus said, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Jesus must love us with (as I discovered) “intense feelings of deep affection, and with great interest and pleasure,” so that’s how we’re supposed to love one another. And apparently there’s supposed to be some cuddling and lots of hearts floating around, too.
Now, I’m not making fun of Google. Like I said, it’s actually pretty helpful; I use it all the time. But what’s not going to pop up immediately with Google (or the in the minds of a lot of people today) is what Jesus is getting at when he says, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” To find that out we have to go that “other” font of wisdom and knowledge—we have to go to God himself.
And so I turned to the Word of God (to the Gospel of John); I went back into the scene where Jesus had said these words. It was the day we know as “Holy Thursday.”
The tension between Jesus and the Jews had reached a climax earlier that day. And now it was nighttime. The sun had set, and darkness was all around; the kind of darkness that has a tinge of evil in it. As John tells us, “The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand [Jesus] over.” In that very dark setting, Jesus and his twelve disciples gathered to celebrate the Passover meal.
And in the middle of the meal, Jesus got up and took the role of a servant, washing his disciples’ feet. He returned to the table, and Judas left to go and betray him. And this is when Jesus said, “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
From this we get a different image of “love;” different than what a Google search will give us. Here, love is more like: “Sticking by someone when life gets rough.” And we see Jesus loving his disciples in that way when they were stuck on a stormy sea, and he walked on the water, and calmed the sea [John 6:20]. He loved them by coming to be with them in the tough times.
Have we seen a family member, or a friend, or an “enemy” going through a rough patch in life? One way to love them as Jesus has loved us is to be a calming, reassuring presence for them. Of course, Jesus loved his disciples in other ways, too.
For instance, he spends time with them, just being with them. We see this when Jesus and his disciples come together as guests at the Wedding in Cana [John 2:2]. We see it when they’re “spending time” together in the Judean countryside [John 3:22]. And we see it when Jesus brings his disciples up on the mountain and sits with them [John 6:3]. Jesus loved his disciples by getting to know them as a companion, but also as someone who brought them to a “higher place,” a place of holiness—which is symbolized by the mountain.
Have we ever seen someone who perhaps needed an encouraging word? How many of our younger brothers and sisters are in need of good, solid mentors in life? One way to love each other as Jesus has loved us is to spend time getting to know each other—even the people we don’t especially like. Remember, Jesus doesn’t tell us to like one another; he tells us to love one another. We see that in his encounter with the Samaritan woman [John 4:27].
Jesus loved his disciples by opening them up to a bigger vision of life, and what can be (and what will be). This is especially true in the Gospel of John. With the Samaritan woman, Jesus is saying, “It’s good and charitable (that is, loving) to reach out to our supposed enemies, and to accept them as children of God, if not also as friends.” But Jesus loved his disciples not just in that way, but also in trying to widen their horizons as far as life with God goes.
Jesus tells Nathaniel about “greater things to come” [John 1:51], but doesn’t exactly say what those things are. He cleanses the Temple and the disciples start to make connections between what Jesus is doing and what the larger picture of the Prophets had foretold [John 2:17]. He speaks about a certain “food” the disciples don’t know anything about yet—the food of doing the will and the work of the One who sent him [John 4:34].
Jesus loved his disciples by moving them forward and upward in faith; by moving them toward the vision of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem which we heard about today in the Book of Revelation. It’s a loving thing for us to raise each other up, to something “higher” and more fulfilling. It’s a reflection of how Jesus loved his disciples. It’s also a reflection of Christ-like love to challenge each other.
Jesus loved his disciples by occasionally doing that. When they were trying to feed the five thousand, Jesus let them struggle a bit with that question [John 6:11]. He challenged them to think of another way—a “higher” way, the way of gratitude. He loved the disciples by showing them that with a spirit of gratitude, what they had would be enough. He took the bread and fish, gave thanks, and there was enough for everyone. He loved them by challenging them, in a gentle way, and also in an upfront way.
When the Jews were pretty much rejecting Jesus, he turned to his disciples (to the large crowd of disciples) and challenged them to stop complaining about what he’s saying and just believe in him. But many simply walked away, and didn’t follow him anymore [John 6:61,66]. At that point, he turned to his twelve disciples and put the same challenge to them: “Do you want to leave me, too?” And with that, the faith of the twelve disciples deepened. They grew in faith because Jesus loved them enough to challenge them on their discipleship.
All this, and the washing of the disciples’ feet, were all ways Jesus loved his disciples. Jesus is defining what “love” is—not spousal love, or erotic love, or filial love (which are legitimate forms of love), but “love” in the sense of “self-giving charity.” There are at least four different words in Ancient Greek which we translate as “love.” But here, when Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you,” he’s saying, “Be self-giving and charitable to one another, as I have given myself in charity to you.”
And there may not be a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings in that kind of love. There may not be “intense feelings of deep affection,” or “great interest and pleasure” as there can be with filial love, or spousal or erotic love. Instead, as Saint Paul and Barnabas said, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” to enter into the kingdom of that other kind of love—the kingdom of perfect charity.
Just like Jesus and his disciples on that Holy Thursday night, we gather to celebrate the Passover. Around us in the world, and even in our midst, there is the darkness of: greed, corruption, hatred, despair. Popular culture murmurs against us and our God. The situation of Holy Thursday continues on today. But into that Jesus speaks again those words we’ve heard a thousand times before: “Love one another, as I have loved you."
He’s gone on ahead of us, and the “good news” is that he wants us to be there with him. And he’s given us love—charity—as the way to get there. Charity amongst ourselves is what lifts us upward and onward to our God. Charity is what gets us to the Holy City, where there is nothing but perfect love, now and forever.