5 Easter Year C
April 28, 2013
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I invite you to imagine, if you will, that you’re sitting at the table with Jesus and the other disciples. You’re all in the upper room with the door shut, maybe even locked. The atmosphere is filled with fear, sadness, and tension. You’ve known for quite some time that your beloved teacher is in grave danger. He’s been making the authorities nervous; he’s been even making his followers nervous. He’s definitely making you nervous. Nobody else talks the way he does, about his relationship to his Father—and he says God is his father—and about the new kingdom. He’s just done something really strange—he’s washed everyone’s feet. That was a really weird thing for a teacher to do for his disciples. Most upsetting is his talk about going to a place where no one else can come. For a while it was possible to deny that Jesus, your beloved teacher and friend, was going to die. But there’s no more denying it now. Judas has left the room, clearly heading for the authorities to betray Jesus. You long for a word of consolation, of wisdom. Surely, you’re thinking, Jesus will have a detailed plan to help cope with this catastrophe. Surely he will have clear instructions to be followed in his absence. They will be complex, you expect, and you and the others will have to pay close attention to the details. You’re not prepared for what Jesus actually does say, not at all.
As it turns out, there’s no big plan for what to do after the unthinkable happens. Jesus first talks about the Son of Man having been glorified and that God has been glorified in him. Glory, you think? Really, Jesus? How does that work? It was looking bad for you, and now, courtesy of Judas, the Roman government is definitely going to kill you. That’s glory? If anyone else had said this, you would have argued. But this is Jesus talking. Jesus continues, and he catches you up short. “Little children,” he says, “I am with you only a little longer.” Little children? You’re an adult; so is everyone else in the room. Nobody’s called you a little child for a long time. But that’s what you feel like right now: a little child, a frightened little child who will soon be separated from the one you have come to trust, and yes, even believe in. Jesus’ next words aren’t quite what you expected, either. His instructions are surprisingly simple. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” Your first instinct might be to say, “Is that all, Jesus?” You’ve been telling us all about love all along. You’ve told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Of course, that’s not exactly original to you. Loving your neighbor as yourself goes all the way back to Leviticus.
But Jesus has more to say to those gathered around him. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Just as I have loved you. We’re in totally different territory now. How has Jesus loved his disciples? Jesus’ love has gone far beyond the love of neighbor. Jesus loves the disciples, his first Twelve and all of us since, even more than he has loved himself. As Jesus will say a couple of chapters later in John’s Gospel, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
This love, this love that goes into, through, and beyond death, is to be the defining mark of what it means to follow Jesus. The disciples will show they are true followers of Jesus through their love for one another. Jesus tells them, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” It will be the love for one another that will be the distinguishing mark of Jesus followers, not knowledge of the scriptures, not adherence to the purity laws, not orthodox belief. This idea might be painful for some us Episcopalians, but Jesus’ followers won’t be known by meticulously performed liturgy, either. The world will know Jesus’ followers by their love for one another.
Let’s fast forward nearly two millennia to the 1920s. On May 3, 1926, The New York Times reported on a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin, then the president of Union Theological Seminary. Just in case you’re wondering, he was the uncle of minister and activist William Sloane Coffin, who lived more recently. Dr. Coffin’s message was that love, or what he called friendliness, is the essence of Christianity. Friendship, he said, was the only weapon used by the betrayed Jesus to fight the forces of evil. In Dr. Coffin’s words: “A life was once lived in the earth which embodied friendship. Can one not sum up pretty much the whole of Christianity in the simple phrase—a friendly Christ revealing a friendly God and producing friendly men and women?” It may seem odd to us to hear of friendliness spoken of in this way. For us today, friendliness has more lighthearted connotations and isn’t a word we would use in connection with Christ’s self-sacrificing love. It doesn’t seem like the appropriate word to use about Jesus, who is being betrayed and who will eventually die; it doesn’t seem to acknowledge the gravity of Jesus’ situation. But love, or friendliness, can have more power than we might imagine. Dr. Coffin has more to say on the subject. He writes: “Life is cruel with its betrayals. The best are often those most ill-used. And there is just one weapon with which to fight, one remedy on which to rely, one tool with which to recreate the world—an unfaltering and unceasing friendliness which goes the length of a body broken and blood outpoured.”
Fast forward another seventy years or so. I heard this story more than twenty years ago, but it’s something I’ll never forget. It was at a Lenten program featuring four clergywomen in a panel discussion. Each woman began by giving a brief account of how she’d come to faith. Most of the stories contained themes I’d heard before. One of the women grew up in a devout family, was orphaned, and then found a surrogate family in her faith and in the church. Another came to faith after being cured of a serious illness. The third converted to her husband’s faith and made it her own. The fourth woman, who I’ll call Susan, had another story to tell. Although she was at this point an Episcopal priest, she’d grown up in England in a family that seldom if ever went to church. She went from primary school to high school and eventually to university, never feeling the lack of religious affiliation or experience. But after graduation from university, things changed for Susan. She took some time off to travel around the country to visit friends, work at a few odd jobs, and to try to figure out what career path might suit her. At one stop at a university town, she looked up friends of friends in hopes of finding a free place to spend the night. The friends of friends turned out to be part of an intentional Christian community. At first, Susan was rather put off. She didn’t know anyone who went to church, much less committed themselves to communal living in the name of Christ. But Susan found herself quickly drawn to this community and wanted to become part of it. Why, you might be wondering? She said, “They loved each other. I wanted so much to be a part of that love.”
They loved each other. It sounds so simple. It was so simple. But it was compelling. Have you ever encountered a group of people whom you could describe in that way? Have you ever encountered a group of people who loved each other so much that you wanted to join them and be part of that love? If you have, you’ve never forgotten the experience. I hope you may have had that experience here at St. John’s. Very few of us in human history have had the chance to have God speak to us through a burning bush, and all those who met Christ through Jesus of Nazareth are long gone from the earth. But you can still meet Christ through others in a Christian community where people truly love and care for one another.
You can meet Christ through others right here and right now, in this very room, and later as we gather in the parish hall. You can also meet Christ today in the Eucharist, which we will celebrate in just a short while. In receiving that “body broken and blood outpoured,” we remember the one who loved others more than he loved himself, and who commanded us to love one another as he loved us. Amen.