Today’s scripture reading—while short—is but a piece of another story: that of the Last Supper. Jesus and the disciples are participating in this ritual meal together. He has already washed their feet. Jesus has foretold of his betrayal, and Judas has departed. While still in this moment—in the midst of this ritual meal and communal sharing—Jesus offers today’s scripture text as a word of teaching and a charge of ministry. After it, Jesus will foretell of Peter’s denial, before addressing their anxiety and promising the coming Spirit of God. In fact, from the point of our scripture lesson until Jesus’ arrest, his sole concern seems to be to communicate to his disciples how to live as his apprentices in his absence.
That lesson begins here: John 13:31-35.
The Plot Twist
I don’t remember where I found it, but I once came across a line that went like this:
The most unnerving realization is that you already knew it.
Think about it. It’s not those things that are completely-out-of-the-blue that knock us off our foundation. It is when we realize something we should have realized a long time ago. When we become aware of something we didn’t even know we knew.
Movies love to utilize this trope. You get to the climax, and all of a sudden there’s this great reveal—some sort of plot twist that is supposed to blow your mind. But to take it to the next level, the directors spend the next 60 seconds on a journey backward through the movie—highlighting all the subtle clues you missed. And somehow, it all makes sense—as though you knew it all along on some subconscious level.
The more I read Jesus in the gospels, the more I see Jesus doing the same sort of thing—over and over he reveals to them things about God that they (deep-down) already knew. As I mentioned last week, the gospel readings during Eastertide are actually intended to reinforce this disorientation-reorientation experience. These verses from John’s gospel certainly do.
As I mentioned when introducing the scripture, this is a tense moment.
They are in the midst of one of the most significant religious rituals they have.
Jesus has washed their feet—itself an experience full of drama and mixed emotions.
Jesus has anticipated his betrayal—but no one except John and Judas seemed to know who he was talking about.
And Jesus is about to tell Peter that Peter will deny him three times.
So with all this going on:
When Jesus starts to say things that sound like the end [John 13:31], the disciples are going to get nervous.
When Jesus outright says that he will be with them “only a little longer” [John 13:33a], they will feel their breath get short.
When Jesus tells these folks who have been following him everywhere that they “cannot come” where he is going [John 13:33c], they cannot help but feel unmoored.
And when Jesus says “I give you a new commandment” [John 13:34a], you better believe they are going to be listening with every fiber of their being..
This—no doubt—is going to be the big reveal.
This is going to be the teaching to end all teachings.
This is what they’ve been following him around for.
This is where he’s going to fully initiate them into this Kingdom and its power.
You can almost feel the disciples lean in and edge forward on their seats. “I give you a new commandment.” What’s he going to say?!?
There’s a scene in the book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that comes to mind here. There’s this supercomputer named Deep Thought; it is so enormous it is the size of a small planet. And for 7.5 million years, Deep Thought has been calculating the “ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything.”
When at last, Deep Thought has completed its computations, there is a tremendous celebration. Millions upon millions gather and cheer as they anticipate their lives are about to be forever changed.
Slowly, Deep Thought announces: “The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything…… is…… 42.”
Not exactly what the universe had waited 7.5 million years to hear.
Back to Jesus
“I give you a new commandment……”
What’s he going to say?
“I give you a new commandment……”
What’s it going to change?
“I give you a new commandment……”
Whatever it is, everything’s going to be different, am I right?
“I give you a new commandment……that you love one another.”
Just like the crowd Deep Thought was addressing, I imagine Jesus’ crew was more than a little confused here.
But unlike with Deep Thought, the problem here wasn’t that they didn’t understand the answer. The disciples‘ problem is that they understood the answer all too well. It was information they already knew. It was information everyone already knew. Because Jesus’ “new” instruction had been enshrined in their Torah for hundreds of years [Leviticus 19:18b]. It had been taught to them as children, as it had to all Jewish children.
The disciples undoubtedly expected something radical and game-changing, yet Jesus offered something obvious and already known; it was the definition of anti-climatic.
Only One Job
And yet, what Jesus offers here is something radical and game-changing—even if the disciples didn’t realize it until later. Yes, the gist of Jesus’ “new” commandment was nothing new at all. But there is something remarkably rare happening here too.
The four gospels that tell of Jesus’ life on earth record many instructions that he offers to individuals, to his disciples, to religious leaders, and to the world at large. Depending on how you count duplications between the gospel accounts, Jesus uses an imperative to tell someone what to do somewhere between 450-565 times.
But only one time—ONE TIME—does Jesus tell his hearers that this is an actual “commandment.” And this is that time.
Jesus the rule-breaker…… Jesus the anti-religious-establishment…… Jesus the radical…… he is forever turning their understanding of the commandments—of the bible—upside down. And here he offers a “new commandment.” You better believe it’s important.
In a sense, Jesus calls us back to basics. As I said earlier, Jesus begins here a section of teaching aimed at instructing his followers in how to live in his absence:
“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.” (John 13:34b-35 NRSV).
For all disciples of Jesus—all followers, all of his apprentices throughout time—the single defining characteristic is to be love. Love is what the world should see as the central hallmark of those called by the name of Christ. Jesus is unequivocal about this. He is straightforward. He is simple.
Failure & Hope
But for 2000 years, we have stubbornly refused to listen.
No one can dare claim that “love” is the reputation that Christians have in this nation or in the world at large. It is not true, and Jesus is the Truth [John 14:6].
This week has been filled (once again) with news stories about self-righteous people leading political crusades in the name of Jesus. Laws have been passed, capital punishment has been carried out, commencement speeches have been given, and war has been flirted with. All of it is tinged with religious language and justified by people claiming to follow Jesus.
When the world at large looks at those of us who call ourselves “Christian,” it is not love that they think. It’s not love that we demonstrate.
Why do we fail?
I think one reason is that we do not trust God to be Lord. Not really. It’s that same old sin that drove Adam and Eve in the garden, and has driven each of us since then. We simply don’t trust God to be God; we simply are not content to be subject to any Lord or King, no matter how compassionate and kind. Our selfish pride resists any outside influence, which—perhaps ironically—opens us up to every outside influence except God…… because God is the only entity in the cosmos that loves us enough to not impose itself upon us.
Why do we fail? Well, because we do not really trust God, we try to do it all ourselves—with our love, and our power, and our way. But control of others is not love. There are a lot of Jesus’ teachings that touch on this. We are not to control others with manipulative language, or by wielding our emotions, or by holding grudges against them. We are to love them enough to stand with them even when we disagree with them—even when they actively work against us. The apprentice of Jesus has been so transformed by God that she naturally seeks the welfare of even her enemies.
This is not natural to us. This is not something we can do on our own. We cannot love others as Jesus loved us by trying harder.
We can only do it after we have experienced reshaping in his image.
We can only do it because God enables us through the power of the Kingdom Among Us.
We can only do it when we have learned to trust God more than we trust ourselves.
This is why we have failed. But this is also why we can succeed.
The Kingdom remains among us.
God is still about the work of transformation.
The Spirit continues to work within us and through us.
We simply have to go back to basics. We have to re-enroll in kindergarten with Jesus…… become like little children, all fresh and new and born again. We have to restart our apprenticeship and actually believe that the Way of Jesus matters in this life.
Jesus somehow knew we had to have a command of some sort, so this is the one he gave. If there’s anything at all in scripture and faith that we have to hang our hats on, it is this. This is who Jesus calls us to be, but we can only get there with God’s help.
“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.” (John 13:34–35 NRSV)