May 15th | Rev. Wendy VanderZee | John 13:31-35
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If you find yourself saying, “Hey, Wait a minute! Didn’t we just hear this passage on Maundy Thursday?” You are right! You may remember after sharing the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus started to wash their feet. Peter resists and then Jesus identifies Judas as the one who will betray him. Immediately following today’s passage, Jesus states that not only will Peter not lay down his life for Jesus, but he will in fact deny him three times. So why return to this, probably the darkest night of Jesus’ life - shadowed with gloom and pain - after just experiencing the light and joy of the resurrection?
Have you ever noticed how bright the sun appears to shine just after a sudden rainstorm? The dark grey angry clouds give way to a crystal blue sky and the sun seems to shine even brighter – like they have been washed clean. Perhaps the stark contrast accentuates the message. Seemingly to confuse us, Jesus identifies Judas as the betrayer and then immediately Jesus claims that “the Son of Man has been glorified and God has been glorified in him”. Jesus is not only explaining his relationship to God but also quickly defining “God’s glory” as something very different from the world’s view of what glory means. There’s irony here: the disciples saw no glory. Indeed, if they had understood the meaning behind what had just transpired between Jesus and Judas (and what Judas’ hasty retreat really meant), then they would have been much less likely to perceive even a glimmer of Jesus’ glory. They may have seen clouds of foreboding and gloom and other portents of evil, but glory? No way!
In Jesus’ time, there were celebrities, people of power and popularity just as there are in our day and age. The Roman emperor’s head was on their coins and Caesar and his governors lived in opulent splendor. Today our stars of movies, TV, sports, music, and more are often identified by their expensive homes, cars, clothes, and vacations. Even the dictionary definition of glory speaks of “exalted honor, praise, and renown”. No wonder Peter and the other disciples had a difficult time understanding Jesus’ words when he states that God is glorified through sacrificial and humble action.
Yet, this is exactly why today’s passage is so appropriate. Our Easter celebration and Christ’s resurrection have their meaning because Jesus was crucified on the cross and by that action he was “glorified”. It may seem simplistic, but it cannot be overemphasized that the resurrection has no meaning unless we first go with Jesus to the cross. Without Jesus taking that dark, demeaning, and painful walk to Golgatha and the subsequent horrific crucifixion where he felt abandoned and alone, the brilliance of that resurrection morning loses its import. If we try to take a shortcut from Palm Sunday and figuratively hop over to Easter, we have “skipped” the significance of the resurrection and the ecstatic joy of Easter morning.
Fleming Rutledge has this just right in her book The Crucifixion.” The crucifixion is the touchstone of Christian authenticity, the unique feature by which everything else, including the resurrection, is given its true significance.” The resurrection is the vindication of a man who was crucified. The cross needs to be at the center of the Christian message because without it, the story of Jesus would be just another story about a charismatic spiritual figure or prophet. “It is in the crucifixion that the nature of God is truly revealed.” (p. 44) Within the context of the events of Jesus’ final week, the glory of the resurrection and Eastertide shines bright.
Even in the glow of Eastertide, we in the Church do well to remember what the true nature of glory is for us as Christians. We in the Church are not “glorified” when we gain wealth or political power as the world recognizes those things. The nature of our glory lies elsewhere in sacrificial love, in service, and, yes, even in laying down our lives for the sake of the kingdom, if it comes to that.
This is why we return today to Maundy Thursday’s lectionary reading. Returning to this dark evening when Jesus was with his disciples for their final meal, he speaks intimately with them, even calling them “Little Children”. Some of you may have experienced being with a loved one near the end of their life. Perhaps they called you closer to share some final words of love with you. This is what Jesus is doing here. He has something important to say and he wants to make sure they are paying attention; that they understand and will remember.
In that upper room, as Jesus is preparing his disciples for his absence – which they still do not understand - he tells his disciples that the most important task for them is that they have love for one another. They may search for him, but he will no longer be seen physically in this world. He will be visible through the disciples’ actions with one another. The disciples, then, will become his body in the world - the church. From this new perspective - from this side of the cross - we know the extent of his love for us. Now when we hear Jesus tell us to love one another as he has loved us, those words have new meaning because now we know the extent of his love and what his expectations are for his followers. Jesus was preparing the disciples for his absence in these words of John 13. Jesus tells them that others will see him in us and in the Church when we love one another.
So, is it odd to return to the upper room a month after Easter? No. If anything, it may turn out to be very appropriate!
We hear the familiar words of “Love one another as I have loved you,” but do we really know what that means? This new commandment is not really a new idea that has never been voiced before. In Leviticus 19:18 we read; “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And the Ten Commandments have at their core to act lovingly toward others and toward God: to love selflessly. Perhaps what is new is the way we look at what it means to love. In this sense, love is not a feeling or emotion as society often uses the word love. Jesus is talking about love as a relationship. Love is the way we treat others; how we act toward one another. The newness also comes in the source that feeds this love: Jesus. He is the source of the love. “I have loved you in order that you also love one another.” We cannot give of ourselves exactly as Jesus did because he sacrificed himself that we may all have life eternal. What does it mean to have sacrificial love for another?
Some years back my sister, Stacie, learned that our cousin’s husband was on dialysis. He had a genetic kidney disease which many other members of his family also struggled with. He needed a kidney transplant but none of the members of his family were not viable donors because they, too, either had the disease or were predisposed to it. Both of his kidneys were quickly deteriorating and if he didn’t receive a kidney soon, he would die. She decided to have her blood type cross-matched. By God’s grace, they were a perfect match! She flew from California to Chicago after going through a battery of psychological and physiological testing. Within a few days, our family and Tom’s family were gathered in the surgical waiting room of Northwestern Hospital, each with a loved one headed into surgery. The first words out of each of the patient’s mouths after the surgeries was “Did the surgery go well?” “How is he/she doing?” For each, their primary concern was for the other person, not for themselves. This is selfless love. It is also possible to donate blood or plasma or to make the decision to be an organ or tissue donor. My other sister, Debbie, was given new life when someone donated two new lungs and she has been able to dance at her younger son’s wedding and hold her first grandchild in her arms – experiences she wouldn’t have had without the selfless gift of disease-free lungs.
When we see others in relation to us, isn’t there a more compelling need to reach out and provide support to them…to ease their burden and to share our resources? Doesn’t it feel differently when we see someone struggling with their bags of groceries or we see a homeless person if we view them as our relation instead of “just someone on the street”? Perhaps you have seen some of the heart-rending film clips from the war in the Ukraine? One citizen after another who are being interviewed are asked why they are risking their own life to feed or care for the wounded or defend their country? They respond that they love their country (the land and the people). Despite bombs going off, there is no voiced concern about risk to self. They are taking a deadly risk for love. I have been stuck by the number of people who are taking in multiple families to provide shelter, food, clothes, and a safe place. If they have room, so many are opening their doors, barn, or shelter to whoever may need it. This reminds me of a young couple who needed shelter on a chilly night and were offered the kindness of a stable with some straw.
Right now, thousands of refugees are coming to America to find refuge, safety, and a place of peace. Are we responding with hospitality, kindness, generosity, and love? What if we see them through eyes of love….as our brothers and sisters, mother or father, or cousins? Does that make a difference? What does it mean to love them as Jesus meant when he said to “love them as I have loved you?”
Something amazing happens when we become more sensitive to the needs of others…. we become even more aware of where we can help. This includes our care of the earth. Our air, water, land resources, and every creature on our planet needs loving care. Creation is a gift God gave us to enjoy, to care for, and to tend. When we are attuned to the gift that our world truly is, and that we will be passing it on to future generations, we are more apt to treat it with love, respect, and tenderness. Look around you with love. What do you see? How can you love this precious gift called earth, that we call home? And what about the creatures who also know earth as their home?
When we follow Jesus and love selflessly, the way we see the world is transformed. Our desire is to love one another—to love the whole world finally as Jesus loved us. This kind of love doesn’t arise naturally just by living our lives without intent. If we lose ourselves in Jesus and in being his disciples, we find even our ordinary day-to-day activities infused with deep meaning as a love from another place fills our hearts.
John 15:13 says; “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. This is what Jesus does when he loves his disciples and us. He knocks down all boundaries and limits with his love. He asks for us to give all of ourselves in our love – whatever the moment calls for – without counting the cost.
Thomas Troeger said;
“When we allow Christ’s love to take root in us, it flourishes in all we say and do with one another…the glory of God breathing through the life of a Christ-centered community” – and through us.
If we are to love as Jesus loved us, this becomes for us a daily reality that is possible if and only when the love of Christ fills us to the brim. When we see the world and all of life as the gift it truly is, and we see ourselves in relationship with each person, each part of Creation…. we can begin to understand what Jesus meant. Maybe then, we will truly see the world through eyes of love and love as Christ commanded. Amen.