By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Did the gospel lesson sound like something you’ve heard before at another time and place? It’s the passage most commonly associated with Maundy Thursday. In fact, this is where Maundy Thursday gets its peculiar name – from the Latin, mandatum novum, “a new commandment.” As we just heard, Jesus met with his disciples in the Upper Room, washed their feet, exposed Judas for the traitor that he was, then gave them this new commandment to love one another as he had loved them.
Scholars tell us that this is the beginning of a long section of John’s gospel – four chapters, in fact, (13:41-16:33) that takes the form of a farewell address. It ends with a lengthy prayer in which Jesus asks God to watch over the disciples and keep them united after he is gone (17:1-26).
In the sermon today, I’d like for us to take a closer look at this new commandment Jesus gave his disciples, but first I want to digress for a moment and ask: If you knew you were about to leave this earth, what would you say to your loved ones before you checked out? What sort of final words of parting would you have to offer? What do you want them to remember about you after you’re gone?
Several years ago I offered a little workshop entitled, Planning Your Own Funeral. Beyond the nitty-gritty of picking a casket and deciding which dress or suit you want to be buried in, I challenged the participants to write a brief biographical sketch and, along with it, a Credo – a statement of their faith.
When you think about it, what better gift could you give your children and grandchildren, what richer legacy could you leave behind, than a summary of your beliefs and values and heartfelt convictions?
So, I invite you to join the club: Jacob gave a lengthy farewell to his sons before he died (Gen. 49); Moses took forever to say goodbye to the people of Israel (Deut. 33); as did King David (1 Chron. 28-29); and, on his final journey back to Jerusalem, Paul stopped over at Miletus in order to say goodbye to the elders of the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:17-38). Luke says when he finished, “…he knelt down and prayed with them all. They all wept a lot, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him, sorrowing most of all because of the word which he had spoken, that they should see his face no more.” (Acts 20:36-38)
Write a farewell statement of your own. Include with it a summary of your beliefs and values and philosophy of life. Do it now while you can. It won’t hasten the day of your departure, but I can tell you this: Those who love you most will cherish it as long as they live.
O.K., enough about words of parting. Let’s get on this new commandment. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just like I have loved you; that you also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
In his commentary on today’s text, Richard Donovan asks, “What’s new about Jesus’ commandment?” Isn’t this just another way of reiterating the teaching of Leviticus, to love your neighbor as yourself? (Leviticus 19:18)
Donovan says not quite, and goes on to list four ways in which Jesus’ commandment breaks new ground. (SermonWriter, May 6, 2007, Volume 11, Number 23, ISSN 1071-9962) First, he says, “Jesus provides a clear model of the love that he requires: “Just like I have loved you; that you also love one another.'”
I agree. Jesus’ teaching is concrete, not theoretical. He gives us an example to go by. For one thing, he washed the disciples’ feet. He also taught them how to pray. He modeled for them a life of sacrifice and service. He led them across the Sea of Galilee to the other side, where the Gentiles lived. He ate with outcasts and sinners. He walked among lepers.
Edgar Guest got it right when he wrote the little poem, Sermons We See. He said,
“I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day;
I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way.
The eye’s a better pupil and more willing than the ear,
Fine counsel is confusing, but example’s always clear;
And the best of all the preachers are the men who live their creeds,
For to see good put in action is what everybody needs.”
Jesus’ life was a living sermon. To know how to love one another is simply to walk in his footsteps and follow his lead.
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Now, be honest: Have you ever said or heard someone else say, tacitly or otherwise, “Do as I say, not as I do”? It doesn’t work that way, does it? Only as you practice what you preach are your words likely to have any lasting effect.
Jesus shows us how to love one another. Remember the story of the woman caught in adultery? While all the others were ready to stone her to death, Jesus said, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw the first stone at her.” And when they had all slithered away, he told the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more.” (John 8:3-11)
Donovan goes on to say that this new commandment is unique in that, “… (it) focuses on the Christian community—we are to love Christian brothers and sisters.”
That’s not to say we don’t have an obligation to love the world in general, and our enemies in particular. Jesus made this perfectly clear in the Sermon on the Mount. He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies… and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you… For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?… If you only greet your friends, what more do you do than others? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:43-47)
John 3:16 says it best: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
Just as the love of God encompasses all of creation, so must we strive to love each person who crosses our path, regardless of how uninteresting or unattractive we find them to be.
And yet, what’s the point of loving the world in general if we can’t get along with each other in particular? As Lucy once told Charlie Brown: “I love humankind; it’s people I can’t stand!”
This is the concern Jesus voices in this passage – that we love one another as brothers and sisters in this family of faith we call the church. After all, this is what the church is called to be – a microcosm of the kingdom of God on earth.
It only stands to reason: If we, who share a common faith and commitment to Jesus Christ can’t get our act together, how can we hope to be a force of peace and reconciliation for others?
At its best, the church has so much to offer:
• While the world glibly asks you in passing, “How are you doing?” church members really mean it and are willing to stop and take as long as necessary to hear your response.
• While the world is jealous when you get some well-deserved attention or honor bestowed on you, church members are happy for you and are proud to know you as one of their own.
• While the world is quick to grab its share of the spoils, church members are willing to share what they have with each other and make sure everyone’s needs are met.
• While the world lives by the motto, “Every man for himself,” church members lose themselves in love and devotion for each other.
Frankly, I don’t know of another institution quite like the church. When we function as a healthy family of faith, when we love one another as God loves us, we have the potential of redeeming lost souls and the power to transform the world into the kingdom of God.
And this is the Good News: Loving action elicits a loving response, and that creates an endless cycle in which love is magnified over and over until it becomes a new way of life. Donovan puts it this way: “(the Love Commandment) inaugurates a new covenant.”
And so it does. The old covenant was based on the Law. It put the burden of responsibility on us: If you want to stay in God’s good graces, keep your nose clean. The new covenant is based on forgiveness and grace. It shifts the burden to God and invites us simply to respond to what God has already accomplished through Jesus Christ. As the First Letter of John puts it, “We love him, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
Have I told you about my granddaughter, Caitlyn? Caitlyn was born March 20. She’s to be dedicated on Mother’s Day. She’s the most beautiful child you’ve ever seen. O.K., she’s one of the most beautiful children you’ve ever seen! If you twist my arm, I’ll show you pictures!
The reason I mention Caitlyn is that Chris and Trina are head-over-heels in love with her, as any loving parents should be. She’s just a newborn. She doesn’t know anything other than to cry when she’s hungry and sleep when she’s sleepy. Yet, they constantly shower her with love. And do you know what? As she grows, she’ll respond by loving them in return.
That’s the way love is – you learn to love by first being loved, and the more you’re loved, the more you’re able to love in return. This is what’s meant by a new covenant – God so loved the world – that’s you and me – that we might love each other to the glory of his name and, in the process, experience life in all its abundance.
Compared with the Old Covenant with Israel, it’s a new ball game. Instead of, “You shall not…” Jesus said,“Just like I have loved you; that you also love one another.”
Donovan says, “… this new commandment is positive and open-ended.” And so it is. There are no conditions, no boundaries, no limits to the love we’re called to share with each other.
But Jesus didn’t just mouth the words, he put them into action in such a way that they would never forget. He took a loaf of bread, gave thanks to God, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” After supper he took the cup, again he gave thanks to God and said, “All of you drink it, for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the remission of sins.”
To this day, when we gather at the Lord’s table we celebrate his life and teachings, his death and resurrection. And, as we remember how he gave himself for us, we give ourselves in gratitude to others.
No one knew this better than Charles Wesley, who wrote,
“What shall I render to my God
For all His mercy’s store?
I’ll take the gifts He hath bestowed,
And humbly ask for more.
The sacred cup of saving grace
I will with thanks receive,
And all His promises embrace,
And to His glory live.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2007, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.