One of the most helpful pieces of information I received during my earliest study of scripture came from Verna Dozier, an African-American Episcopalian theologian. In her book, The Dream of God: A Call to Return, she talks about the bible, referring to it as a library rather than a book. I like that. The rest of her book is also wonderful – an easy read with some beautiful, thought-provoking ideas. Very enriching. Somehow, though, her suggestion to see the bible differently, helped me feel a little less daunted. I took it as an invitation to enter in at my pace, to explore what I felt led to explore, and to really let God guide me through the journey. Such a little thing, this shift inside. And yet so productive.
In a similar way, Luke Timothy Johnson – white, male, and formerly a Benedictine monk (just trying to be fair here) – has suggested that the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, might better be seen as two books: The Book of Signs, which includes the deeds of the messiah and the claims of Jesus (culminating in the “I am” statements), and The Book of Glory, which includes Jesus’ teaching to his disciples as well as what it means to be the Son of God. Johnson (LTJ) does a masterful job of using this structure as a springboard for understanding one of the most essential aspects of John’s Gospel – that is, the great and dramatic shift from open ministry to inner revelation. Johnson suggests that this relates, initially, to Jesus’ glorification as it was associated with his signs and wonders, and how that glorification ultimately shifts to a deeper, more intense association with the great sign that is his death and resurrection. And there’s even more.
It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of this particular gospel passage in Christian thought. The love command that Jesus gives here – here in this crux-y place nestled between open ministry and inner revelation – this command to love, as it is expressed here, is typically understood as both the center of Jesus’ teaching and the center of Christian life. And most scholars see this very passage as pivotal to the structure and theology of John’s Gospel.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”
It’s really remarkable how this new commandment is simple enough for a toddler to memorize and appreciate, and yet it is profound enough that even the most mature believers are repeatedly embarrassed at how poorly we comprehend it and put it into practice.
“By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Interesting, too, how Jesus seems to be wanting to make matters so simple for us, by asking us to do this one and only thing – this is the only commandment in John’s gospel that Jesus explicitly identifies for his disciples and insists they keep. And yet Christians, over the centuries, have found so many other ways to identify true believers, which has gotten in the way of putting this commandment into practice – in the world and, often, even in our intimate relationships.
Jesus doesn’t talk about the importance of the Creed, or even of scripture. And yet these things have become terribly important to human begins over the years, while the one thing most important to Jesus gets lost as Christians have wrestled with power and orthodoxy.
Jesus’ way was the way of little children, not the way of learned theologians and intelligent or even questionable preachers. “Little children, I give you a new commandment…” It is not a commandment about what you believe; it’s about how you live.
Noted writer of comparative religious studies Karen Armstrong observes that in most religious traditions, faith is not about belief but about practice. “Religion,” she says, “is not about having to accept certain difficult propositions; instead, religion is about doing things that change you.” This became especially clear to her in her study of Islam. Muslims, she came to understand, are not expected to grasp a complex creedal statement. Instead, they are required to perform certain ritual actions, such as the hajj pilgrimage and the fast of Ramadan, which are designed to change them forever. Muslims are to prostrate themselves in prayer facing Mecca several times a day as an act of surrender. They are commanded to give alms to the poorer and more vulnerable among them, as a way of cultivating the kind of generous spirit that makes them want to give graciously. As God does. This, ideally, leads to personal transformation. And it’s important to realize this is not a static belief system but a dynamic process.
And so we are engaged in a process. And we may be aided in our process by intentionally recognizing the place today’s gospel holds in the course of drawing the disciples – and us, by extension – into a new regard, with a new commandment – a new regard in terms of how our external actions – open ministry – are made manifest as the outgrowth of an inner revelation – perhaps a small shift inside that produces a very productive transformation – a change in the way we think, a change that will change us forever.
Have you ever wondered whether, upon hearing Jesus’ new commandment about the way the disciples should love one another, any of them went out looking in the night for Judas in order to extend that love to him? Did anyone fear for him, miss him, or try, even after he brought soldiers to Gethsemane, to bring Judas back? To talk him out of his shame and anger – his rapidly deepening hell?
We don’t know how to answer that question. It seems, however, that no one found him. In some ways he’s still out there, wandering in the night, forsaken by every generation of disciples since that ancient Thursday, the night of the new commandment. Every time we gather for our sacred meal, we commemorate Judas and his unforgiveable behavior when we say, “On the night he was betrayed…” We speak of his sin but we do not name him. We have not searched for him, haven’t found him. His place at the table remains empty.
Some of our families, too, know the pain and shame of places at the table where no one sits anymore. We ache and sob over friendships that ended with hasty, angry words. For each of us, perhaps, at least one Judas wanders about in the night unforgiven. And from another perspective, each of us IS Judas, slipping about in shadows, unforgiven, unloved, utterly alone.
How, then, shall we love one another as the new commandment requires? Scores of theologians insist that “the very love we need if we’re to love in that way is given to us as a gift by the one who commands its practice”.
Stop right there. The very love we need is given to us as a gift from Jesus. How? What does that mean?
Our gospel lesson records Jesus’ identification of the moment of Judas’ departure into the night as the moment in which Jesus “has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him”. Let’s talk about that moment. Greater minds than mine extend the definition of glorification into and beyond this scene, making a great, beautiful, sweeping arc of the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Our Lord. But Jesus says here that it has just happened. “NOW the Son of Man has been glorified…” What just happened?
For some help here, we turn to theologian William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II. Just before Jesus utters the word “now”, we hear, “When he had gone out”, referring to Judas’ having gone into the night – the darkness. Is that the now of which he speaks? Not according to Temple. That’s not Jesus’ gift to us. It’s not about having made evil Judas leave the table. Judas leaves freely – he is not cast out by Jesus. And this new commandment, requires us to love and care for him regardless of what he did. “Love one another”, not Love one another except this one or that one.” Instead, the ‘now” Jesus speaks of refers to the moment Judas is released – the moment he is, rather gently, invited to “Do quickly what you are going to do.”
The very love we need if we’re to love in the way we have been commanded is given to us as a gift by the one who commands its practice. Jesus models for us what it means to use one’s own volition – to discern from the inside out what is required in order to give of ourselves so freely – to give graciously, as God does – in order to advance God’s favorite dream for the world, which is, apparently, love for each other in such a way as the world will know it.
Jesus models for us how to love. In many places throughout the gospels he affirms for us the ways that it’s easy. Think of him with little children who, I think, are probably the easiest to love. But this crucial moment in the unfolding of his story – this moment that resides in the transition between his ministry in the world and his tightening the focus with his nearest and dearest, zeroing in on internal revelation – this crucial moment is where he places an example of modeling what is required to be about God’s work when it is almost impossibly difficult to even imagine. Here, he shows us that we can love with God’s impossible love, we can reach deep inside of ourselves and choose to give unflinchingly, even if it means unfathomable pain. Temple puts it like this, “The Son of Man enters his own glory in the act of self-devotion – that devoted act of choice – but thereby also he gives glory to God to whom he is devoted.”
This unattainable goal is that perfection of love which Jesus himself has shown. And this new commandment, to love as he has loved, is the impossible thing, except so far as we are “in Christ”, to borrow from St. Paul.
But can love really be commanded? Love can be difficult. It’s not possible to grit the teeth and love, no matter how much we may want to. That’s because our effort is only one of the two basic elements necessary for the fulfillment of this new commandment. The other is God’s grace. Without grace, nothing is possible. The way these two come together is so important. The 3rd century writer Origen of Alexandria explains the relationship between our effort and God’s grace with a metaphor: “It’s like traveling in a sailing ship on the ocean. Our life is like a ship and we are the captain. All our skill, energy and attention are necessary in order to avoid shipwreck; for the ocean is dangerous and inattention is disastrous upon it. Our ship, however, also needs the wind. It is the wind that fills the sails and moves the ship, and when the two are weighed against each other, the skill of the captain seems very small compared with the contribution of the wind”. A ship cannot sail itself, and the wind cannot be the entire matter. Likewise, praying to God to make us love, without any other effort on our parts, will not make us any more loving. God’s grace is more like wind in a sail rather than lightning.
At the same moment he commands us to love one another, Jesus gifts the world with his own love, by giving himself – by losing himself in the community which still has its agents out looking for Judas – a community restless forever with the love of the one who gave the commandment the moment Judas left the room on a mission from which he has not returned. If you would find God in this lonely world, then be in a community that has its messengers out searching the ditches and back alleys for you and for me. There you will find the love of God and perhaps even the ability to love as God loves. In using your own volition to find God and love, we discover that little internal shift that unlocks our own fountains of love. And we give witness to what no purely verbal argument can ever accomplish: the glory of God breathing through the life of a love-centered community.