For much of Eastertide we hear stories of things that happened in the time between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension – which really makes sense as we are between those two events… But the Gospel for today relates more to Holy Week, rather than in the events after Easter. It is the scripture that gives us the name Maundy Thursday... So why are we hearing it now?
The name Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin anthem that was part of the liturgy in ancient times: “Mandatum novum do vobis” which itself comes from this part of John’s Gospel. Mandatum, over time and with the gentle erosion of linguistic decay, becomes “Maundy” and then attaches to a day – Maundy Thursday. So, the day which we think Is all about Jesus washing feet is less about Jesus washing feet and more about us and how we follow Jesus.
The specific quote in the passage from John’s Gospel that we heard is “I give you a new commandment (mandatum novum do vobis), 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.” (NRSV)
Here is another translation: “Your priority from now on should be to love one another. Copy my love for you. If you love one another, people will recognize you as my followers.” (Good as New)
Of course, this is not really a new commandment… It’s not the first time Jesus has talked about the importance of love. We recall when Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, he says: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and strength;” and the second part “love your neighbor as yourself.”
This, in turn, is really a paraphrase of the ancient temple creed found in Deuteronomy. Shema yisrael: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. […] You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
God commands the faithful to take this command to heart, to teach it to the children, to recite it at home and when travelling, when you go to bed and when you arise…
You’ll notice that Shema yisrael does not contain the second part: love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus has slipped something in from somewhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures…
We tend to understand this as two great commandments, one – love the Lord your God; and the second – Love your neighbor as yourself. but we really need to understand them as different expressions of one command.
We cannot love God unless we love our neighbors. We cannot love our neighbors unless we love ourselves. We cannot love God, who we cannot see, unless we love ourselves and our neighbors who we can see. It’s tempting to think that it would be easier to love our neighbors if we couldn’t see them… but that isn’t love.
What is new in John’s Gospel is that Jesus has gone a step further from the ancient command. Jesus tells us that we are now called to love as God loves.
We are not just called to worship and love God, but to act in a Godly way. If we want to follow Jesus, then this is what we must do. This is the new commandment.
In case we have doubt about how big a deal this is, Jesus amplifies that everyone will know us by our love… This is our identity… our essence… God is love and so love is the thing that defines us as Godly.
In the history of the Christian church, we have not always been known by or for our love. The sad truth is that parts of the Christian Church have been very un-loving. It was part of the Chrisitan Church that helped invent and justify Apartheid here in South Africa. And it was part of the Christian Church that helped to justify slavery in the United States. There are too many occasions when the Christian Church has been and is on the wrong side of history.
We will be known as followers of Jesus by our love. This phrase turns around in an ominous way: If we do not love one another, then we cannot be known as followers of Jesus… as disciples… as Christians.
There is an interesting nuance between “commandment” and “mandatum” or “mandate” – and it’s a nuance that pops up in English, not in the original language.
Command is a rather broad word – it refers to a system of control. Beyond that, it can require that we must do something, or that we must not do something. A command can demand or forbid.
Mandate, in modern usage, has come to mean specifically something that we must do. Mandate is a positive word – much more specific than command which is neither positive nor negative.
So, we have a mandate… not the memory of a mandate, or the re-enactment of a mandate, or a reflection on someone else’s mandate… We have a new mandate. We are to love one another as God loves us.
Sometimes it seems that we struggle to make the Gospel as complex as we possibly can. We have ideas about what we can eat on which days, about how we should worship and pray, about how our society should be formed, about what kind of clothes we should wear, what kind of hymns to sing, what kind of politics to support…
Within our own Order we had, many years ago, a simmering spiritual debate about the nature of peanut butter… Is it a “butter” or is it a “jam” in its essence? The reason for the debate? The Order had the understanding that, during Lent, it was not good to have butter and jam on your breakfast toast. But if peanut butter was, in essence, a form of jam, then surely you could have peanut butter and jam. This was considered a spiritually important discussion and perhaps a culinary crisis as well…
The Order of the Holy Cross is not the only religious institution to engage in this sort of religious hair splitting. In the Middle Ages, theologians seem to have spent a great deal of time debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.
Missing in such discussions is love. We can make all the clever arguments about faithful living through pins and peanut butter, but Jesus is so clear – the only way to live in faith with Jesus is to love. Everything else is, to be polite, fertilizer.
The question that I started with is why the Lectionary is confronting us with this particular lesson today? Usually, we hear about the new commandment on Maundy Thursday. Here in this season where we hear about the various encounters between the risen Jesus and the always struggling disciples why this?
Some argue that if we could only hear one piece of scripture, this should be it. If we heard only one sermon, it should be about this passage of scripture. This is Jesus defining for us in clear terms what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
From a liturgical drama standpoint, crucifixion and resurrection are the peak of the Christian story, but for the humble follower of Jesus, this instruction is it. Jesus died and rose from the dead so that we could love one another as Jesus loves us.
Why hear this passage this week? I think the real question is why not every week? Every day? At every moment of our lives?
And in fact, we do hear this at all times and in all places – for this is what Jesus always says to us. We have a mandate to love one another as we are loved by God. It is the only command we need to hear – for from it proceed all good ways of living.
It is not always clear what love calls us to do. The Rev Dr Martin Luther King defined justice as the implementation of God’s love – his phrase was “Justice is God’s love in calculation.” Dr King’s understanding was that we must always be making that calculation of God’s love, and then living into it. Living in a way of justice is living in a way of love.
Can we look at the societies that we have made and say that they show, to the best of our ability, a dedication to justice? We live in a world of incredible abundance, and yet some people cannot access basic health care, some people are sent to prison for the crime of being mentally ill, where children’s entire lives are compromised because of poor nutrition and sanitation in their childhood. Is this a good calculation of God’s love?
Injustice, our failure to calculate God’s love, can take many forms. We can overwhelm ourselves at the scale of injustice in our world. But that is not Jesus’ intent. Jesus says we are to love one another. That is immediate, close to home, and personal. Loving God means loving those whom we can see. If we finish with that, then we can move on…