While still in the midst of Easter we are asked to look back at Jesus’ last night with his disciples, just hours before his arrest. We hear stories of people calling their loved ones in the middle of a disaster – the plane you are in is going to crash, your house has been washed away in a flood and you are floating away with it, the building you are in is burning and there is no way out. What would you say to your loved ones in a moment like that? That is what we are listening to in today’s gospel.
Time is running out. John tells us that Jesus’ closest companions have gathered for the Passover meal. Judas has just left the room and Jesus knows what he has gone to do. Jesus gathers the disciples around him and begins giving them his last instructions prior to his crucifixion. Previously he had stated that the greatest commandments in scripture were to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Now he gives them another commandment, they are to love each other as he has loved them. This was to be the defining mark of his disciples, this was how people would know that Jesus was their Lord.
The disciples were so sure that they could do as Jesus commanded yet, Jesus reminds Peter that he will deny him three times, and Philip has to ask him where he is going, because he cannot follow if he does not know where Jesus is going. They simply do not understand. Over and over Jesus reiterates. If you love me you will follow my commandments and my commandment is that you love one another not just as much as you love yourself, but as much as I love you.
So how much did Jesus love them? Jesus tells them “no one had greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for ones friends.” We tend to think of the cross in this statement, but I think there is much more to Jesus’ life than just the cross. Jesus, laid down his life the moment the angel told Mary, “Hail O blessed one” and Mary responded “Let it be unto me according to your word.” Through the Incarnation, God became man and walked among us befriending us. Jesus set aside his position of glory to be in relationship with us.
Have you ever noticed the difference between the adult that allows children to play at their feet while they continue their adult conversations and the adult that gets down on the floor and plays with the children at their own games? Jesus got down on the floor with us and was willing to play our games.
Love requires relationships. Jesus got to know people. He went to the lake front where the men were working on their boats and called them to follow him. He sat down to eat with Matthew and the other tax collectors. He stayed in the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. He went into the synagogue to teach and he ate the home of Pharisees. No one was too rich or too poor, no one was too powerful of too powerless for Jesus to give of himself.
Chick-fil-a put out a training video several years ago. I think you can still find it on YouTube. In this video, they filmed a normal day at one of their restaurants and then put captions under the picture of each person – both employees and customers that told something they were experiencing. One man’s son had recently been deployed overseas. A widow was remembering it would have been her 50th wedding anniversary that day. A single mom was struggling to make ends meet. A young woman had just been accepted into the college of her dreams. And the list goes on. I have probably seen it 10 or 15 times and still tear up when I watch it. The point of the training was to remind their employees that we all carry dreams and disappointments, joys and sorrows which we may not always share but which might affect the way we react to other people. If we remember that, and it is hard to be that aware all the time, but if we try, we just might be making a step toward loving our neighbor as Jesus loved us.
Love requires listening to people and that requires building a relationship. Trust doesn’t happen overnight and before people are willing to share what is important to them most people want to know they can trust the other person. Sometimes we have to take the first step and be willing to open the door by trusting them first.
Love requires that treat others with dignity. Jesus always asked people what they wanted and then found a way to meet their request if it was in their best interest. Giving of our time and money for homeless shelters and food banks, to aid the victims of domestic violence and natural disasters are all good things and I would not discourage you from doing them, but it is not loving one another as Jesus loved us. There is an invisible line between us and them when we provide aid out of a position of power and resources to people who have nothing, especially if all we are doing is giving money. Sometimes our “helping” hurts by destroying dignity or creating dependance. We can only love as Jesus loved when we find ways to meet people as equals in a very unequal world. I think this is what Jesus meant by the first shall be last and the last shall be first. This is what Jesus demonstrated when he got down on his knees and washed the feet of his disciples.
Sometimes people make requests of us that must be answered with a NO. When people asked for healing for themselves or a loved one, Jesus quickly granted their request, but when Peter wanted Jesus to sidestep his own death because Peter felt he needed Jesus’ presence, Jesus denounced the request for what it was, the work of the devil. Sometimes the loving thing to do requires us to walk away or denounce the request for what it is, the work of the devil. When by assisting we are enabling someone to injure themselves and or others by giving them the means to continue destructive behavior we must say NO. Sometimes saying NO is loving others as Christ loved us.
We cannot talk about love without considering the cross. I don’t believe we serve a blood thirsty God who requires a certain quantity of human flesh in order to offer forgiveness to humankind, but I do believe that through the cross God was reconciling humanity to himself. The cross was an inevitability of the life that Jesus led. Out of love for all people, Jesus openly defied the systems and authorities that had been established coming in direct conflict with both the secular and religious leaders of the time. Jesus carefully controlled the timing and method of his execution so that it provided meaning and enlightenment to those whom he loved. He related his death directly to the system that was already established, the sacrificial system, and said I love you enough to speak to you in your own language even when that language requires my death for you to get the message that God loves you and wants to be in relationship with you, that God is willing to forgive you and will rescue you if you will allow God to do so.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, love is about forgiveness. When Jesus was crucified, all the disciples abandoned him. Yet, from the cross itself he called out “Father forgive them,” asking for mercy for Jew and Gentile alike for their part in his suffering. After the resurrection, Jesus sought out the disciples and greeted them with the word, “Peace.” He offered forgiveness even before they asked for forgiveness. Forgiveness allows us to break the chain of hurt and resentment that if passed from generation to generation becomes prejudice, fear, and violence.
Loving as Christ loved is not an easy thing to do. It is guaranteed to require self-sacrifice and cause you pain, but it is what identifies us as Christians. Jesus said, “if you love me, keep my commandment – love one another as I have loved you.” Are there people we are serving without seeing them as people, without taking the time to get to know them? Are we making assumptions about other peoples needs without asking them what they would like for us to do for them? Are there broken relationships that need to be repaired? Is there someone you need to forgive or someone you need to ask to forgive you? What can we do to demonstrate the kind of love Jesus showed us to others?