Monday, May 16, 2022

A New Commandment


John 13:31-35

Easter 5 / Year C

Reflecting on the passage we just heard, Debie Thomas, a writer and Christian educator, asks “If you knew you were about to die, what would you tell the people you love?  What cherished hope or dream would you share?  What last, urgent piece of advice would you offer?”  I suspect it is a question for which most of us do not have an answer and this is probably OK.  But based on this reading, clearly it is something Jesus pondered for some time. 

The lesson takes us back to Holy Week, to Maundy Thursday.  Jesus is sharing his last meal with his followers.  He has washed their feet.  He has shared bread and wine and identified it with his Body and Blood.  Judas has departed.  Jesus is only hours away from being arrested.  What does he want to say to those he has journeyed with and taught for the last three years?

“I have a new commandment for you,” he tells them (the word Maundy is derived from the Latin word for commandment).  How weighty will it be?  Will it become the 11th Commandment?  Will it be added to the summery of the Law – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul and love your neighbor as yourself?  Will it be merely ceremonial; perhaps a new way to say grace before a meal?

The command is this: In the manner in which Jesus has loved us, we are to love one another.  It is simple enough for a child to remember, but it is incredibly difficult to put into practice, isn’t it.  It is aspirational by nature, something you aim for but don’t always achieve.  Had Jesus commanded us not to eat chocolate it would be difficult, but measurable.  Either you snuck a piece of candy or you didn’t.  But this is different.  It requires us to discern how Jesus would act in any given situation and then to act in this way ourselves. 

In a recent interview, Marjorie Taylor Greene, congresswoman from Georgia, asserted Satan is controlling the church because Christian groups are providing aid to undocumented immigrants.  “Yes, we are supposed to love one another,” she said, “but their definition of what love one another means, it means destroying our laws.”  So, if we are going to love as Jesus loves us, we must decide which Jesus values more – human compassion or good citizenship.  We are not always going to agree on the answer. 

A month ago I loaned my lawnmower to Kevin, one of the people who comes to my front door and asks for money.  This is maybe the fourth time he has asked to borrow it because someone has offered to pay him to cut their grass.  The other times he brought the mower back within an hour or so.  Not this time.  I have seen him twice around town since then and confronted him both times.  Each time he told me he would go get my mower and bring it back right away.  He followed through neither time.  On Friday I gave up and bought a new mower.

I wonder what it looks like for me to love Kevin the way Jesus loves me.  Should I hold him accountable and file a police report?  Should I forgive him and tell him to keep the mower (assuming he didn’t sell it or wreck it)?  Would loving as Jesus loves me require me to lend my new mower to Kevin should he ask to borrow it?  Should I pat myself on the back for loaning it to him in the first place and tell myself I have already done what Jesus asks me to do?  Again, the answers are not easy because Jesus’ command is more aspirational than achievable.

Surely Jesus said a lot and did a lot to help us determine what his love looks like.  The parable of the Good Samaritan who crosses cultural boundaries and defies accepted norms to assist a stranger in need has something to say about churches offering aid to undocumented immigrants.  Jesus told his followers if someone takes your coat, offer him your shirt; a teaching I would rather not ponder too much when it comes to my mower.

Just after Jesus issues his new commandment he provides an important qualifier.  We are to love each other in such a way that all people will know we are his disciples.  This means, compared to a typical person, something should look and feel different about how we treat other people.  People should look at us and how we act and be able to say, “There is a Godly man.  There is a Godly woman.”

Earlier this year I was tasked with writing a courtesy resolution for Sam Webster who was stepping down from the position of Diocesan Chancellor after years of service.  I talked with a colleague to get some background information and she said, “If Sam said it, you knew it was right.  If Sam did it, you knew it was ethical.”  She could just as easily have said Sam went about his work as a lawyer in a way everyone knew he was a follower of Jesus. 

It is not about wearing a Jesus t-shirt or ball cap.  It has everything with how you conduct yourself and how you treat other people.  If a person cannot look at you and your actions and know you are one of Jesus’ followers, then you are not keeping his command to love as he loves.  It like the old joke about the state trooper who pulls over an angry, aggressive driver.  “Based on all the Jesus bumper stickers on your car,” the trooper says to the driver, “I assumed the car was stolen.”

So this morning we hear the final words Jesus shares with his followers.  This alone should get our attention.  It is a ‘Whatever you do, don’t sell the farm’ moment.  This is the thing which matters most to Jesus: Love one another as I have loved you.