Sign of Discipleship — A Sermon for Easter 5C – John 13

John 13:31-35

We might be nearing the end of the Easter Season, but according to the lectionary we’re back at Maundy Thursday. We opened worship singing the ancient Easter hymn “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness” as a reminder that we’re still celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. We give voice to this celebration in the second stanza of the hymn, when we sing:

‘Tis the spring of souls today; Christ hath burst his prison, and from thee days’ sleep in death as a sun hath risen; all the winter of our sins, long and bleak is flying from his light, to whom we give laud and praise undying.  (Chalice Hymnal, 215)

Though the “sun hath risen” we need to return to the upper room where we hear a word from the Gospel of John.

Judas has just left the building following Jesus’ last meal with the disciples where he had washed the feet of his disciples, including the feet of Judas. With Judas off on his errand, Jesus is ready to offer his Farewell Discourse. He has demonstrated for them a way of being community by washing their feet. Now, he wants to give them a final word of instruction.

This Farewell Address runs through chapter 17, so we’re just getting started. Earlier in John, Jesus told the disciples that the hour in which he would be glorified had arrived (Jn 12:23), and now that word has been fulfilled. Jesus tells the remaining disciples: “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” This may sound odd at first, but in Jesus’ mind, the events that are set in motion by Judas’ act of betrayal will bring glory to God.

With this word about being glorified in the events that will follow over the next few days comes a new commandment. After Judas left the building Jesus commands them to “Love one another as I have loved you.” There’s nothing really new in the command to love one another. After all, the command to love one’s neighbor goes back to Leviticus 19. So what’s new here? Could it be the call to love one another as Christ loved them?

Here is where context comes into play. Jesus gives this command after washing the feet of the disciples and before he takes the path leading to the cross. Thomas Troeger puts it this way: “The newness is in the source that feeds this love; the humility of the Almighty as revealed through Christ’s death, the transformation of the meaning of glory from worldly renown to Godly compassion” [Feasting on the Word, p. 473].

Having heard this command, we then hear Jesus declare: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Or, as that old song many of us learned as children puts it: “They’ll know we are Christians, by our love.” It’s a great song because it’s easy to sing and easy to remember. If only it was easy to embody! Nevertheless, loving one another as Christ has loved us is the sign of discipleship.

When it comes to loving one another, Jesus’ directive first applies to the community of faith. Loving one another, as Christ has loved us, needs to be learned in the church. It’s not that we shouldn’t love those outside the church, but if we can’t love one another within the church how can we love those outside the church? It’s not always easy to love one another inside the community, and yet we’re bound together as a family.

If you watched the finale of The Big Bang Theory, you will have witnessed expressions of love on display. Hopefully, this isn’t a spoiler for you. You see Sheldon and Amy won the Nobel Prize for physics. If you know Sheldon, he can be a bit self-centered. He doesn’t understand social cues. When his friends, who have joined him for the ceremony, face a series of challenges, he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand why their concerns outweigh his moment in the sun. Leonard and Penny decide to go home in frustration, but then they decide that friendship is too important and they decide to stay, because, despite everything, they love Sheldon. Then, when Sheldon is about to give his 90-minute acceptance speech, he sees his friends who are there for him, with Penny giving him a thumbs up, and he throws the speech away and has his friends stand up one by one. He honors them for being there for him and for Amy. His last words are “I love you.” That might not exactly be what Jesus had in mind, but it is a reminder that love is learned in community. From there we can love those outside the community.

Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us. This love empowers our ability to be a welcoming community. Our inclusion statement is a reflection of that message of love. As one of the songs we sing declares: “All are welcome, friend and stranger, at the banquet of the Savior. All are welcome. All are welcome here.”   [Chalice Praise, 59]

These are good words, but they are difficult to embody. This is especially true in times like this when the rhetoric of our day can easily become hateful. It’s easy to become, to use the title of a new book by David Fitch, “the church of Us vs. Them.” It’s easy to fall into habits of raising the “bloody flag” of enemy-making. But, such is not the message of Jesus, who has shown us the way of love.

We sing: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” With this song ringing in our ears and hearts, we hear this word from 1 John:  “Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 Jn. 4:7-8). Then the letter suggests that God’s love is revealed in the cross. Since God has loved us enough to send the Son into the world to face the worst of humanity, we who follow Jesus ought to embrace that calling and have the same love for one another. As John writes: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 Jn 4:12).  So, as Ron Allen suggested to us at the Regional Assembly, Paul begged the Corinthians to be of the same mind and purpose. That purpose was to be embodied by the church becoming an eschatological community. That is, the church is called to be  a “colony of the New Age living in the present world.”

Paul and John had very different views of things, but both envisioned the church being a new kind of community. They envisioned the church as a community of love and compassion. Unfortunately, the church at Corinth and apparently the church that John addressed struggled with this calling. The same is true of the church through much of our history.  Unfortunately, we tend to embody the old age rather than the new age of God’s realm. But it’s not too late to take hold of Jesus’ calling. After all, it took twelve seasons for Sheldon to get it, but in the end, he got it!

Jesus gives us a new command: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” If you follow this command, then the world will know that we are truly disciples of Christ. This is an important calling because there is a lot of pain and suffering in our world. People could use a little love. Creation itself could use a little love.

With that calling in mind, what might the love of God revealed to us in Jesus say to us about climate change? What about the opioid epidemic? Or immigration? Or gun violence? Or racism? Sexism? Attacks on houses of worship? The exclusion of members of the LGBTQ community? And on we go? What does love have to do with all of this?

On Wednesday evening, we’ll have the opportunity to gather once again to share an Iftar meal with our friends from the Turkish American Society of Michigan. As we share in this meal of friendship and community, at a moment just shy of 9 P.M., we will help our Muslim friends bring to a close a day of fasting. Is this not an expression of the kind of love that Jesus spoke of? Is it not a challenge to those who would engage in enemy-making that involves living in an “us vs. them” relationship? Perhaps when the community sees us gathered together with our friends who are Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Unitarian, Hindu, or Buddhist, or some other faith tradition, will they not say of us, they are truly disciples of Christ?


Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Easter 5C
May 19, 2019