By Rev. David Brinton.
John 13. 31-35
“When he had gone out.” What a curious way to begin a liturgical gospel. “When he had gone out.” The “he” of course is Judas, and the place he has gone out from is the cenacle, the upper room of the last supper, the upper room of the Institution of the Eucharist and the Washing of Feet, the upper room of the mandatum, as it came to be called in the medieval west, the Latin word bowdlerized in early English into “Maundy,” meaning commandment, the commandment Jesus gives his disciples that they should love one another as he has loved them, one of the best known sentences in all scripture. Judas goes out, we are told in the previous verse, having just received a piece of bread from Jesus. The evangelist ominously intones: “It was night.”
So, this man, the treasurer of the group, who has with the rest of them just had his feet washed by Jesus, goes out, having been told by Jesus to “do what you must do.” And it was night. He does not just go out into the absence of daylight. He goes into a realm of darkness, of the denial of God, of the denial of love, the realm of Satan. When today’s gospel says that “he went out,” there is perhaps a suggestion that the light went out in him, the light that enlightens every person, the light of his fundamental God-given humanity, a flickering light maybe, but one recognized by Jesus in him at his initial calling of Judas and re-kindled in him during their companionship on the Way.
Love one another as I have loved you. This is what Judas refuses to do. Instead the light goes out in him. Much has been written about Judas’s motivation, but John the Evangelist does not seem much interested in that. We all have backstories and mixed motives, but, whatever our histories, what do we do when he has stooped down and washed our feet, yours and mine? What do we do in the face of this humility which he calls us to imitate? It is good to come back to this moment a few weeks after Maundy Thursday, to meditate on it in the clear light of Easter. What does it mean to love others as he has loved us?
Jesus calls this a “new” commandment, but how is it new? Deep within the Hebrew tradition, enshrined in the book of Leviticus is the command to love one’s neighbour. Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus refines this love to include enemies and aliens. But here today, the teaching on love is specifically addressed to the new community of the church being formed by the return of Jesus to the Father, and he says “love as I have loved you.”
We tend to think of this love of Jesus as sacrificial love, and so it is: He loved them to the end. The next day he died for them. There is no greater love than this: than to lay one’s life down for one’s friend. The Church has a long history of martyrdom in imitation of Christ’s sacrificial love. Few of us will be called to that, but we know that we are all nevertheless called to live as if the good of the other is as desirable as our own. But how can we possibly accomplish this? To love in this way is impossible for us, and if we think it is not we are surely deceiving ourselves. Such an understanding of Christian love can become a contest within ourselves in pursuit moral achievement. Nothing could be further from the gospel.
The newness of the commandment to love one another as Jesus loves has to do with the identity of the one who issues it. When he stooped down he was God loving God in them and asking them to love God in each other. The whole of the farewell discourse on Maundy Thursday is characterized by this deep intimacy of God in Christ and Christ in God and our incorporation into that divine friendship.
The commandment to love one another originates in the very life of God who bestows his love on the Son and sends him into the world in the power of the Spirit to bestow it on us so that we might love as God does. “We love because God first loved us.” 1 John.
None of this has much to do with who we “like” or don’t like. We will all “like” some people in the church more than others and may even actively dislike some. (Religious communities are crucibles of this dynamic.) Jesus had his favourites in terms of personal friendship – John the beloved disciple, Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany. Special intimacies and friendships are hardly proscribed by this love commanded by Jesus. It is a spiritual truth that we will not be very successful in loving everyone unless we are capable of strong particular affections.
And yet overarching these particular loves and divinizing them if you like, making them holy, is the love bestowed equally to all. St Augustine described it something like this: Jesus loved each one he ever met as if there were none other in all the world to love, and he loved all as he loved each. … “and so let each of us so love the other in such a way that by this working of love we make each other the dwelling place of God.”
We are called to love as Christ loved: those who to us appear ugly, stupid, ignorant. The sick in body mind and spirit. The immoral and the cowardly and the misguided. The ones from whom we will reap no reward by loving them. The command to love in this way comes on the night of deepest treachery, the night when Judas goes into the dark to betray his friend – but the divine friend, knowing exactly what the traitor was about to do, still washed his feet and gave him a piece of bread. To love like Jesus is not an impossible demand, but a matter of accepting the gift he offers, and allowing ourselves each day to become part of his newness.