It’s the Last Supper. Jesus has just washed their feet; Judas has gone out. “And it was night,” it says. The air is heavy and electric; Jesus knows it is his last night. He begins to speak: of his glorification, of his leaving. And then of what he calls a “new commandment”: love one another. I can imagine the disciples wondering what was new about it. We will come back to this.
Tonight we begin our preaching series “Love Life”. We invite you to stay for soup and ask difficult questions. Each week we’ll be focusing on a different aspect of love. This evening: “Revelation of Love”. Jesus Christ is himself revelation: the Word of God that was God, through whom all things came to be, who was made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. The entire life of Jesus is revelation. And we think of the texts of the Bible as revelation, words written by those inspired by God.
There is a lot about love in the scriptures, of course, especially in the Gospels and the Epistles of the New Testament. And it is a core teaching of the Church that the primary revelation of God’s love is seen on the cross: “[Christ Jesus] though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” [Philippians 2:6-8]
The love of God revealed on the cross and in the Scriptures is a “many-splendored thing”, as the old song puts it, and countless volumes have been written on the subject. But I’d like to look at one particular aspect of this many-splendored thing.
We heard moments ago: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” I’ve often wondered why Jesus calls this a new commandment. As far back as Leviticus we are commanded to love our neighbor as our self and even to love the alien living among us as our self. [Leviticus 19:18, 34] Loving others was not a new idea in Jesus’ day.
But on this occasion, at this final gathering before his death, he gives the law of love a different twist. Love one another—which he says three times here for emphasis (and twice more a little later). Curiously, the Last Supper is the first and only time in John’s Gospel that Jesus speaks about the love of human beings for others.
And the way he puts it there is different from the other Gospels: the love among us is to be for one another. I think that means love is to be mutual, reciprocal. It’s good if we love someone; but love is more complete, more perfectly realized when that love is reciprocated.
This has implications for our lives. If we would love others, we must be prepared to be loved in return. If we would serve others for the sake of love, we must be prepared to be served in return. We might even rightfully expect this reciprocity, this mutuality. Of course, it’s an imperfect world—and Christ came to save us from our imperfection, our incompletion.
Jesus models reciprocal love in a dramatic way: on this occasion he washes their feet. “…whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” [ Mark 10:44-45]. It’s easy for us to think of ourselves as servants of God; it’s challenging for us to think of God as our servant. Yet, there he is: Jesus with the basin, the pitcher, the towel; and on the cross—taking the form of a slave, serving us. If, in love, we offer ourselves to God as God’s servants, we must be prepared to receive God as our servant. Peter, speaking as we might, objected–but was rebuked by Jesus.
I’ve paired this evening’s Gospel reading with one from the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is a vividly exotic, erotic foreshadowing of the revelation of love in Christ. The love in the Song of Songs is, on the face of it, between two human beings; we hear them singing back and forth to one another. He loves her; she loves him; he delights in her beauty; she delights in his beauty. It’s an attraction of mutual delight, reciprocal delight in the other.
And it’s a very subversive theological statement. Although its terms are blushingly human (God is never mentioned in the Song of Songs)—the Song has from the beginning been read as a theological statement. The euphoric love between the beautiful young woman and her handsome lover is a parable of the love of God for human beings. What is subversive about it is the mutuality, the reciprocity: the young woman and her lover are equal partners here; neither dominates the other. This vision of God, this revelation of God’s love, is subversive of the patriarchal, lightning-and-thunder-from-the-mountain-top God of earlier Israelite thinking. And it is subversive of a lot of our thinking even today.
Of course, we know that God is God and we are not. Yet the love God invites us to share with him is a personal, intimate, mutual, reciprocal tenderness of affection: “My soul clings to you, your right hand holds me fast”, we sing in Psalm 63. Mutual delight, mutual affection. And mutual servanthood. We serve God, God serves us. I love you, we say to God. I love you, God says to us. Lord, I am your servant, we say. He replies, and I am yours: I came not to be served but to serve; to serve you. The perfection of love will be realized in relationships of mutual delight, mutual affection, mutual service.
Of course, in the lives we live, we so often fall short of this reciprocity. Sometimes love is absent. Sometimes love is imbalanced, out of kilter, or disordered. Being incomplete ourselves, it is understandable that the love in our lives can be so incomplete. Sometimes sinfully incomplete. Being broken human beings, it is understandable that our love can be broken as well.
Which is why Jesus’ act of self-giving love on the cross is so important to us. We are forgiven our brokenness, our incompleteness, our sinfulness. In the eyes of God, Jesus Christ makes up for whatever is lacking in our love for one another, whatever is lacking in our love for God. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” We give our lives, our love, our very selves to him. He gives his life, his love, and his very self for us and to us.
The revelation of love is too great a thing to be put into tidy packages; so, I’ll close with questions, leaving a good many strings untied.
Why, in the Gospel of John, does Jesus wait until the Last Supper to say anything about our loving one another?
What, if anything, might his “new commandment” have to do with the sudden appearance of the mysterious figure of the Beloved Disciple? A disciple described as reclining in his bosom (translating closely)? What story has been left untold here? What personal experience might have prompted Jesus to offer this teaching on love at just this moment? [John 13:23]
How does our love “for one another”, how does mutual, reciprocal affection, delight and service draw us ever more closely into the heart of love, into the bosom of the Father (to borrow a phrase from the Prologue of John’s Gospel)? The God of whom we say in our Rule of Life: “A ceaseless interchange of mutual love unites the Father, Son and Holy Spirit…In prayer…we are caught up in the communion of the divine persons as they flow to one another in self-giving love and reciprocal joy.” [SSJE Rule of Life, Chap. 21]
And, finally, how is it that we who understand so little–how is it that we who love so feebly can dare speak, perhaps too glibly, of that which is of the very essence of God’s own being?
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