Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 24, 2016
John 13:31-35 Commentary
If your son was in a bad car accident and spent weeks in critical condition in the hospital’s ICU with machines keeping him alive, then upon his full recovery and on the day he comes home from the hospital, wouldn’t it feel a bit odd to not celebrate his homecoming in favor of a long rehashing of the darkest days of his being hooked up to a ventilator?
Or, a joyous birthday party is no time to regale one another with stories about the worst things ever experienced by the person being celebrated.
Or, a 50th wedding anniversary dinner is no time to tell the gathered children and grandchildren about the time 23 years earlier when old Mom and Dad came within a whisker of divorcing each other.
So as we are in the blessed Season of Eastertide, why does the Lectionary do something similar by whisking us back up to the darkest night of Jesus’ life? Why bring us back to the scene where Judas has just now left (or fled) the room and where Jesus will momentarily (though this lection does not extend this far) predict Peter’s threefold denial? Aren’t there happier things for us to consider during Eastertide?
But there we have it.
Yet perhaps upon reflection this is not so odd after all. Indeed, it may even be curiously apt.
Consider: Our celebration of Easter is properly enhanced, and our joy refined and deepened, when we can nestle the good news of Christ’s resurrection in its proper context of sacrifice, suffering, and all that went into the paradoxical way by which Christ was “glorified,” which was death on the cross. So even on this side of the Easter Season, we do well to remember the darkness against which the light of Easter shines all the more brightly.
Fleming Rutledge has this just right in her new book The Crucifixion. “The crucifixion is the touchstone of Christian authenticity, the unique feature by which everything else, including the resurrection, is given its true significance. The resurrection is not a set piece. It is not an isolated demonstration of divine dazzlement. It is not to be detached from its abhorrent first act. The resurrection is, precisely, the vindication of a man who was crucified. Without the cross at the center of Christian proclamation, the Jesus story can be treated as just another story about a charismatic spiritual figure. It is the crucifixion that marks out Christianity as something definitively different in the history of religion. It is in the crucifixion that the nature of God is truly revealed” (p. 44). We cannot get at the glory of Eastertide with remembering what happened first, in other words. Going back to John 13 fits in Eastertide for this very reason.
Consider: Jesus told the disciples in that upper room that love for one another was the truest mark of being a disciple of Jesus. Who knows how the disciples heard those words on that particular Passover night. But now that they (and we) have been to the cross, the acoustics have changed. Now when we hear Jesus tell us to love one another as he has loved us (pay attention to that tiny word “as” here—a devastating little verbal particle if ever there were one!), those words echo in our minds in new ways when we hear them alongside Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross.
Consider: Jesus was preparing the disciples for his absence in these words of John 13. But as the Church prepares to mark again the Ascension of Christ in a couple of weeks, we no less than the disciples recognize that we must get used to the physical absence of the Savior. Indeed, people will “look” for Jesus as Jesus himself says in verse 33 but they won’t find him except for the Christ Jesus that others can see in us and in the Church when we love one another as our Lord loved us.
Consider: Jesus’ words in verse 31 about his now being glorified are properly odd-sounding considering what had just happened in the fact that Judas had fled the upper room to go forward with his dirty business. How strange that upon predicting his betrayal and upon seeing his betrayer exit the room that Jesus feels somehow “glorified.” No mother would claim that her parenthood had been fulfilled upon seeing her son get arrested for cocaine possession. No politician would declare victory upon seeing his country attacked by terrorists. Yet Jesus sees the specter of betrayal and loss and diminishment and so much else that is dire and yet feels glorified.
Even in the glow of Eastertide we in the Church do well to remember what the true nature of glory is for us. We in the Church are not “glorified” when we amass political clout, business influence, or power and glitz as the world reckons those things. The nature of our glory lies elsewhere in sacrificial love, in service, and, yes, even in laying down our lives for the sake of the kingdom if it comes to that.
So is it odd to return to the upper room a month after Easter? No. If anything, it may actually turn out to be oddly appropriate!
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
How was it that Jesus was, from the looks of it, all-but fully glorified at that precise moment in the upper room? He’s a little ways off from the actual cross yet. He’s surely a few days out from the full glory of the resurrection. So how can, as Jesus says in verse 32, he be glorified “at once”? Frederick Dale Bruner once pointed out that the verb for “glorified” used in verse 31 is a prophetic past tense, which refers to an utterly sure event. It may qualify as something of a mystery as to how this can be so. Could it be that Jesus was already then so fully coming under the shadow of the cross that the glorification of the Son through suffering and sacrifice really was well underway? Something like that seems very probable.
There’s also an irony there: the disciples saw no glory. Indeed, had they understood (and in verse 30 John tells us they did NOT understand) the meaning behind what had just transpired between Jesus and Judas (and what Judas’ hasty retreat really meant, therefore), then they would have been that-much-less likely to perceive even a glimmer of glory for Jesus. They may have seen clouds of foreboding and gloom and other portents of evil but glory? Not by a long shot.
Yet there it is.
But their lack of understanding as to the nature of the glory to which Jesus referred meant that they very likely misunderstood also the nature of the love about which Jesus subsequently spoke and recommended to them. This lection stops short of it, but Peter’s subsequent desire to keep on following Jesus—and not have Jesus go to a place where Peter could not follow—reveals Peter’s own desire to keep on showing love to Jesus. But what he does not know is that the love Jesus recommends is a love that sucks the life right out of you. True, Peter says that he will lay down his life for Jesus (see verse 37) but you get the feeling he’s speaking metaphorically. Or maybe he means he’d like to lay down his life for Jesus but he’d just as soon not have this laying-down-of-life thing become a habit (much less the entire pattern for all of life!).
In verse 34 Jesus says “As I have loved you, love one another.” The little word “as” packs a punch in this context. The Greek word is kathos and seems to carry with it (according to F. Dale Bruner) the idea that the love that must fill the hearts and lives of the disciples is not merely a love that imitates Christ but that actually wells up from the overflow of Christ’s actual love. The love of Christ himself needs to be IN you if you are going to live off its riches. This love is so novel, so powerful, so utterly mind-blowing that it’s not something you could ever concoct on your own. It has to be given to you as a gift.
Theologian Laura Smit sometime says that so often when people—sometimes even when theologians—talk about the characteristics of God, we think that it’s enough to understand what we’re talking about if we take a human concept like goodness and, when applying it to God, just make it bigger. We are good but God is GOOOOOOD. We think that if we can just put an exponent on human goodness and thus magnify/multiply our human conception of goodness, we will approach something of what it means to understand God’s goodness. But what if divine goodness is not just a really big version of human goodness but is actually something that, while bearing some resemblance to human goodness, is finally a trait with a wholly different quality altogether?
That seems to be what Jesus is saying about love in John 13. The kind of love Jesus wants us to display to the world is not just a souped-up version of human love but a love that is of a different kind, of a different quality, altogether. If so, then this love needs to be placed into us by Christ himself (and by grace alone) so that at least something of this extraordinary, amazingly sacrificial love really will grow in us and in the church.
But given that this is an Easter lection, we ought not be surprised to discover that the love Jesus recommended just prior to his death and resurrection is something that can come to us only from the outside and by an act of divine grace. Maybe the problem we have in the Church altogether too often is not that we cannot generate the kinds of cozy feelings and warm fuzzies for one another that the world associates with what it means to be a “loving community” but more that we have not allowed our union with Christ to thicken enough as to allow a wholly new kind of self-forgetting, sacrificial love to engulf us.
Put it this way: if our churches are lacking in love, is it because WE are not trying hard enough or because Christ is not sufficiently present among us?
Some years back neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a fascinating vignette of an intriguing neurological difficulty. Tourette’s Syndrome is a mental disorder that causes victims to have any number of physical and verbal tics. Some Tourettic people have constant facial twitches, others find themselves uncontrollably uttering verbal whoops, beeps, and sometimes also raunchy swear words. One man with Tourette’s whom Dr. Sacks knew was given to deep, lunging bows toward the ground, a few verbal shouts, and also an obsessive-compulsive adjusting and readjusting of his glasses. This goes on constantly and non-stop for people with Tourette’s.
The kicker is that the latter man is a skilled surgeon! Somehow and for some unknown reason, when he dons mask and gown and enters the operating room, all of his tics disappear for the duration of the surgery. He loses himself in that role and he does so totally. When the surgery is finished, he returns to his odd quirks of glasses adjustment, shouts, and bows.
Sacks did not make any spiritual comments on this, yet I find this doctor a very intriguing example of what it can mean to “lose yourself” in a role. There really can be a great transformation of your life when you are focused on just one thing–focused to the point that bad traits disappear even as the performing of normal tasks becomes all the more meaningful and remarkable.
Something like that is our Christian goal as we travel with Jesus. Our desire is to love one another—to love the whole world finally, I suppose—as Jesus loved us. To do that, we need an infusion of a kind of love that does not arise naturally from the context of the world as we know it. So as we lose ourselves in Jesus and in being his disciples, we find even our ordinary day-to-day activities infused with deep meaning as a love from another place fills our hearts. Because if sacredness happens to us at all, it happens among the pots and pans of the everyday and not just on Sundays when we feel particularly jolted by worship or on Tuesdays when we volunteer for some service project (vital though those things are, too). If we are to love as Jesus loved us, this becomes for us a daily reality that is possible if and only when the love of Christ fills us to the brim.
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