Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 15, 2022
John 13:31-35 Commentary
God glories in every act of love. We know this already about God’s own acts, but we might forget how it applies to our acts of love as well.
The opening of the lectionary passage immediately follows the reveal of Judas—who is entered by Satan—as Jesus’ betrayer (it’s Judas who is referred to as leaving in verse 31). Then Jesus says, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified…” because the final events of his big glorification on the cross are set in motion, the final turn to the cross has concretely been laid, and God’s sacrificial love is—and will be—on full display.
Even with all that is to come, Jesus calmly and gently stays present with his disciples. This too is an act of love, a scene where God’s glory is on full display. As part of his glorification process, Jesus has a gentle reminder for all of his disciples: they are caught up in his glorification if they love one another. If they love one another, they will not only be like him, they will know him and his glory even while he is apart from them.
In the verses that follow, at least one of his disciples will wonder why they cannot follow him where he is going. It is understandable, since they love him, and are like “little children.” Who hasn’t heard a kid ask why they can’t tag along? The disciples have been literally following Jesus everywhere he has gone for the last three years, but now they won’t be following??? For any number of reasons, I’m not surprised that they focus on this aspect of Jesus’ words.
But it does make me wonder about how much love already permeated that space and their existence simply because of Jesus’ presence in their midst… If, by being with Jesus, love is the air you breathe, you may not wonder as much about how you’re going to be able to keep on loving: it’s simply a matter of breathing and therefore existing. This is not to say that it was a constant reality for the disciples or that they did it perfectly. But perhaps this was one of those holy kairos moments, where knowledge and experience come together in profound ways and the truth of God is revealed in some special sense of love.
Biblically and theologically speaking, to be in the presence of God is to be in the presence of love. And Jesus says here that the best way for his followers to join in his glory is to love. As explained in the textual point below, Jesus doesn’t actually command his disciples to love. Jesus explains, reminds, prods them to consider their reality: knowing that you are loved by God will be seen in your ability to love others. In fact, love will be the defining characteristic of those who are called by God’s name, the Christ. Being known for love isn’t just about pleasing God, it’s about making him known in the world, manifesting truth, aligning and agreeing in word and deed with ultimate reality.
I must confess that my thinking about this has most recently been shaped by a seventeenth-century Puritan named Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680). (If you’ve read my sermon commentaries for a while you might recall that I’m currently in the midst of researching Goodwin’s theology and spirituality.) As a Reformed thinker, Goodwin staunchly believed that salvation by grace alone meant that we did not do acts of love in order to earn God’s love, but that they were our response to God’s love first. As the apostle Paul says about the fruit of the Spirit, there are no laws about certain ways of being because they are given to us by the Holy Spirit…
The particular part of Goodwin’s thought that helps me understand what Jesus is telling his followers (which includes you and me) about love comes from Goodwin’s teachings about how God is preparing us for heaven—which is another way we participate in the glorification of Jesus Christ. Heaven isn’t just a place for Goodwin (and most orthodox Christian belief): heaven is being fully in God’s presence. In essence, heaven is God. Goodwin always prioritizes the persons of the Trinity, so heaven isn’t just a space but is best known through the persons of the Godhead who fill it.
Now, Scripture proclaims boldly: God is love. Therefore, heaven is full of love because it is the very presence of the God who is love. When Jesus was walking around on earth, God was made incarnate, and so was pure, beautiful, love. Earth was/is in the presence of divine love simply by existing. Every act of God is an act of love. And every act of God glorifies God—both to God and to God’s creation. Love, above all else, is the identity marker for God and God’s people; love glorifies God.
Or, in the words of Thomas Goodwin, love is God’s delight. God delights to love us, and God delights in our love for one another. Delight may be an easier entry for people seeking to understand what it means for Jesus to be glorified by his death and for his disciples to join in his glorification with their lifestyles. God delights when our lives share his love because it shows that we trust God’s love to be enough, we relish his love and he relishes us relishing his love.
In fact, Goodwin and other Puritans like him, believed that if we took the time to reflect on how we know (experientially, truly) the love of God, we would “relish” them in such a way that they would provide “new and fresh sweetness” which would then propel us to “abound in love, knowledge, [and] with all sense” be able “to discern and judge aright of things that differ (as matters of doctrine controverted, cases of conscience, and also of ways that are more excellent in religion)…” In other words, we would be able to set aside differences and love God, ourselves, and one another, and all of these would be transformed into acts of God’s grace. By doing so, Goodwin went on to say, we increase Christ’s honour and the Father’s joyful delight in heaven! “You will add to Christ’s joy, whose joy is yet full; and to be sure yours, which is imperfect, will be made full by it.”
In essence, glorification is an act of filling, or becoming heavy with the presence of God, of love. When I seek your good, and when you seek mine, we go from skimming on the edges of God’s glory to entering into that heavy, overwhelming, space of love. We cause God to delight when we do like he is. It’s an important reminder and warning for us as a community of faith, that how we do proclaims who God is…
We honour (another way of thinking of glorification), all of the loving things God has done for us when we love one another.
In verses 34 and 35, Jesus uses present subjunctive verbs to describe his disciples’ loving disposition. In other words, he doesn’t use the imperative (even though he says it is a “new command”), but describes a reality that they can continue to perpetuate among themselves. Key to this reality, is this: Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you also should…” As Dale Bruner explains in his commentary, Jesus doesn’t expect his disciples to start or gain love; Jesus expects them to continue in a love they already have in him. Things stop being demands when they are simply part of who we are.
Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945) was a Russian Orthodox nun who was also part of the French Resistance during WWII where she helped Jews after the German occupation began. Skobtsova died in March 1945 in the gas chambers at the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Her goal in life was to do as Jesus said in our passage: to love.
In “The Mysticism of Human Communion” Mother Maria describes the “job” of loving one another as not really a job at all when it comes from loving and being loved by God. Using Eastern Christian Church imagery and ideas, Skobtsova describes each human being as an icon. (Broadly understood, an icon is a painting that guides focus and attention to Christ as we don’t just look at it, but through it.) To Mother Maria, every human being helps us to “sense the whole world as one church, adorned with icons that should be venerated, that should be honored and loved, because these icons are true images of God that have the holiness of the Living God upon them.”
Mother Maria then goes on to inspire from the Orthodox church’s worship liturgy: “The church liturgy and the words spoken in it give us the key for understanding this notion. We hear: ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess…’ And further on ‘Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.’ These ‘others’ whom we love with one mind in the church also work with us outside the church, rejoicing, suffering, living. And these who are His and of Him, offering unto Him on behalf of all and for all, are indeed ‘all,’ that is, all possible encounters on our way, are people sent to us by God. The wall of the church did not separate some small flock from them all… The liturgy outside the church is our sacrificial ministry in the church of the world, adorned with living icons of God, our common ministry, an all-human sacrificial offering of love, the great act of our [union with Jesus Christ], the united prayerful breath of our [union with the Holy Spirit]. In this liturgical communion with people, we partake of a communion with God, we really become one flock and one Shepherd, one body, of which the inalienable head is Christ.”
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