A new/old commandment


Text: John 13:31-35

The writer of Ecclesiastes famously said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  And he should know.  He’s been around the sun a time or two.  He’s an old man.  He’s seen a lot of living and a lot of dying.  And, let me tell you youngsters, there’s nothing new under the sun.

Of course, one wonders what his reaction would have been had someone slipped him an i-phone which enabled him to Facetime with his cousin way out in the Judean hill country.  Does the relentless march of technological innovation qualify as something new?  Or, to stick with the perspective of Ecclesiastes, is it ultimately just more mist in the breeze of time?

What is new, at least according to Jesus in John’s gospel, is a commandment he gives his closest companions.  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

To claim love as a new commandment is borderline comical, to the point that one wonders if Jesus is speaking a bit tongue in cheek.  These words are a part of the lengthy farewell discourse, covering John chapter 13 – 17.  The end is approaching, and Jesus has some things he needs to say before he’s out.  He’s with his friends, and he has just washed their feet – their dusty dirty feet, like a servant would do.  He will go on to speak of the coming of the Holy Spirt as an Advocate, to speak of his mystical oneness with God which his companions can also experience.  He urges them to be one.

Just before this “new commandment” Judas has left the room and gone out into the night to speed along the events that lead to Jesus’ death.  Just after this new commandment Jesus tells Peter he will deny him three times.  In between betrayal and denial, Jesus speaks up.  “Hey everyone.  Brilliant idea: Love one another.”  How’s that for a new one?

If not entirely new, it’s at least a different angle on the love commandment as recorded in the other three gospels.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus addresses the question of what is the greatest commandment.  His response is to combine two commandments into one.  To love God with one’s whole being, from Deuteronomy.  And to love one’s neighbor as oneself, from Leviticus.  This is an expansive call for love, especially since in his other teachings Jesus included outsiders among neighbors, like Samaritans.

John remixes this teaching for a different emphasis.  Here the great/new/old commandment is “that you love one another.”  That’s a much smaller circle to exercise love.  Much smaller.  “One another” means the people Jesus is addressing in the moment, a pretty small group.  No need to ponder the theological dimensions of loving God.  No need to venture across the street or around the world to find a neighbor to love.  “Love one another,” as in, look around the room.  These are the people I’m asking you to love.

Sometimes, it’s easier to love the person you’re only going to see once and then move on – It’s easier to love that neighbor than one another. The very people we share life with – that small, intimate circle.

Why is it that “one another” can be one of the most challenging groups to love? Why is it we reserve some of our harshest words and most difficult behavior for the people we need most?

When our oldest girls started kindergarten, one year and then the next, we had a similar experience with both.  When they would come home after a full day at school, there were frequent meltdowns.  Like, just about every evening.  Screaming, fighting, not listening so well to us or each other.  Abbie and I started getting nervous, wondering how much this was happening at school.  Maybe we haven’t prepared them well enough for school.  Maybe our kids won’t be able to go to school.  Maybe they can’t handle it.  Oh my goodness, we must be terrible parents.

So imagine our surprise when we went to the first parent teacher conferences and had the teachers tell us that our children were well-behaved, respectful, good listeners, and got along well with their classmates.  It was Abbie who came up with the theory that still makes a lot of sense to me.  The girls would work so hard during the day to hold it all together, to be good, to follow the rules, and when they got home they needed a place to decompress from all the structure and expectations.  Like, home is the place where it’s OK to fall apart.  It’s safe to not be on your best behavior.

This flipped my view on after-school melt downs.  Yeah.  We’re providing this safe, loving environment where our kids can go out into the world, face those challenges, and then come back and, if they need to, just fall apart.  Oh my goodness, we must be amazing parents.

Because you’re either terrible or amazing in life.  There really is no in between.

In this case, “Love one another” looks pretty rowdy and not so tidy.  It sounds pretty loud.  There’s a lot of patience involved and it helps a whole lot to know what else is going on in that little person’s life for why they’re behaving the way they are.

This is not easy, but If this is what “love one another” looks like, I think we’re going to be OK.

It gets trickier when you replace the adult-child “love one another” with the adult-adult love one another.  Because by now we’re supposed to have this figured out.  No more melt downs.  No more lashing out at those you most love.  We’re all patient with each other and always assume the best when the other person gets out of line.

But we still give most of our energy to holding it together during the day outside the home.  We still need a place to fall apart.  And we tend to feel most safe doing that in the company of those we consider “one another.”  The small circle.  “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says.  “That you love one another.”

In February I attended the annual Pastors and Leaders event at AMBS, the Mennonite seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.  The speaker was Dr. David Anderson Hooker of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame – A black man speaking to a mostly white audience.  Speaking to us as white people, he asked, “Have you ever been working alongside a person of color for a justice related cause and all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, they get really angry at you, perhaps saying how you just don’t get it, or that you’re not a true ally?”  This had actually just happened to me in relation to our Sanctuary work, so I was all ears.

“How should you respond to this?” Dr Hooker asked us white folks.  “Here’s how you respond,” he said.  You say “Thank you.”  Thank you for trusting me enough to say what’s actually on your mind.  Thank you for not hiding your frustration.  Thank you for showing me what I still have to learn.”

Because it takes a level of trust and one another-ness to even make that a conversation worth beginning.  If we love each other enough to get upset with each and speak our truth, then we are approaching living life as one another.  Because if we don’t need each other to be there for us, there’s no reason to be upset when they aren’t.  But if we do, and they aren’t, it hurts.  Love for one another has a tendency to expose the ways we are falling short of that very love we profess.

This tendency for our one-another, in-the-same-room relationships be to the most difficult and strained is on full display in, of all places, the gospel of John itself.

You don’t have to read too far into John before you start picking up on this recurring reference to “The Jews.”  Chapter 1, regarding John the Baptist: “This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem.”

Chapter 2: “The Jews then said to Jesus, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’”

Chapter 3: “Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, who came to Jesus by night.”

Even our reading today from chapter 13 includes a reference: “And as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’”

Of course, the disciples and Jesus himself are also Jews.  But John, and the other gospels in their own ways, make specific reference to the Jews as if they were some kind of other group, often in intense conflict with the Jesus movement.

The reason for the intensity of the conflict is precisely because they were all part of the same family, the same household, having an intra-family squabble about how to interpret the tradition and how to move forward.

It would be like me or one of you standing up here are railing against The Mennonites.  Oh, those Mennonites are driving me crazy.  They claim to be all about peace but they can’t even work through their own differences.  They’re hypocrites.  They’re passive-aggressive.  They claim to love the Bible but they just use it as a weapon against people who don’t agree with them.  Oh, those Mennonites.

You get the idea.  If someone were to read that 2000 years later they would get the entirely wrong impression unless they realized this was a “one another” fight.  A group of people who loved each other and needed each other enough to name their frustrations and disappointments.

So we’re stuck with one side of the story in our Christian scriptures, and a legacy of antisemitism and all of the incredible un-Christ-like horrors this has brought about.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

One could argue either way whether or not this is actually a new commandment.  Whether Jesus’ addition of “just as I have loved you,” makes this something new under the sun, or not.  Just like one could argue whether our technological advances are producing newness in this world or whether we’re just concentrating and intensifying human experiences and desires that have been there since the beginning of history.

What might be new, what could produce a new thing, would be if we actually carried out the love command.

Jesus surrounds this speech with his talk of the unity he has with God, and how everything he is and has flows out of that Divine Union.  Love is God’s very nature, and when we participate in that, we participate in the love which makes all things new.

Love is the ultimate spiritual technology which brings together two formerly separate selves, and forms a bond, a union, a point of integrating connection.  And that point is an entirely new thing in this world.  It is the foundation of creativity.  It is the bedrock of becoming.  It is how God renews this world, and it starts, of all places, with one another.