John 13:1-17, 31b-35
In the name of God, whose message is the same and always new. Amen.
One of the benefits I had from going to a seminary with an ecumenical student body, as opposed to a strictly denominational seminary, is that it gave me the opportunity to question my own traditions and practices as I was continuing my education. When learning with students from other traditions, it’s a lot harder to take things for granted.
A common topic of discussion was the lectionary. Students from more evangelical, or liturgically “freer” churches, would question our use of these pre-appointed readings. Doesn’t it stifle us? What if God lays it on your heart to preach about something else?
My response has always been that I like the lectionary, because it keeps me honest. If I chose the readings every week, I’d probably have a hard time not coming back again and again to the readings that I liked the most. And, if I chose the readings every week, I’d probably have a hard time not skipping the ones that challenged me; or were uncomfortable for me; or that I honestly didn’t feel like I understood. The lectionary keeps me honest. It keeps me moving around the Bible and encountering (and reencountering) thoughts and ideas and lessons that I might not come to on my own.
But I will admit that there are times when these prescribed readings do feel like a bit of a challenge. Today, for example: we read the same lessons every year on Maundy Thursday. I’ve now been ordained for nearly 13 years. In that time, I have preached a sermon on this day and on these readings every time. What could I have left to say about Maundy Thursday – about the new commandment?
But that’s just the thing: the new commandment is that we love one another. It has been two millennia since these teachings were first passed to us, and you know what? It’s still new. It’s still something that we have to strive toward. As children made in the image of the God of love – the God whose very nature and identity is love – you would think that love would be the most natural thing for us to achieve. And yet, it still takes work.
There are those who would tell you that it takes so much work for us because we are seized by the power of evil, and that that evil holds us back from embracing the love of our nature. But I think it’s something a little less pernicious. In fact, I think it’s sort of beautiful.
One of the main ways that we understand God is as the creator – the one who moved over the face of the deep and brought order out of chaos. Our understanding of God, limited though it may be, is of a God who moves – a God who makes new things and makes things new. This isn’t a God who can be contained in a sculpture, or in an altar, or even in a holy book of teachings. This is a God who is in all of those things, and so much more – so much more than we could ever imagine.
This is the God, who through Jesus – the earthly iteration of God that loved us enough to redraw the boundaries between heaven and earth – this is the God who is calling us to love one another as we have been loved. Love one another as God loves.
That’s not something we’re going to pin down very easily. This God can’t be pinned down. This God is always creating. This God is pulling us into the future, and into new ways of related to one another and to God, and into new ways of finding and expressing the love to which we’ve been called.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
It is a new commandment. Every day it’s new. Through every person we meet, it’s new. Through every interaction with the created order, it’s new. With each breath, this commandment is new. With each love, it is new again.
We could stand to hear it again. The words may be old. We may hear and reflect on them every year. We may live through them in the drama of Holy Week again and again every year. But the commandment is new. And it always will be.
This isn’t one of those things that we can perfect. Until the day we die, we will still be loving imperfectly and incompletely. But to follow Christ – through this holy journey past the cross and to the empty tomb, or through any part of our life – to follow Christ is to keep trying; to keep reaching for that perfect love.
We will glimpse it. We will feel it, fleetingly. And very often we will miss it. And we’ll come back here, and we’ll hear these words, and see the ways that Jesus lived it for us, and we’ll be empowered to keep trying again. At least until next year.
Love. Love as Christ loved. Love as Christ loved us. By this everyone will know that we are disciples of Christ – if we love one another. Amen.