1 John 1:5-2:2; John 13:21-38

2nd Sunday of Lent

St Barbara’s 25.02.2024

Rev Tulo Raistrick

There are times when politicians raise expectations. They announce a brand new policy, only for it to sound exactly like the old one. Or they announce extra billions of new funding for the NHS, only for it to transpire that this is the same funding they promised a few months earlier. What was portrayed as new, is in fact old. The same kind of thing can happen in sport. A new manager takes over a struggling football team, and announces a new philosophy, a new culture of playing, only for the team to continue playing the same way as before. We can feel somewhat underwhelmed.

The disciples may have felt similarly when Jesus spoke of a “new commandment”. As we saw last week, Jesus was having a special meal with his disciples the night before he knew he would die, and he had already set the tone with his remarkable act of washing their feet. So having spoken of God glorifying him and he glorifying the Father, expectations may have been high that the new commandment he was about to share would be earth-shattering, totally new, radical and revolutionary.

But instead the new commandment sounds very much like an old commandment. “Love one another”, they may have thought, sounded very much like the old commandment in the Old Testament, in Leviticus: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. And if they had read and travelled more widely than first century Jewish fisherman would have been likely to have done, thy would have come across other moral and legal codes that said similar: “Treat others as you would have them treat you” was a familiar ethical and moral idiom of the day.

But to have reached such a conclusion would have been to miss five crucial words, five words that make all the difference: “As I have loved you, you are to love one another.” Those five crucial words point us to the motivation, the means and the model for how we are to love. We don’t love out of self-interest – if I scratch their back, they’ll scratch mine – but out of thanksgiving to a God who loves us so much that how can we do anything else but to share the overflow of the abundance of his love with others. How do we find it within us to love like that? By the same spirit that dwells in Christ dwelling in us, empowering us, encouraging us, giving us the courage and persistence to love when it is so hard. And what is our example, our model of love to follow? Christ’s own example – “as I have loved you”.

This is a genuinely new, radical, revolutionary way of living in the world, and even in our reading today, we see it outworked in Jesus’ relationships with three of his disciples.

Let’s start with Judas. Some people are natural “huggers”; others, myself included, tend to be a little more reserved in our physical affection. But there have been a few times in the last few months when a hug has been far more articulate than any words I could have said. When our oldest son failed his driving test, the best way of communicating love and acceptance was by a long hug. When I said goodbye to my father, after a particularly special visit, we had a long hug. And when I completed a pilgrimage with a close friend, we hugged before we went our separate ways. Those hugs expressed a closeness, a shared experience, an acceptance that words alone may have struggled to convey.

When Jesus dipped his bread in the dish and passed it to Judas, it was the equivalent of a long hug. It was the middle eastern sign of special friendship; of love, affection, closeness, compassion. This is how Jesus feels about Judas, even knowing that he is about to go out and betray him, an act that will lead him to crucifixion and death. Betrayal by those we love is the most painful betrayal of all. We are told that Jesus was deeply disturbed, the same word that was used about his grief over Lazarus, and yet Jesus loves through the pain. He continues to see Judas’ humanity, continues to see him as a friend worth loving. That is what love “as I have loved you” looks like.

It is also a love, remarkably, that does not compel. It does not force. Amidst the overflowing abundance of Christ’s love, Judas still has the capacity to choose – to accept or reject. We are to love others even when it feels like they don’t deserve it, and we are to love others even when there is a strong possibility that they will reject it. That is hard, but it is the way that Christ loves us.

We see what it means for Christ to love us in the way he treats Peter too. Here is Peter declaring that he is willing to lay down his life, to die, on behalf of Jesus. They are bold words, words that speak of love and commitment, but as Jesus knows, words that also lack substance. Peter is not yet ready to make the sacrifice he so confidently asserts he will make. He has still not fully grasped who Jesus is and so when the rubber hits the road, when the reality of making good on his promise becomes real, he backs away, and as Jesus predicts, he betrays Jesus three times in the high priest’s courtyard.

For Jesus’ love is not just for people who reject him, like Judas. It is also for people who let him down, who can’t carry through with their promises, like Peter. There is never the slightest doubt of Jesus’ ongoing love for Peter, despite the fact that Peter’s words must have been painful to hear. We may all face disappointments with people in our lives too, times when promises or bold assertions that they make turn out to be hollow, when they fail to follow through with something that was important to us. Loving those who fail us, those who let us down, can be incredibly difficult. The temptation is to live with bitterness and resentment.

But the example of Jesus calls us to a different way. Jesus spoke words of truth to Peter – he did call him out – but within the context of an unshakeable love for him. Who do we know who has caused us pain, who has let us down? Can we love them as Jesus has loved us?

And the third of the disciples we encounter in today’s reading is simply known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. This is the disciple who in the next few hours will be at the foot of the cross and be entrusted with caring for Jesus’ mother; the disciple who will outrun Peter to the empty tomb; the one who will recognise the risen Jesus when the disciples are out fishing on Lake Galilee; the one who is the source for all the stories in John’s gospel. It is this last piece of information, tucked away at the back of John’s gospel, that leads many people to think that this disciple was John himself.

And given the dating of when John’s gospel was written, that suggests that John himself was pretty young at this time, perhaps not yet twenty. Of all the disciples, he may perhaps have been the most vulnerable, the one in need of most looking after. No wonder on the cross that Jesus not only asks John to look after Mary, but Mary to become his mother, to look after him.

For this is the sign of divine love too. Not that we simply love those similar to us, but that we love those more vulnerable than us. Christ, in torment on the cross, still looked out to those who were vulnerable and in need. To love as Christ loved us is to do likewise.

Three disciples, so different, and yet each loved profoundly by Christ. In that love, we see what it means to “love as he loved us” – to love those who reject us, those who let us down, those who are vulnerable. That is not an easy task, and perhaps one that is beyond us. And so Jesus will continue to teach his disciples over these final few hours that he will give them the gift of his Holy Spirit, to enable and empower them to love as he loves us.

Well, we will hear more about that next week. But today, let us focus on that new commandment Jesus gives us: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”