The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C, St. George’s Church, Nashville

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” (Jo. 13:34).

Every Easter Season we read from the Gospel of John: this is an ancient Church practice which is readily explicable. John’s Gospel gives us not only a narrative of events in Jesus’ life and ministry, but also provides a profound meditation on the meaning of his work. Bishop Gore once remarked that the Gospel of John was like a foreign country (William Temple, “Preface” to Readings in St. John’s Gospel); in other words, not his natural habitat but one that stretched his understanding. For me, John’s Gospel is strange in a similar way. The scenes are lit by an otherworldly glow. This Gospel invites all of us to go deeper in and further on in our understanding.

So for instance, when Jesus heals the man born blind, he tells him, “So long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (Jo. 9:5). Later Jesus expands on this when he tells the crowd, “Whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness” (Jo. 12:45-46). The miracle of healing is not just the occasion for astonishment, but an invitation to penetrate beneath the surface and to understand the significance of what Jesus has done. The blindness that Jesus is talking about is not just physical blindness but spiritual blindness. John’s Gospel makes the significance plain. Not just the significance of what Jesus has done, of course, but also the reality of who he is.

Eastertide is a time for reflection, and so we’re given John’s Gospel to allow us to go deeper in and further on in the mystery of Christ. Our reading today is a case in point. Jesus’ discourse takes place on the evening of his arrest, “on the night he was handed over to suffering and death.” The foot washing has just concluded, and Judas has just left the dinner party.

It’s at this point that Jesus says, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him” (Jo. 13:31) Just when you thought you understood what glory was all about, Jesus turns your understanding upside down. Just when you thought that glory was something bright and shiny, gleaming with the polish of success, Jesus reveals that it’s something else again.

“Now” is the key word in our reading; a crucial word so often in the Holy Scriptures, directing our attention to the moment of action. “Now” is the moment of betrayal by Judas Iscariot; “now” is the moment of arrest. “Now” is the moment where feet are washed and the true nature of ministry and leadership is revealed as humble service. “Now” is the moment of execution, where the glory of God in Jesus Christ is revealed. Indeed, this is a foreign country, where ancient wisdom is displayed and life comes out of death.

It’s in this “now” that Jesus gives a new commandment: that we love each other as he has loved us. There are a few things to be said here. First, this is a new commandment, in the sense that it goes with the new covenant in Christ’s blood. Remember, this is the “night he was handed over to suffering and death,” the evening of the institution of the Eucharist. Commandment and covenant: these are words that speak of commitment and community, of the shared meal of the Church. Love in the sense of commandment and covenant is not something we’re asked to “whip up” by ourselves, a heightened emotional state, or the product of moral exhortation. There is commitment here, and a community dimension, that is absent from most of our modern talk about love.

Second, this is “mutual love.” Unlike the commandment to love God and to love the neighbor as oneself, picked up by Jesus from the Old Testament and found in the other Gospels, here we have a command to mutual love, to intimacy and (again) to community. Mutual love requires community and creates community; mutual love is not something we can practice on our own because there would be no mutuality! Jesus calls us “little children” here (Jo. 13:33): a reminder that if we are God’s children we are Jesus’ brothers and sisters, and brothers and sisters to each other. This is why Iscariot’s betrayal, playing in the background of our reading, is so striking and disturbing.

Finally, this love has its origin with Jesus, “as I have loved you,” (Jo. 13:34) as it says. Again, we cannot whip this up for ourselves. It’s not so much a case of following the example of Jesus’ love (there’s that moral exhortation) as it is sharing the love that we ourselves have been given. In other words, we’re not called to observe what Jesus does but to receive what he gives us. The latter requires that we actually encounter Jesus’ love for us, ourselves: a matter of the heart, not the head; an existential reality, as the philosophers might say.

This is the deeper in and further on that the Church invites us to this Easter Season. Our confirmands today are showing us the way we must travel. This morning a goodly number of people at St. George’s Church are reaffirming their baptismal vows and receiving the laying on of hands, traveling deeper in and further on in life in Christ. We too have that opportunity, each and every day. The Easter season heightens our expectation and furthers our reflection, as we live the risen life of Jesus Christ our Lord.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee