Of a new commandment and its challenge

(Sermon delivered at Sugar Grove Presbyterian Church in Morgantown, WV, on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017.)

Text Exodus 12: 1-14, John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

“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 that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”The Upper Room

Tonight, we are gathered together as a family, just as Jesus and his disciples were all those years ago, getting ready for a meal. But it’s different, they were in the Upper Room, away from the crowd — perhaps even trying to stay hidden from the authorities, or if not hidden, at least out of the way.

Here, however, we are not in hiding. We are together with “our people,” our friends, family, those with whom we gather every week. And together with our Christian sisters and brothers around the world who are doing the same this evening. We, too, are preparing for a meal – a meal that re-enacts that one of so long ago. But if a stranger came to the door, we would welcome them in. Wouldn’t we?

It had been a tumultuous week in Jerusalem, and things were happening behind the scenes, everyone was on edge. Jesus knew it, he was getting ready. And that’s where we find ourselves tonight.

There is an unbreakable link between the two passages we read this evening. There’s the obvious one: As good Jews, Jesus and the disciples were celebrating Passover as they had been instructed to in Exodus.

The Passover meal – the Seder – is a cornerstone of Jewish tradition, commemorating the preparation for the flight from Egypt. They are to prepare themselves, both nutritionally and otherwise to step out into a new life, one which God had laid out for them, one in which God would take care of them – even if they didn’t realize it yet.

It’s clear from the text also that the community, and taking care of the community, was integral to that preparation. It didn’t matter if you were a large family, or a small family, if you were a rich family or a poor family, you were all supposed to work together to see that all were fed, that all were taken care of, before beginning the journey.

And you were to be ready to get on the move immediately.

The telling of the Last Supper takes this as a starting point, and adds significant layers to it.

Let’s take the foot-washing, for example. It is Jesus, the Lord and Master – not a slave – who washes the feet. Does that make you uncomfortable? It does me. (And I’ll tell you a little secret, I’ve never taken part in a foot-washing service, and I can’t imagine that I will. It’s just too, too, well, TOO!)

But that’s the point, isn’t it? “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me,” Jesus told Peter. When you perceive our faith as I do – and that is from an understanding that salvation and faith are not ours to decide on or win – this becomes yet another signal that it’s not our actions, but “washing” by Jesus that makes us “clean,” even if we resist.

And then there is the matter of Judas.

We want to paint Judas as the villain. indeed a colleague and I were talking yesterday about names – mine, obviously, is John, his is David. We both alluded to the Biblical grounding of those names, especially during this particular week. And I said something like “you know, I’ve never heard of anyone named Judas.” I’m sure there must be, but I’ve never heard it.

Why, because “Judas” has come to symbolize betrayal, treachery, any and everything bad. There is, however, one line of speculation that theorizes that Judas was just trying to get Jesus to act, and that he thought that if Jesus was confronted with arrest and torture and death, that he would bring God’s armies to bear against the Romans. I’m not sure I buy that, but in the end it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter because Jesus knew what was happening, but Judas was at the dinner.

Jesus knew what was happening, but Judas got his feet washed.

Jesus knew what was happening, but did nothing to restrain Judas or prevent his betrayal.

And the lesson for us: take care of all, even if you think they are evil people.

“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 that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

That’s so hard today – well, it’s always been hard, I suspect, but seems even moreso today. Our society is so fractured, that there are those who can hardly stand to be in the same room – or on the same planet – with those whom they disagree.

A colleague of mine is very active in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and she just returned from a national meeting. We were commiserating the other day about the divisions in the world, and she told me at her meeting she had learned of one pastor who had turned down a call to a new church because “there were too many Republicans in the congregation.” To me, that is sad commentary.

Another story from her meeting is that one congregation accused a pastor of deliberately choosing a piece of scripture to preach from so he could attack Donald Trump. Of course the scripture was the lectionary reading assigned for the day decades ago, but no matter – they were convinced the pastor had searched for that particular text as a pretext to attack Trump.

Republicans hate Democrats; Democrats hate Republicans; Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists. Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists. Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z, Baby Boomers, “the greatest generation.” East Coast, West Coast. North, South. Black, white, brown, yellow, red. Mountaineers, Panthers. We could go on and on and on. God help us.

“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 that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And to me, we should also listen to what this “new commandment” leaves unsaid. It doesn’t command us to be “lovable,” just that we love.

There’s a story that has become a legend in our immediate family. It stems from when we were living in Dallas, Texas, and drove downtown every Sunday to attend First Presbyterian Church of Dallas.

It was around Christmas, and as we started to church that Sunday, we came upon a car parked in a parking lot with its hood up, car parts strewn about the ground, and a sign saying, “Trying to make it to Denver for Christmas.”

Now I confess that I don’t often respond to those kinds of, shall we say “opportunities,” but this time I did, and pulled up into the parking lot, reaching for my wallet as I did.

From the back seat came the voice of an adolescent boy saying, “Don’t do it, Dad, it’s just a scam.” But I did, giving them some amount of money – recollections of the amount vary, but it was something like $20.

And we went on our way.

Then a couple of Sundays later, as we were again headed to church, several miles further down the road there it was: the same car. Hood up. Same car parts scattered around. Same sign.

This time, the voice from the back seat said, “See, I told you so, Dad.”

As I struggled to figure out what to say to maintain my parental superiority, this is what I came up with, guided no doubt by the Holy Spirit: “It doesn’t matter what they do. It matters what you do.”

“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 that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

As Christ was partaking of his last meal, communing with his closest friends in a room somewhere in Jerusalem, he knew what was ahead. He knew he would be betrayed. He knew he would be abandoned by those very friends, even Peter – the rock upon whom he would build his church. He knew that he was going to be killed in the most brutal and painful and public way possible.

He knew.

And yet, he fed, he washed, he blessed.

“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 that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

To God alone be the glory, amen.

Let us pray, good and gracious God, help us to hear and respond to the words of your Son, however imperfectly we may do so. Help us to overcome the evil of hate, so that we may love one another, as we have been commanded. In the name of your Son, Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

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