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Love is a Circle

(A Sermon on John 13:1-17, 31b-35)

I learned a song in church when I was a little girl, whose words are partially drawn from this gospel reading. It goes something like this:

(Sung – you can hear it here )

This is my commandment, that you love one another, that your joy may be full.

This is my commandment, that you love one another, that your joy may be full.

That your joy may be full. That your joy may be full.

This is my commandment, that you love one another, that your joy may be full.

It’s a nice little song. It’s pretty, and easy to learn, and sticks in your head so that you still remember it decades later. It’s kind of like a jingle for Christian love.

But it’s also a bit deceptive, isn’t it?

It’s not the difference between the words in today’s gospel and the words of the song that I object to – the addition of “that your joy may be full.” Jesus actually gives his disciples this commandment twice in his final teaching (once here, and once in chapter 15) – and the second time he does talk about their joy being complete. Although, not as some kind of incentive for loving each other. He says he wants HIS joy to be in them, not that they should love each other because they will get rewarded with joy.

But, be that as it may. The addition of the “joy” element is not really the aspect of the song that jarred for me as I remembered it this week, in the midst of diving into the study of John’s Last Supper account. Rather, the thing that felt false to me was the simplicity of it.

As though it were really that easy. Just “Love one another.” Just do that. It shouldn’t be too hard.

But we all know that getting close enough to love real, actual people – with their smelly feet and their equally odorous habits, and opinions, and go-to sins – is anything but simple and easy.

And if that isn’t obvious, then tonight’s story gives us plenty of evidence of just how hard this love-as-Jesus-loved-task is going to be.

The reading begins with Jesus’s knowledge of what is about to happen. “Jesus knew that his hour had come.” And even in the shadow of that knowledge… the knowledge that he was about to go through torture and death, to experience a vulnerability he had never known before… even in that knowledge he “loved (his own) to the end.”

I don’t know about you, but when I am feeling vulnerable, it’s hard to reach out in love. My instinct is for self-protection. To tense my defenses rather than opening my arms.

The only exception is with the people I KNOW I can trust. The people whom I know will have my back and fight for me. That’s the kind of love I NEED when I am vulnerable, or under attack.

But that’s NOT who Jesus had in front of him. Jesus was with his closest friends, sure, but those friends were Judas, and Peter, and the other disciples.

One was about to betray him.

One was about to deny him three times.

And the rest were about to abandon him to save themselves.

And Jesus already knew all of this. He KNEW that the people he MOST needed in his time of trial were about to fail him in massive ways. And in spite of that knowledge, he got down on the floor in front of them and he gently cared for their stinky feet.

If you’ve been to a Maundy Thursday service before, you have probably heard about how this was servant’s work: demeaning, boundary-violating, not the kind of thing the Teacher and Lord is supposed to do. Jesus was taking a position that put his followers physically and symbolically ABOVE him.

It was an act of SERVICE in the sense of SUBSERVIENCE. Not the generosity of reaching out to someone else’s need magnanimously. Not the service of a HOST. But the service of a slave. Someone whose needs were beneath the notice of those they served.

And Jesus did all this for people who were about to betray, deny, and abandon him. And he did all this when he was at his most vulnerable, facing the hardest night of his life.

In other words, he loved in a way that NONE OF US EVER COULD!

And then he says “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another…” (John 13:34), which COULD be the most disheartening words Jesus ever spoke. Because we know it’s impossible. We don’t know how to love like that. We don’t know how to get down on our knees and serve someone else’s needs when we are already at our MOST vulnerable. And we certainly don’t know how to love people who represent a threat to us.

We can love people close to us, people who aren’t that different from us, people who have proved themselves trustworthy… But we put reasonable limits on our love, because otherwise a command to love sounds like REALLY BAD NEWS! If love is our law, and love looks like such intense vulnerability, that means we HAVE to love the people we cannot imagine loving.

That means we have to love the Gun Rights fanatic brandishing an AR-15, and suggesting that the Parkland survivors deserve to be shot because they are protesting.

Or it means we have to love the Abortion Doctors that are completely cavalier about fetal pain and post-abortion trauma for mothers.

Or it means we have to love the person in the world that has personally hurt us most deeply. We have to wash the feet of the person we cannot trust.

And that’s impossible. It’s especially impossible for the people who carry the deep scars of abuse or trauma – and that impossibility is necessary. It protects them against re-victimization by abusers who are genuinely unsafe.

But, really, it’s impossible for all of us. We just don’t love that way.

And Jesus knows this. He even kinda says it in this gospel reading, right before he gives the command. He tells the disciples “Where I am going, you cannot come” (John 13:33), and I think that applies to all of it, not just the cross. There’s just no way.

But maybe when Jesus says to love “just as I have loved you” he isn’t saying: “Here’s your example. Do it just this way. That’s what I expect.” If that was the meaning of this commandment it is all law, and no gospel – it just condemns us.

But maybe he’s saying “I loved you first, so that you could receive the kind of love I want you to give.” Maybe he knows that BEING LOVED like this makes us capable of things we could NEVER do otherwise. Maybe it is the reminder of HOW we have been loved that allows us to start to learn what love is.

Religion profession William Placher writes that “love involves a willingness to put oneself at risk, and God is in fact vulnerable in love, vulnerable even to great suffering.”[1]

That is what the events of this week are all about. And the events of this week change everything. They are the heart of the gospel. They are Good news.

The only ways we can love with a vulnerability that lets go of self-protection, is by BEING loved by a vulnerable God, who shows up on the floor to wash our feet, and on the cross love us even through death.

The only way we can genuinely love someone who doesn’t deserve it is to be loved in a way we don’t deserve, and experience how that love gives us a value we can NEVER lose.

The only way we can even imagine loving our enemies is by knowing our own enemy nature – our incapacity to love as Jesus loves – and then to know that we are loved anyway.

It is by being loved that we can love. Imperfectly. But we can love. Because we are loved.

This command would be impossible if it were a one-directional arrow:

“I love you, so you must love each other in the same way.”

But instead, I think this command from Jesus describes a circle:

“I love you, so you love one another. Just as I have loved you, also should love one another…”

It’s a continual loop. Our power to love always comes from being loved by God in Christ.

So, maybe there is something that the song from my childhood got right. It’s a simple 5-line song, which means… it’s designed to be sung in a loop. Over and over again. If we change the second half of the phrase to what Jesus says in THIS reading – this is my commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you – with that change, it’s actually pretty good news. With that change, we have a description of the circle that reminds us of how we have been loved, so that we can learn how to keep the commandment to love.

(Feel free to sing along with me)

This is my commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.

This is my commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.

Just as I have loved you. Just as I have loved you.

This is my commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.

Thanks be to God.

[1] William Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God, Louisvill, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. 1994, p. xiii.

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