The Fifth Sunday of Easter - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 13: 31-35

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31 Therefore, when he was gone out, Jesus said, Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him.

32 If God be glorified in him, God shall also glorify him in himself, and shall straightway glorify him.

33 Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me: and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you.

34 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.

35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

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I guess we will all have had the experience at some time or another in our lives of stepping into a social situation and without anything being said we realise that we've stepped into the middle of something  - an argument perhaps,  an amorous liaison, the sharing of some confidence or a joke. 

There has been a dramatic convention since the ancient Greeks of beginning a story in the middle of events.  Horace, in his description of the ideal epic poet, said "he does not begin from the egg but always he hurries to the action and snatches the listener into the middle of events".

The passage of scripture we have just heard in the Gospel certainly began in the middle of events but you might well have missed that that was the case.  It began with the words "when he had gone out" and it's very difficult to really appreciate the context that we have been snatched into on the basis of that introduction.  It's a bit like trying to pick up a drama from the second episode.

So here is the recap of what you might have missed.  The Gospel reading is set in the upper room. Jesus had washed the disciples' feet and then foretold his betrayal.  'It will be the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish', he said.  Then he gives the bread to Judas and the scripture tells us that immediately he went out and it was night.

Our Gospel scene opens with an atmosphere of darkness.  Judas has just left the room on his way to the chief priests and Pharisees.  The words that Jesus speaks are so much more striking when we recognise this.  'Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him', he says.  Then he goes on to give his disciples his parting teaching, a new commandment - 'as I have loved you, you also should love one another', he says.  'By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another'.

At this point we need to remind ourselves of those earlier series of this drama.  In Matthew and Mark's Gospels Jesus was asked which is the greatest commandment in the law of Israel.  In his response Jesus had answered, "Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, The Lord is One; Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind", and he continued referring to what he said was a second commandment like unto it, "thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself."

In Christian tradition these has come to be known as the Great Commandment.  Jesus' response provided a summary of the spirit of the law and in his disagreements with the religious authorities we see that he taught that legalistic strictures are a perversion of the law that miss the point.  At its heart, Jesus tells us, the law is a call to loving relationships with God and with one another.

Now this New Commandment from our Gospel reading today is similar to the second part of the Great Commandment, isn't it?  The call to love one another reflects the call to love one's neighbour. It is also genuinely 'new' though, in that Jesus suggest that he is the standard for love.  Rather than love our neighbours as ourselves, Jesus asks that we love as he has loved us.  Scott Hahn, an American Roman Catholic theologian, notes that the significance of this new commandment is that we are called to divine love for one another modelled on Christ's own acts of charity.

Our immediately response might well be that this is a call to what is impossible for us. Divine love is surely beyond our comprehension, never mind our ability.  How are we to begin even to understand divine love?  Our tradition tells us that we look to the cross, that it is there that we see divine love revealed.   We can spend a lifetime reflecting on this but on the whole, this only deepens the sense of mystery, it doesn't resolve it.

In his writing C.S. Lewis provided a contrast between human and divine love that might be helpful.  He drew a distinction between what he called "need love" on the one hand and "gift love" on the other.  Need love, Lewis says, is always born of emptiness. A need lover sees in every beloved object or person a value that he or she covets to possess. Need love moves out greedily to grasp and to appropriate for itself. Lewis contends that many times when we humans say to another, "I love you," what we are really meaning is, "I need you, I want you. You have a value that I very much desire to make my own."   Gift love is utterly different. Instead of being born of emptiness or lack, this form of loving is born of fullness. The goal of gift love is to enrich and enhance the beloved rather than to extract value.

It's a useful distinction I think and perhaps we all recognise these impulses within us.  They reflect a more general tension, between that part of us that feels the necessity to secure our needs and status and the part of us that reaches out to care for that which is beyond ourselves and to trust in God's providence. 

As the First Epistle of John tells us, only by loving can we know something of God.  Love which conforms to God's standard is purged of self-seeking.  This is not a path of self-deprivation or degradation but rather a path to a fullness of life in Christ Jesus.

Helpful as they may be, words can only take us so far.  The sacraments though can take us further, making real that which they symbolise.  In Baptism we die with Christ so that we also will rise with him and today we celebrate as Ivy and Harrison have travelled through the waters of baptism and joined us in this new life.  Shortly in the Eucharist we will again share in Christ's sacrifice as we re-form his body, the church, as we receive his body and blood and pray that we may conform our lives to his will.  Thus, the Son of Man is glorified.

Jesus said- By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

All glory be to him now and to the ages of ages.

Amen.

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