“I give you a new commandment that you love one another.“ When harvested from Scripture, this short story can look like a nice, quotable moment that belongs in a Hallmark card. “I give you a new commandment that you love one another,” written in the clouds over a beautiful spring meadow. But have we forgotten what Jesus said just before that? “Little Children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’” This has to be one of the saddest moments in all of Scripture. Not only because the disciples are losing their foundation, their guide, the one they dropped everything for, but because nothing is working out right and this is one more thread that is beginning to unravel.
If we put this story back in its proper place within the gospel narrative, we can see that things are beginning to get messy. It is the night before Jesus’ death. Jesus and the disciples are all gathered in the upper room. Their stomachs are still full and their feet are still damp from Jesus feeding and bathing them. Just minutes earlier, Jesus whispered something to Judas, causing him to jump up and rush out of the room, slamming the door on his way out. You know that feeling. It is when you are together with a group of friends, everyone is having a great time. And then suddenly, something bubbles up from the murmur of people, and the next thing you hear is, “FINE! If it’s going to be that way, then I am leaving!” The persons storms out, slams the door and…..silence. What…just….happened? the disciples think, as they look across the table at one another. They didn’t know it yet, but Judas had just left to blow the whistle on this whole charade. To turn Jesus in to the authorities, which will lead to his death. And then the text reads, “And it was night.” Darkness in the sky and darkness in the room. Things have begun to break down and crack. It is getting messy in here. Breaking the silence, Jesus takes a deep breath and says, “The Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once” -which is just another way of Jesus saying, “The stage has been set. I can’t go back now. I know how this is going to end. Friends, it won’t be much longer until I’m gone. And when I go, you cannot come with me.”
This has to be one of the saddest moments in Scripture because so many people know this moment. These are the words of a parent leaving for Afghanistan, “Honey, mommy has to leave now. And you cannot come with me.” These are the words of a spouse, in the end stages of terminal cancer, “My love, I have to go. And you have to stay.” The disciples’ leader is leaving them and they haven’t a clue of what to do. There is no time to ask all the questions that they still have; no time to absorb the wisdom that seems to emanate out from his body. Their Messiah, the one they’ve waited for to change the world, is leaving and yet nothing seems to have changed at all. The Romans are still in charge, the Jews are still oppressed. This Messiah whom they’ve waited for to lead them into battle, to bring down the Empire, has no sword to wield and will soon tell others to put away their swords. Everything is unraveling. It is getting messy. Judas has run out on the group, and now Jesus is saying he will soon be leaving them too. It won’t be long before Peter runs away from Jesus and the group, denying that he ever knew them, and soon enough there will only be seven left, having nothing else to do but climb back into their boats to go fishing.
But it is at this point, when everything is falling apart, that Jesus gives them his farewell speech. For four chapters, Jesus gives the remaining disciples everything they need to hold themselves together. And the summary of what he said comes right at the beginning. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love on another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus goes on to say that for those who keep this word, those who love one another, he and God will come and make a home with them. (John 14:23) “I am going away,” he said…”and I am coming to make my home in you.”
Like the disciples, we seem to be standing in a world that is coming apart at the seams. We are building walls and fences to isolate ourselves from ones we say are alien. Disasters of all kinds seem to be taking the lives of people young and old from all over the world – Haiti, Chile, West Virginia. And all the while countless others are facing their own personal disasters of losing their job, watching the fire fade from their marriage, and dreaming of the child that just won’t seem to come. And sometimes it seems like God has simply gotten up and left this place, unwilling to take us along.
All of this pain we too often keep bottled up. Just the other day, I was working at Community Emergency Services, our local food shelf. I was meeting with a woman, who has 8 children. So, naturally, I said to her, “Wow, eight children!” and just as I said that, her little six-year old chimed in, saying, “There used to be nine, her name was…” and before you knew it, that mother’s hand was over her daughter’s mouth. “We don’t need to talk about that here,” she said. We don’t need to talk about that here. How deeply hidden we keep our pain, no wonder God seems so absent.
But like the disciples, in the midst of an unraveling world, Jesus offers us a new picture of where God might be abiding. “I am going away,” Jesus says, “But I give you this new commandment to love one another as I have loved you. And if you do this, God and I will make a home in you.” God will not come with power and might to blow our enemies out of the water. God will not reach down to protect us from harm while leaving others exposed to danger. But God promises to make a home in those who make themselves vulnerable in love. When everything else is falling apart, love is the only thread that will hold us together.
So if you are looking for God, try the places where love burns bright. I don’t mean that overly sentimental, I-love-you-because-everything-is-great-today type love that often melts away. I mean love that journeys together through darkness in search of light.
Just last week, I heard a story that depicted this love. As some of you know, a group of Luther Seminary students were on a trip to Haiti when the earthquake struck in January. Before the earthquake happened, the students said that they were awed by how the people of Haiti love one another. They said that when you drive down the street and you see someone you know, you don’t simply give a wave. Rather you stop, get out of your car, greet and hug that person. And this group said that their driver knew everybody. When they met the principal of a school in Haiti, over and over he hugged these strangers from the United States and told them that he loved them. Love is just swirling around this place.
And then the earthquake hit.
At first there was just silence, and then there were screams and yelling. But within minutes, minutes, of the earthquake striking, this group said that they could hear praise erupting out of the communities nearby. Praise that they had survived, praise that things were not worse than they were. The guides of this group even said to the students, “You are our family now. We don’t know where our family is and if they are okay, but you are our family now. We must care for one another.” Now, don’t misunderstand, this did not mean that there was no agony or grief over the dead and destroyed. One man collapsed into the arms of a student, because grief had hit him so hard and there was nothing more he could do but be held up by another human being. But what is apparent is that despite a weak economy and infrastructure, this Haitian community is held together by love. A love that journeys through the darkness in search of light that is worthy of praise.
If you are looking for God, try those places where love burns bright. God has promised to make a home in those who show love towards one another. But the truth of the matter is that God has made a home in all of us. And if you put your hand over your chest, you just might feel that place where God abides thumping inside you. Divine love was placed in our hearts the moment God gathered us mud creatures up from the ground and breathed life into us (Thomas Troeger, “Keeping in touch with God” from Purposes of Preaching, p. 123). You can no more remove God from where God has decided to be than you can remove your own beating heart from your body. God has made a home in all of us and Jesus is simply trying to convince us that it is safe to unlock the door and let that love out. “I give to you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you.” When love is released, we can see that God has not up and left us, but that God so loves the world that God has placed God’s self within the world, like a light ready to scatter the darkness. Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” And then he says, “I am coming to make a home in you,” which means you are now the bearer of that light. You are the light of the world. Go, and open your hearts to being loved and to loving one another as you have been loved. In doing so, others might see that they too are bearers of such light, and might begin to poke their own holes into the darkness (Robert Louis Stevenson). AMEN