On the 5th Sunday of Easter, the Revised Common Lectionary stays in John, taking a leap forward (and, if you think about it, backward too) into Holy Week. The text is John 13:31-35.
On Maundy Thursday, if you remember, we heard this and an earlier portion from the same chapter (John 13:1-17, 31b-35). (And if your church is full of genuine keeners, on Wednesday of Holy week you heard the bit that Maundy Thursday leaves out: John 13:21-32).
Of course the text is John because Luke has run short on resurrection appearances, and John is always the fall back. But why this particular Maundy Thursday passage?
My guess: At week 5 of Easter we are getting close to the Ascension — just a week and a half to go. And this passage of John alludes to the Ascension:
…I say to you,
‘Where I am going,
you cannot come.’” (John 13:33 NRSV)
But that’s just my guess.
It’s a short passage, but an important one — so important, I suppose, that the creators of the lectionary didn’t want to let people miss it just because they didn’t show up for a Maundy Thursday service.
The muddle of glorification.
It is almost all one speech by Jesus. But it doesn’t start on the clearest note:
When he had gone out…” (John 13:31 NRSV)
That’s kind of an abrupt entry to set the context.
Um… who is “he” here?
“He” is Judas, actually. John has just told us that Satan has entered into Judas, and he’s gone out (with Jesus’ apparent approval) to betray his Lord and friend.
Then Jesus’ speech begins:
Now the Son of Man has been glorified,
and God has been glorified in him.
If God has been glorified in him,
God will also glorify him in himself
and will glorify him at once. ” (John 13:31-32 NRSV)
Actually that doesn’t make it that much clearer.
What is the “now” by which Jesus “has been glorified”?
- Is it about the big turning point of Holy week itself? He has “now” finished all the regular ministry that he will do before the Cross and Resurrection — he “has been glorified” in three years of healing and teaching and feeding and welcoming. That makes some intuitive sense.
- Or is it about what has just happened? Jesus has just “now” been betrayed by a friend, which will lead him to the Cross — and by this betrayal he “has been glorified.” That’s paradoxical, mysterious.
Personally, though, I favor the second, and more mysterious answer.
It is easy to see the point of the other part of the speech, about what is still coming. Jesus will be glorified in the Resurrection, or the Ascension that follows 40 days later — all these things still to come by which
God will also glorify him in himself…at once” (John 13:32 NRSV)
But God’s glory is not only what we see as shiny and happy. God’s glory is shown in all the ways Jesus’ life shows the truth of who God is — sometimes in shadowy mystery.
- Christ, by taking the form of a servant on Maundy Thursday, revealed God’s nature as humble love — and so in washing their feet Christ was glorified.
- Christ, by choosing to suffer death on a cross on Good Friday, revealed God’s nature as extreme love — and so in dying to save humanity Christ was glorified.
- And Christ, by submitting himself to the grim realities of human friendship, including abandonment, denial, and even betrayal, revealed God’s nature as realistic love for human beings.
So, in being betrayed by Judas after supper, Christ was glorified.
He went the full distance in loving us. And every step of the journey revealed God’s true nature. As John put it earlier in the chapter, as an introduction to both Jesus’ washing of their feet, and Judas’ betrayal of his friend,
Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1 NRSV)
God is glorified in both the bold act of humble service, and the secret act of painful endurance — all those things reveal the true steadfast love of the Lord — which, as the Psalmist says repeatedly, endures forever (cf. Psalm 136).
And then we come to the part I wrote of at the beginning: Jesus alludes to his eventual ascension, or possibly to his coming death:
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.’” (John 13:33 NRSV)
He knows they will face the overwhelming confusion of grief. He’ll be dead and in the tomb, down harrowing hades, then eventually going to sit at his Father’s right hand in glory.
But they will be here on earth, stuck in the hell which is waiting for a loved one who is simply gone.
Perhaps thinking it will be a healthy way to refocus their attention as they move through their grief, he gives them a plan. It comes in the form of a commandment. They already know the Ten Commandments, as well as the other laws of the Hebrew Bible, from childhood.
But now he gives them one of his own:
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)
A command to love is still nothing new. They had all heard the way Jesus summarized all the commands in two, loving God and loving neighbor.
Jesus’ NEW thing was giving them a measure for the love they are to show each other. Jesus’ own love was to be the measure.
- They will need to feed, and heal, and welcome one another.
- They will need humbly serve one another, even washing each other’s feet.
- They will need to steadfastly endure one another, even when one who claims to be a friend betrays them.
That’s a high bar. But that new commandment is what Maundy Thursday was all about. The “Maundy” comes from the Latin word for coMANDment.
And that is what was so important that the lectionary included it again on the 5th Sunday of Easter.
Historically it has been a very important command. Lord knows, people in churches do pretty awful things to each other sometimes. If Jesus hadn’t told us to lovingly endure them no one would bother.
But Jesus said this radical love would be the marker of the Christians — the way the real ones could be identified.
And there are notable examples of this working very well for evangelism.
Take one Pachomius (c. 292–348) for example.
He was an Egyptian kid who got drafted into the army. The army kept their reluctant recruits in a prison, lest they run back home.
Conditions in a Roman prison were not so great. Pachomius and the others were hungry.
But then some people came by with food. They cared for these young men in their plight.
Pachomius asked who they were. It turns out they were Christians. They took it upon themselves to love these military prisoners, to feed them because they were hungry.
Pachomius was impressed. He asked more questions. He was converted. When he got out of his military service he joined the early monks, the Desert Fathers.
But Pachomius had a new idea for monastic life: He thought they would do better in their life of prayer if they lived together in loving community. So he started the first monastery, taking on the administrative responsibility, freeing the others for prayer.
Thousands joined the movement — some 7000 according to his early biographer. Think of that impact: A leader able to convince 7000 people to give up all to serve Christ. He created a form of Christian community that lives on 1500 years later.
The monks came to think of him as their spiritual father. They called him “Abba” or “Abbot.”
History came to think of him as the father of communal monasticism, We call him “St. Pachomius.”
All because some Christians took Jesus seriously when he said to love as he had loved them.
Who knows? It might still work today.
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