Loving God, Loving Each Other
John 14:1-15, May 14, 2017
Today’s lessons are strong and provocative. They are parts of the conversation—no, it’s more of a farewell discourse from Jesus to his disciples. The conversation takes place on the evening we call Maundy Thursday, also the night when Jesus was arrested and betrayed. Imagine a quiet, intimate setting; 12 people who have shared a lot of experiences together, following Jesus and observing his power, compassion and wisdom. Judas, the one who would betray Jesus, by identifying him to the authorities, had left the table when chapter 14 starts.
It’s essential to understand what Jesus is saying and to whom. Just before chapter 14 begins, Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet. He tells them that he has shown them an example of love. It’s a great example; it’s not just words…Jesus showed them love. They felt it; they experienced it. Then Jesus explained to them what he had done, saying, “…if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set an example, that you should do as I have done….I give you a new commandment, that you should love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” [John 13:14-15, 34, NRSV] That new commandment is what gives Maundy Thursday its name. “Maundy’s” root is the same as “mandatory’s.”
Jesus shows them love, because he is preparing his disciples for the quickly approaching time when he will leave them. He tells them not to worry, he reminds them that he will go ahead and prepare a place for them. The first part of Chapter 14 is often read at funerals. How comforting it is to hear Jesus’ words not to be troubled, but to trust in him. I come from a family of worriers. Worry is our gift, our strength and what comes naturally to us in most situations. Once I told my mother not to worry, and she replied, “Tell the Sun to leave the sky.” Maybe you didn’t get the reference: that’s a line from the Perry Como hit, “It’s Impossible.”
Jesus tells his disciples that they should trust him, and trust God. In fact, Jesus makes this point repeatedly, to see him is to see God the Father. Jesus and God the Father are one. To trust him, is to trust God. If you trust God, if you trust Jesus, how can you be anxious? How can you worry?
At the Continuing Education class I went to last month, we talked about anxiety. And there I found this wonderful, but challenging quote from C.S. Lewis, “Anxiety is not only a pain which we must ask God to assuage but also a weakness we must ask Him to pardon; for He’s told us to take no care for the morrow.” Did you ever think of worry as something to confess?
Jesus started reassuring his closest, dearest friends they should not worry. They should trust that he is going ahead of them to prepare a place for them. He tells them that they know the place where he’s going. But Thomas, often referred to as “Doubting Thomas,” says he doesn’t know where Jesus is going, so how can they know the way? Thomas should not be considered a doubter at this point. Thomas is an attentive student who wants to make sure he really understands. When I taught a semester at UW-O I had one international student in my class. After every class she asked me questions to be sure she understood what I was trying to teach. Her questions made me a better teacher. I think she was a lot like Thomas—and I think Thomas made Jesus a better teacher. It was in response to Thomas that we have these strong words of assurance from Jesus: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Jesus promised his disciples that he would be reunited with them, after having left them for a while. And we can only imagine what the place that Christ has prepared is like. Weren’t those pictures Suzette showed beautiful? Did they give you new ways to imagine the eternal place Christ lads us to?
In the second lesson, it is Philip who makes Jesus a better, clearer, teacher. Philip wants to see God the Father. This prods Jesus to explain that he and the Father are one and the same. To have seen Jesus is to have seen the God the Father. The Father dwells in Jesus, and Jesus in the Father.
Jesus tells Philip and the rest of the disciples that they will do the works that he has done, in fact they will do even greater works.
Then we come to this very difficult, and troubling verse: “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” This verse led to an energetic discussion around the lunch table. Doesn’t it sound like Jesus is giving his followers a blank check, unlimited wishes from Aladdin’s lamp? There is a long history of Christians raising prayers in Jesus’ name.
There is a question in The Larger Catechism in the Presbyterian Church’s Book of Confessions that speaks to exactly this issue.
What is it to pray in the name of Christ? A. To pray in the name of Christ is, in obedience to his command, and in confidence on his promises, to ask mercy for his sake; not by bare mentioning of his name; but by drawing our encouragement to pray, and our boldness, strength, and hope of acceptance in prayer, from Christ and his mediation.
[Larger Catechism Question 180]
How would it feel to pray for something sincerely in Christ’s name, and not get what you asked for? The words clearly state that your prayer will be answered. And yet we all know that this is not true. And then we start to think that maybe we didn’t phrase the prayer correctly as though we’ve entered an incorrect PIN into God’s ATM. So it’s our fault that our prayer was not answered.
I think there’s a different way to look at this sentence. Remember, this is part of Jesus’ lengthy instructions to his disciples. And the Greek “you” in this sentence is plural. So he’s addressing his disciples, those who have seen him, seen his works, seen him heal crippled people, and even seen him bring Lazarus back to life. And he’s telling them that they will not be abandoned after he leaves them. Later that evening, he promises to send them “The Advocate” also known as “The Holy Spirit.” Earlier remember he promised to give them dwellings with him and the Father.
I believe Jesus is speaking these words to those who will be the doers of God the Father and Jesus the Son’s will. He is giving his disciples this special ability because they will be his presence on earth. They will be his representatives.
And his representatives are his servants, and each other’s servants. That’s where this discourse began, not with words, but with actions. Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Jesus telling them that they had experienced loving service. And extending loving service is the way that they will demonstrate not only their love for him, but also their love for God the Father. By being obedient to the new commandment that Jesus gave them. Loving each other is how they love God. Sharing the love Christ gave to them is how they will demonstrate Christ’s profound, radical and world-changing love.
We also should be obedient to this command. Amen.