Last words, first things

If you knew this was your last week, your last day on earth, what would you tell the people you love? Would it be advice? Your hopes for them? Would it be the dreams you have? Perhaps, the gratitude and love in your heart?  What would be your last words to the ones you love? Beyond the fact we’d really not like to think about it, even if we were ready to do so, this is something difficult, daunting, and delicate.

In many of the weekday gospels of Eastertide as well as this Sunday’s gospel we are hearing Jesus’ answer to the question. Judas is on his way to betray Jesus, the countdown to the crucifixion is running, and Jesus is facing his disciples with news that will devastate them. It is not a time for parables or sermons – he goes straight to the point – just one commandment: “love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.

It wasn’t “read your Bible”, “believe all the right things”, “go to Church every Sunday”, “pray three times a day” – and don’t get me wrong these are all good and holy things – and I hope you do them. But this Christian life, distilled down and held up as Jesus’ last words to the gathered disciples, is simply “love one another.”

I am here to testify that I read the Bible, I believe, I pray three times a day and more, and I am totally in church every Sunday – heck, every day, but I do not judge myself nearly as good, as consistent, against the one commandment: love one another. There was a very memorable line from a bible commentary I read: “This new command is simple enough for a toddler to memorize and appreciate, and yet it is profound enough that the most mature believers are repeatedly embarrassed at how poorly they comprehend it and put it into practice.” (D.A. Carson) Why is that?

“When I look at my own life, it’s not too hard to name why I perpetually fail to obey Jesus’s dying wish.  Love is vulnerable-making, and I’d rather not be vulnerable.  Love requires trust, and I’m naturally suspicious. Love spills over margins and boundaries, and I feel safer and holier policing my borders.  Love takes time, effort, discipline, and transformation, and I am just so darned busy.” (D. Thomas, Journey with Jesus)

This is a command, not a suggestion, a matter of choice, a proposal, or a suggestion – a commandment. But how we love matters. Think about your own childhood. My mom absolutely commanded me to behave as if I loved my sisters and my friends: “Share your toys.” “Say sorry.”  “Don’t hit.”  “Only say nice things.”   I was obedient lad. I did those things with clenched jaw and rolling eyes. I am pretty sure that is not how Jesus loved. Behaving as though we love is easy enough (rolling eyes aside), but that “all in-deeply-engaged-generosity-from-the-heart” love – that is an all together different matter. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting.  It has been found difficult and left untried.”

So, this is the point in the homily where I can say, “What would this parish be like if we all obeyed orders, got in line, marched to Jesus’ command to love? Let us go into the world as an army of love.”  But that is not where most of us find ourselves. We are in that place where we have become experts in doing; people who have just reached the intersection where doing meets the challenge of that divine love.

We can send donations to our favorite charities, we can volunteer to feed the homeless, we can sign up to help this cause or that event – and do these good and holy things with good intention and good heart. But do we love as Jesus loved?  Do we feel a depth of compassion that’s gut-punching?  Do we experience a hunger for justice so fierce and so urgent that we rearrange our lives in order to pursue it?  Can we empathize with another to the point of a broken heart?  Do we even want to try?

In theory, “yes.” In reality… we operate out of desires for safety, a manageable life, we love within the circles of family and friendship, we love who we choose to love…. We do what we can, right?

And yet the dying wish of our Savior was to love one another. Our God is the one who calls us, first and foremost, to ensure every one of his children feels loved.  Not shamed. Not punished.  Not chastised.  Not judged. Not isolated.  But loved. “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And if we fail to do these things? Then the world won’t know what they need to know about God though the life, death and resurrection of Christ because we will not have put it on display for all the world to see. And we the people of God, the Church, will be seen as flawed and hypocritical – not as a place of holiness, healing, hospitality, and hope.

As I have loved you – at least we have a road map, a set of instructions. Do what Jesus did: “Weep with those who weep.  Laugh with those who laugh.  Touch the untouchables.  Feed the hungry.  Welcome the child.   Release the captive.  Forgive the sinner.  Confront the oppressor.  Comfort the oppressed.  Wash each other’s feet.  Hold each other close.  Tell each other the truth.  Guide each other home.” (D. Thomas, Journey with Jesus)

The French theologian Maurice Blondel offered some sage advice when he counseled believers to just do it, because the love operative in our hands reaching out in the love of Christ to others, has a way, in time, to work its way back from our hands, up our arms, into our hearts, and let us experience As I have loved you. Then we truly move towards the place where we love one another.  And then all will know that you are my disciples.

And then Jesus’ last words, enacted, reveal the Kingdom of God.


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