6th May 2007

The Reverend John Miles Evans

St. John the Baptist, Sanbornville

Judas had left them. With Judas gone, Jesus was now alone with the still faithful eleven. The betrayer had taken himself out of this fellowship. This small but critical detail of Judas’ leave-taking is the key the understanding everything that follows. It is only the intimate family now, and it is to the “family” to whom Jesus turns. And thus he begins the difficult task of saying goodbye to those he loved most of all. This portion of John’s gospel is John’s gospel is commonly called the “Farewell Discourse.”

The “new commandment” Jesus gives them is to “love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Now, what is new about this commandment? The Old Testament, as Jesus himself once summarized it, plainly requires us to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” What is new is that Jesus’ links our obligation to love each other to his own example of total self-sacrificing love on the cross. This gives the commandment a new dimension. We are to follow him, and to love as he loved us. We are to love each other for the other’s sake -- a love that goes beyond treating the other as we would like to be treated -- for the focus now is not on ourselves at all but totally on the other and the other’s needs. It is a servant love that Jesus is enjoining upon us whom he will soon no longer call his “servants” but his “friends.”

Later on in the Farewell Discourse, John will have Jesus enact the new commandment by washing his disciples’ feet. I don’t know how you kept Maundy Thursday here. At All Hallows’, my former parish, I always shed my stole and donned a white apron and proceeded to wash the feet of several parishioners. I have always been struck by the intensity and power of that symbolic action to convey the depth and intimacy of God’s love for us as it was enfleshed and manifested in his Son Jesus. As he washed the disciples’ feet, so Jesus then bids them to “wash each other’s feet.” The foot-washing is often referred to as the Mandatum, which is simply the Latin word for “commandment” and the root of our Maundy Thursday. What we have in the enacted parable of the foot-washing is a dramatized version of Jesus’ new commandment “to love one another … as I have loved you.” Have you noticed that unlike the synoptic gospel writers (Matthew, Mark and Luke), John’s gospel is not linear but cyclic. John circles his themes like a bird-of-prey after its object, banking and turning, the circles sometimes getting smaller as if to form a vortex, then expanding again in an ever-widening gyre. And love, Christian love, is one of those favorite themes of Johns’ around which his gospel circles again and again. This will be the cement -- this Christian love -- this will be the cement which will hold the family of believers together. The locus of this love, for John, is not to be found in the world out there, but in the Church, within the community of the faithful, within God’s “family.”

In my former parish, I saw this kind of love all the time. I saw it in the couple who would always squeeze hands at the rail before they made their communions. I saw it in the way the young were nurtured and encouraged. I saw it in the mother at the rail with her infant draped over one arm and her other two little ones kneeling beside her. I saw it in the way the sick and the elderly and infirm were supported by the parish’s concern and by prayer. I saw it in the way that parish responded to the urgent need of one parishioner for a safe and watertight place to live. I saw it in how the parishioners responded to the need of another family desperate for some cheer at Christmastime. I heard it in one father’s explanation to his two-year old son who had asked why I had laid a hand on him in blessing him at the rail. “It was because he loves you,” the father said. “Because he loves you.” That explanation went to the heart of what it is we are about as Christians. A theologian could not have put it half so well as this young father.

Although I do not know you, I suspect that the same kind of loving goes on routinely in this place, too. Your Senior Warden certainly gets it. When I stopped here on Friday to check out the driving time and to scope out the building, I picked up a copy of your parish newsletter, The Bidding Bell. Joe Fluet had occasion to address the meaning of “fellowship” in his “Warden’s Corner” article. I don’t want to embarrass him, but I think his definition of “fellowship” is worth lifting up: “… fellowship implies much more than hanging out with each other,” Joe wrote. “It means we like to work together, play together, pray together, and help each other out; and, all of it is done in a spirit of love, community, friendship, and fun.” “Sounds a lot like family, doesn’t it,” Joe continued. “In fact, St. John’s is our church home, and our fellow parishioners are our church family. When Sue expressed gratitude to one of the folks helping her move, he said, “Forget it. That’s what family does.” “Forget it. That’s what family does.”

Of course, it has to be said, too, that we Christians can fail more often than we succeed at this business of loving one another. That is just the sad reality of our lives -- that we can never live up completely to our identity as Jesus’ “friends” and members of his “family.” But having glimpsed intimations of what Christian love can be, we press on. St. Francis de Sale’s seemingly paradoxical answer to the question “How does one learn to love?” is, in reality, sound, practical advice for our journey: “You begin by loving,” he said, “and you go on loving and loving teaches you how to love. And the more you love, the more you learn to love.” Amen.

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