In our reading from John on Maundy Thursday, we heard Jesus’ giving the disciples a new commandment—that they should love one another. He said to them: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Those words of instruction come just a couple of hours before the beginning of the drama we heard unfold tonight. His words about love linger in the air as the disciples head out across the Kidron Valley. They make their way to that garden that Jesus would often frequent with them, a place to bring them both solitude and respite. I’m sure in the quiet of that setting, they turn the words of Jesus’ last teaching over and over in their minds. “Love one another as I have loved you.”
And then just like that their solitude is obliterated; Judas comes leading a band of men carrying torches and clubs in order to arrest Jesus. In the ensuing exchange between Jesus and those sent to capture him, Peter gets twitchy and starts swinging his sword. He lops off the ear of the servant of the high priest—a man named Malchus—and it’s clear Simon Peter hasn’t grasped those instructive last words of Jesus after all. “Put away your sword,” Jesus tells him, as the guards come in with shackles to lead Jesus away. “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. I’m to drink the cup my Father has placed before me.”
Love one another as I have loved you. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Peter, like most of us, seems to think that the idea of love is all good and fine until actual conflict comes, and then we should come out with words—or weapons—flying. But in those times I imagine Jesus looking at us and saying, “Knock it off. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. Rather, love one another.” And we stare back a bit dumbfounded thinking we deserve to use force as we look after what is ours, no matter the cost to others.
And so we try to shoehorn the characteristic desires of earthly kingdoms into our understanding Jesus’ kingdom. In the kingdoms of the world, power and might is right. The leaders grab for more control and resources regardless of the impact on other people. Taking off someone’s ear, separating loved ones, pushing away the disadvantaged, ignoring the truth is all just par for the course. But Jesus is very clear to Pilate—and to all of us who hear his words—that his kingdom isn’t like that at all. It isn’t based on the desire to seize power at all costs. His kingdom is not of this world; it is founded on something else.
By the time they get to the foot of the cross, the few there begin to see the difference between Jesus’ kingdom of love and the empire’s kingdom of might at all costs. If you follow the way of love, you will likely get strung up.
Wanting to help them understand tangibly what this way of love looks like, Jesus—through the agony of his ordeal—looks down from that cross, and on seeing his mother and that beloved disciple there speaks. “Woman,” he says, behold your son.” Shifting his gaze to the young man, he says, “Behold your mother.” And John tells us that from that day on this young man cared for this woman who was not his mother as if she in fact was.
Theologian Leonora Tubbs Tisdale suggests that “this act signifies more than [just] that of a dutiful son caring for his mother at his death…. In this simple act, Jesus… sows the seeds of the new community to come. [A community] in which family is redefined in ways that are not restricted to blood kin, and in which members of that family are called to be responsible caretakers of each other.”
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
On the last day of his earthly life, Jesus describes in many different ways what he—and, by extension, what the God of the Universe—desires for us: to fully embrace a compassionate love toward the entire world. He shows us again and again that we are members of that new community of love. A community where we care for one another even at—and especially at—the times when we face our most pronounced grief. As his followers, we must always choose love. Even when the powers that be laugh in our faces, telling us that love will never work as they pull out more weapons. Even when we believe that the only way forward is to choose violence. Jesus’ words and teaching, his actions and his miracles, all point to the simple truth that we—as ones who have been called and have chosen to follow him—are commanded to love. Always. Without exception.
Just as he did when he followed the path set before him all the way to that cross. He told them: “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That great love calls us to live more and more into his community where we are known by the love we share with each other and with the world. May that love of Jesus and of one another hold and sustain us during the Good Fridays of our lives, trusting that no matter what may come our way, God will not give up on us. Because it is only through the power of love that we will fully experience even the slightest hope of resurrection. Amen.