John 13:31 – 35: Death and Love


A sermon preached on April 28, 2013 based upon John 13:31 – 35.254190_10151355800121370_301320964_n
When he (Judas) had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little 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.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Sometimes the Gospel of John can seem maddeningly disjointed. Take this short passage Anthony read for instance. First there is a passing reference to Judas going out from the Last Supper to betray Jesus, before moving to some highly confused words Jesus speaks about God glorifying the Son of Man, by which he means himself. From there Jesus switches topics to talk in a veiled way about his death, and that his disciples can’t come where he’s going. And then finally he talks to them about loving one another.
It all seems very disjointed, and yet as I listened to the words, the connections begin to make sense.
The theme of death which Jesus mentions briefly here is very much present in the last section of John’s Gospel in which Jesus is teaching his disciples on the night before he dies, and in a sense, it’s in the background of the entire Gospel. For instance, early on in the second chapter, when Jesus is relaxing, enjoying himself at a wedding feast in Cana, he makes veiled reference to his death. He says to his mother, “Woman, my hour has not yet come.” The hour he is referring to is the hour of his death.
It’s as if the fact of his eventual death is very much a part of everything he does.
By our way of thinking, this is pretty morbid. Why think of death if you don’t have to? As a general rule, we human beings avoid the subject as much as possible. If somebody brings the subject up, we try to change the subject. That’s what the disciples tried to do when Jesus would start talking about his death.
We tend to relate to death as though it were the big, bad “Boogie man”; the great enemy that we need to keep as far away from us as possible. Death is seen as the worst thing possible.
But it’s different with Jesus. He’s been living his life always conscious of the fact that he is moving towards his death. And he doesn’t seem to view his death as a big frightening boogie man at all. That glory he’s been talking about will be most fully revealed in the hour of his death, if we but have eyes to see it.
There was definitely sadness in that last night together regarding his impending death, but it’s not the great angst and horror that we tend to have when we contemplate the impending death of either our selves or someone we love. It is the sadness we might feel if we were saying goodbye to a loved one as that person get on a plane to go somewhere else, somewhere good and happy place. We’d be sad because we won’t seem them soon, and we’ll miss them. But we trust they’re going some place where they need to go, and we also trust that we will see them somewhere in the future, though we don’t know for sure when that will be. And we trust that the love we share will not end though we will be separated from one another.
That’s more or less how Jesus puts it: “In a little while I’ll be going away to a place where you can’t come right now. I’m going home to be with God – going back to the place I came from before I was born into this world.” Later on that night, he tells his friends not to worry, when he gets where he’s going – his Father’s house — he will make sure to prepare a room for them when it’s time for them to come as well. He tells them to trust him, and to trust God. There’s no need to be afraid.
It’s as if he’s trying to get the disciples to stop running from the boogie man. He’s not really a boogie man at all; actually death is our friend, somebody whose company we should keep throughout our lives.
That’s a really strange thought in comparison to our usual way of seeing death. We try to look younger than we are, in order to try and convince ourselves that death is still a long way off, so there’s no need to think about him. We do everything we can to extend the days we have on this earth. That’s why we hold doctors in such esteem, because they seem to have the power to keep death at bay.
Wouldn’t it be great we think if medical science could learn how to keep us alive forever?
And that’s where we delude ourselves. If we did live for ever on this earth, life would lose its splendor – its preciousness. It would become an exceedingly monotonous, tedious, shallow and superficial thing. Why do today what you can put off to till tomorrow, especially if you know there always will be a tomorrow?
There’s a gift death will give us if we let him. Death offers us the ability to see what truly matters – the things that truly do need to be done and appreciated today.
And that’s where the third seemingly disjointed thing Jesus says in this passage comes in: “Love one another,” he says.
As most of you know, when I lead a funeral or a memorial service, I take some time in telling the story, as best I can, of a person’s life. And everybody seems to really appreciate hearing the story, and I often hear people saying, “It’s too bad we didn’t get a chance to hear that story before our friend died.”
And it’s true. But part of why the person’s story becomes so poignant is that it had an end – at least an end on this earth. And something becomes clear to all of us I think when someone dies, and I always say it after I’ve eulogized the person we’re missing, and that is that life is about love — that we were put on this earth to love. And that routinely we lose track of what life is really all about — we start thinking that life is about winning, or achieving, or succeeding, or accumulating money, comforts and pleasures. But when somebody we care about dies, we suddenly realize again what we always knew deep down inside was true, and that is we are here to love one another.
Life has a way of forcing us to turn and face the big, bad boogie man, and maybe we are surprised to discover in our turning that death is actually our friend, and all the fear we’ve been carrying around was unnecessary. Death reminds us we are here to love one another.
And death allows us to see what true glory is, which is how this seemingly disjointed passage actually fits together nicely. People look for glory in all the wrong places. It’s not found in becoming the CEO, acquiring fame, becoming a superstar, accumulating power. When our eyes are opened up by death, we see that the real glory shines brightly in places we have avoided looking: in the foot washing Jesus modeled, and every human action that resembles it: simple, humble acts of service and faithfulness we do for one another, not to call attention to ourselves, but simply because the action needs to be done.
Before I came to Parsippany 24 years ago, I served a little country church in Pattenburg for 7 years. Midway through my time there a couple in their early sixties named Peyton and Marty moved out our way and began attending church. They’d lived in Randolph and been active in the Mt. Fern church, but they had moved out to the country to retire.
Shortly after they began attending, however, Marty was stunned to discover that she had a malignant tumor in her liver. She was given six months to live. The news was devastating, but it also had the effect of bringing Marty into this remarkable sense of living in the present moment. She could not take life for granted, and so she was determined to live life fully in the present. Marty didn’t start attacking a bucket list of great and wonderful things she’d never done before; instead, she began doing ordinary things with extraordinary grace.
Radiating life, her cancer went into a temporary remission. She ended up living 18 months longer than the doctors had told her she could expect. During that time she was active in all the different ways there are to be in a church: she made potato salad for church dinners and sorted clothes at the rummage sale. She attended Bible Study and prayer groups. She enjoyed a good laugh, and occasionally she cried. Although a newcomer, Marty became the person everybody felt most connected to, connecting all the different sorts of people within the church, inspiring the rest of us to become more loving towards one another as well.
I came across some words of advice written by a man who was stunned by a dear friend’s death. They are words I think any of us could write at those times when
“Anyone who walks out a door just might be walking out of your life. Forever. So pay a compliment. Say something nice you’ve been meaning to say to someone. Tell them that you think they’re a good, talented person; that you value their friendship; that you admire their ability; that they make you happy. It’s a notion that you’ll never regret.”
For those of us who are trying to take Jesus up on his offer of us to put our trust in him, the one difference we might make to this man’s words is to note that the “forever” of which he speaks refers only to this life. There’s another life beyond this life where we trust a final reunion takes place. But trusting this promise should never give us license to miss the preciousness of each moment we have to share love in this life.
And so there is a natural connection by which Jesus moves from talking of his death, to the words that follow:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. 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.”
Legend holds that that the Apostle John was the only one of the disciples to live to an old age, and that towards the end of his life, his mind became somewhat feeble. Members of the church would carry him in to the gatherings of the beloved community, and he would speak to them one simple message repeated over and over, the most important thing: “Beloved, let us love one another… Beloved, let us love one another.”
As I’ve said, there is a sense in which the truth of these words appears self-evident when we hear them mindful of our deaths. But nonetheless, even as this is true, when I try to think about what exactly is meant by “love”, I find myself becoming greatly confused.
We hear about how the Greeks have different words that we translate with the English word “love”; including “eros”, which expresses passionate, bodily love, and “philia”, which is the love of friends, and then what is considered the highest form of love, “agape”, which is God’s unconditional love. And though I might hope that a bit of agape gets expressed in my life, I know that there is no getting away from the fact that I live an embodied life, and that life would passion is dull, and that Jesus was passionate and he also called his disciples friends, and so I it all leaves me very confused.
We hear also about a distinction between “need love,” like a child has for a parent, and “gift love”, which a parent hopefully has for a child. But I know as a parent that I “need” my children, and that there are moments when my children “gift” me with love. And there really is a deep sense in which we truly do need one another in ways we are often loath to admit.
It is often asked, is love an action or is it a feeling? with the point being made that actions are ultimately what matters, and loving feelings alone aren’t worth much. But in my experience it is tough to carry out loving actions for very long without feelings of affection to motivate me. And I’m not sure I want somebody doing a lot of loving deeds on my behalf without at least eventually feeling some affection for me as well.
There’s the confusion that often occurs by the fact that we all have our preferred languages of love. Some most often express love through words of affirmation, others through acts of service, some in giving gifts, or spending quality time, or offering physical touch. And often times we misunderstand each other because we are looking for the expressions of love with which we are most comfortable, with the result being we end up disappointed and hurt.
Then there’s the whole question of when is an action truly loving vs. being “enabling” or “indulging.” When does “soft love” need to give way to “tough love”?
And so without these considerations, I often end up feeling very confused indeed. I am reminded of the old Joni Mitchell song where she starts out talking in the first verse about clouds and the various ways she’s experienced them, concluding that she really doesn’t no clouds at all, and then in the second verse she says the same thing about love. After all is said and done, she sings, “I really don’t know love at all.” I feel that way sometimes too.
It is all pretty confusing, which is why we can spend our whole life time learning how to love, and how to let ourselves be loved, with the learning process involving a continual process of getting back up again after stumblings to try again, because we never quite get it right.
But try again we must.
There’s one final question regarding what Jesus said about loving one another. He calls it a “new commandment.” What exactly is “new” about it? The golden rule had been a part of the Jewish scriptures for centuries, and it shows up in some version in pretty much all major religious traditions.
The new thing is the slight but crucial twist Jesus gives to the old rule. “Love one another,” he says, “As I have loved you.” Not as we love ourselves, because that is often the very thing we’re not very good at. Every one of us has parts of ourselves that seem pretty unlovable, and we try to avoid them the same way we try to avoid the “boogie man” death. And we end up condemning people who have the same qualities that we are fleeing from in ourselves. Every Sunday in the pastoral prayer when I pause, inviting Jesus to touch us each in that place of our deepest need – that place where we are in bondage to the powers of darkness, this is the sort of thing I’m pointing to. We are letting Jesus, who can love the seeming unlovable, to love us in those places as well, in order to bring healing to our souls.
And together we embody this love for one another.
The story is told about a lady who came to see a pastor about joining his church. She said her doctor had sent her. Recently she had a facelift and when her doctor dismissed her he gave her this advice: “My dear, I have done an extraordinary job on your face, as you can see in the mirror. I have charged you a great deal of money and you were happy to pay it. But I want to give you some free advice. Find a group of people who love God and who will love you enough to help you deal with all the negative emotions inside of you. If you don’t, you’ll be back in my office in a very short time with your face in far worse shape than before.” (from “There’s a Lot More to Health than Not Being Sick,” by Bruce Larsen.)

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