FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTERTIDE | John 13:31-35

Twisted Love

by Jeremy Berg

The Weekly Dig invites us to dig deeper into one of the lectionary texts for the week.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little 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.’ 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.” (John 13:31-35)

How can such beauty come out of a situation so ugly? How can grace withstand such a tidal wave of heartlessness? How can love flow so freely between these river banks of betrayal?

The Gospel reading this week thrusts us suddenly into the darkened Upper Room where confused disciples hang on their teacher’s every last word. Ominous feelings fill the room and haunt every heart trying to make sense of this perplexing last meal together. 

We have bread symbolizing Jesus’ soon to be broken body. A cup of a New Covenant in Jesus’ own blood. A teacher stripping down, taking the humiliating form of a slave and washing his friends feet. The most disturbing part of it all was Jesus’ words that one of them would soon betray him. 

We pick up our passage now where we read, “When he had gone out Jesus said…” Who is he? Why does this person’s going out set into motion Jesus moment of greatest glory? And where is Jesus soon to go and the disciples cannot follow? The person who went out is of course is Judas, who has gone to betray Jesus. The place Jesus is going is to the cross, and it is there in that God-forsaken place that Christ’s self-sacrificial love will be most radiantly displayed. 

Exactly when is the Son of Man (Jesus) most glorified? At moment he appears most utterly betrayed and God-forsaken. Under which particular circumstances will Jesus reflect God’s matchless splendor? The moment he chooses self-sacrificial love over self-defense, surrender to God’s plan over self-preservation. Most importantly for us today, what new commandment does Jesus give to his disciples in this climactic moment when the powers of darkness, betrayal and hatred have converged on this little flock like vultures on fresh meat?  

Before we get Jesus’ New Commandment, I wonder what some other famous teachers might command of their followers in the moment when their leader is betrayed, arrested and taken away to be unjustly executed? Buddha might have commanded the disciples to “let go” of striving for life, accept that suffering and death are merely illusory, and become one with the All through meditation. Muhammed might have commanded the disciples to take up their righteous swords and protect God’s Anointed from the Roman infidels. A current-day prosperity teacher might command the disciples to pray for Jesus’ release, and if they have enough faith and they’ll just claim their heavenly inheritance, they could all delay death and enjoy a long and healthy life under God’s blessing. America preaches our inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and commands us to stand up and fight for our rights. But not Jesus.  

As the betrayer betrays and the soldiers come looking, Jesus commands his band of disciples to “love one another.” As rage begins to surface among the eleven toward Judas—that  backstabbing, dirty scoundrel—Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Minutes before Peter cuts off a soldiers ear with a sword, Jesus tells him, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Yes, even those who betray us and unjustly punish us. 

We can all muster up some love and goodwill when the sun is shining and we are in the company of friends, or at least relatively decent folks. We prefer a kind of love that is light years removed from sacrifice and suffering. Dietrich Bonhoeffer railed against the “cheap grace” of his day, and I think we similarly need to resist the cheap self-serving sentimentality passing as love in our day. The kind of love Jesus commands of his disciples shows up where evil parades and pain plots.

Like the crown of thorns that pierced his brow, the royal love of Christ is often woven together and braided tight with thorny acts of betrayal and hate. This is the greatest scandal of the incarnation: that God’s radiant glory could be twisted up like a pastry with our human condition. The Blessed One of Heaven and Creator of Eden’s glory, steps down into the cursed landscape of Eden’s demise, taking the worst of the thorns and thistles onto his own bloody brow.

Are disciples of Jesus today identified by such twisted love—a love not afraid to move toward the hatred of the world? Do we shine the kind of Light that is not afraid of penetrating the deepest darkness, confident the darkness cannot extinguish it? Or have we twisted things up and let the church’s reputation become braided together with less Christlike traits?

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown? (Isaac Watts)

“Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person… But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8).

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