Some times, even for someone who’s been doing it for over thirty-nine years, reading the Bible can be like being ambushed by a Grizzly Bear. I’m not talking about some passage that is one of those “Why did God put *that* in there?” problem passages that folks sometimes use as an excuse to toss the whole thing. I’m talking instead about a passage that seemed harmless, beneficial, worthy of engraving on one’s church altar or at least on a Christian t-shirt.
And then, in the midst of reading it for the fiftieth, or perhaps five hundredth, time it reaches out with claws of conviction and rips the heart right out of your chest. Tears fill your eyes. Because suddenly you get it, get it in a way that all but throws you to the floor on your face.
I’ve been teaching a class on the book of John. And as we approached Chapter 13, certainly one of my favorite chapters in the entire New Testament, I wasn’t expecting any great revelations. Thirty nine years, remember. I know this one well. There it was… Jesus undressing and wrapping himself in a towel, kneeling before the disciples (even Judas), and washing their feet. Peter protesting, as usual not understanding his Master at all, and Jesus warning him. Then comes the revelation of betrayal, again not understood by the others, and Judas exits into the metaphorical and actual night. Jesus talks about his glorification, and — more disturbingly — about his having to leave the disciples. And then I read these familiar words:
“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.”
It did not happen immediately. But I stopped, skittish, sensing vaguely the Bear’s presence. I remembered something. There was a problem with this verse, the first part in particular. “Why is this a new commandment?” That had always bugged me, especially after studying the Old Testament some and realizing that though there’s a lot of rough stuff regarding a God of war, there’s also a lot about a God of Love. “Love one another.” I mean, in Luke Jesus quotes not one but two Old Testament Scriptures in his summation of the two great commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 just in case you don’t believe me.
So, like many other Scriptures that I don’t understand and have put on my personal “Patiently waiting for illumination on this one, Daddy” shelf, I prepared to put Jesus’ “New Commandment” verse back up there. And then I read it one last time…. and the Bear’s claws ripped into my heart.
“Love one another…. Just as I have loved you.”
The tears welled in my eyes and the Presence, the undeniable Presence of the Holy, surrounded and invaded me, wounding me. Oh, I understood now. It was that second phrase that made it truly a NEW commandment, a terrible commandment. I don’t want that, Lord, not crucifixion. Not the tears you’d already wept at Lazarus’ grave. Not the tears you’d not yet wept in the Garden of Gethsemane as you faced your absolutely solitary sacrifice with no one to comfort you. John is relentless in his telling. You are spared no indiginity. You wash the disciples’ feet — even and perhaps especially the feet of your betrayer, the very feet that would carry him to those who would insure your torture and death. You say to your disciples at that moment, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” And if the story had ended there, before that terrible New Commandment, I’d have been able to fake my way along. Washing feet is okay if there are others to see my piety and turn public humiliation into my private pride. “How spiritual I am.” But the wound of those words, “Just as I have loved you.” No quarter is given.
And I see clearly that your glorification comes precisely through your utter selflessness, your desire only to love, and love, and love, and love, a terrible outpouring to which you command me to follow as an example. This, I cannot fake.
I think about everything I and the students have read in John about you, seen you do, your six miraculous signs (and the seventh and greatest still to be done on that Easter Sunday morning), your love poured out before the religious powers and their response of derision growing to alarm growing to hate growing to plotting your death. And I wonder… do I really take seriously those words of that New Commandment? I cannot do it, Lord… I mean, I take it seriously. But I cannot perform it. I cannot love as you love.
I once again read the words. “Love one another. Just as I have loved you.”
And I remember your promise to send the Holy Spirit. I remember my sisters and brothers, my dearest heart-sister wife standing bravely and strongly next to me. Unlike you, Dear Master, I am not alone. I am not abandoned. I am not forsaken. You will love for me. You love through me. And when I fail, as I will most certainly fail, Jesus is again the answer — as John writes in his first letter to the churches: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Oh, Jesus, my heart is hurt by this needful but terrible Word of Yours. But I remember now just how I love you, not as a strong man but as a weak and helpless man in need of you and no other. The good commandment says “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” But here, this new and astonishingly hard commandment redirects me away from loving myself and instead directs me to remember how you loved them… how you loved me… how you love us now.
How have you loved me? Completely, selflessly, patiently, mercifully, yet never allowing me to easily forget you. Always bringing your Word to me… through this verse. Through my beloved wife. Through friends and members of this odd little band of “Jesus People” still extant after all these decades.
Jesus, I hear your command. I will not pretend I am always going to keep it… such a promise is too high for me. But I will say to you that I will not turn back from following you, from loving you, from being disciplined by you when I sometimes resist your love. I will not forget the searing pain of your Gospel, the path you had to travel in order for me to know your love at all.
“Just as I have loved you.” The words still wound me. And that’s all right. I know so very little about love… will you let me walk with you a little more closely so I can learn?