In the verses preceding those we will hear proclaimed on Sunday, we are told that Jesus is having a final meal with his disciples and has told them of his imminent betrayal. In those earlier verses, Jesus says the betrayer is “…he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it.” The passage continues, “So, after receiving the morsel, he (Judas) immediately went out; and it was night.”
Right through his final meal, Jesus had been revealing the depth of his love for his disciples. However, Judas’ heart was coarsened by greed: he moves from light into shadow-land, into the night. Hate replaces love, and betrayal replaces committed friendship.
Thus, Sunday’s Gospel begins, “When Judas had left them, Jesus said…”
It is an amazing moment in the text. We know what is coming and we know where Judas is going. We might expect a speech about how evil Judas is and how awful the consequences of his actions will be for him. But Jesus instead focuses on his mission and on preparing his disciples for what is to come. He speaks of being glorified and of glorifying God, which in Johannine language is a reference to his elevation/exaltation on the cross. Then he tells his disciples in tender words (“little children”) that he will be with them only a little longer, and that where he is going, they cannot yet come.
This conversation continues after our lectionary text, with Peter asking, “Lord, where are you going?” and Jesus responding, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward” (John 13:36).
Note well in Sunday’s passage, that when Judas steps out of the room, John states simply: ‘…and it was night’. The moment of darkness, of refusal of the Light, had arrived. Judas is presented as one who prefers the dark. And yet this hour is also the hour of glory when we see the light of Christ in all its radiance.
Yes, Jesus also knows that Peter, one of his closest companions, will deny him. Yet his parting words to his disciples focus not on blame for their past and future failures, but rather on preparing them for what is to come, promising that although he will no longer be physically present with them, they will not be abandoned.
In the following chapters, and in next week’s Gospel proclamation, Jesus will speak of the Paraclete, the Advocate, who will teach and advise and comfort them. But for now, he focuses on the need for his disciples to live in community, to love one another as he has loved them.
The “new commandment” will be restated in John 15:12-14: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
The two parallels to today’s “new commandment” help to flesh out the meaning of “loving one another.” On the one hand, loving one another as Jesus has loved encompasses the mundane; it means serving one another, even in the most menial tasks (washing one another’s feet). On the other hand, this love encompasses heroic acts of great risk; it extends even to the point of giving one’s life for another.
The love of which Jesus speaks, then, and which Jesus demonstrates in his life and death, is a love which extends from the mundane to the heroic and encompasses every kind of self-giving act in between. Jesus tells his disciples that it is by this kind of love that everyone will know they are his disciples.
In chapter 13, from which Sunday’s Gospel is taken, Jesus demonstrates his love for the same disciples who will fail him miserably. Jesus washes and feeds Judas who will betray him, Peter who will deny him, and all the rest who will fail to stand by him in his hour of greatest distress. The love that Jesus demonstrates is certainly not based on the merit of the recipients, and Jesus commands his disciples to love others in the same way.
The “new commandment” in this text — to love one another as Jesus has loved us— is arguably one of the more well-known statements in sacred scripture.
Loving those with whom we agree or are partial to is the easy part. Loving the rest of the folks we encounter is a much harder proposition. For Jesus, love did not mean a sweet sentimental feeling. It meant action. It meant actively loving — putting one’s love into real world activities.
This “new commandment” comes as part of a farewell address by Jesus to his followers and he gives it with tenderness and mercy.
As we look back on this occasion, so soon after our Easter celebrations of fire and light, it is as if we are looking back on the struggle, when darkness looked as if it would extinguish the light. But now, we are in the bright morning, looking back with gratitude that an anxious, sleepless night is over.
Like Judas, we can be tempted to turn from our Lord, lured by our own, autonomous ways. But with the same tenderness and mercy with which he spoke to his disciples our Savior speaks to us today and urges us to recline on his sacred heart, as the beloved disciple did at that last supper, that we may be attuned to the very heartbeat of God and grow steadily in living in a loving mode.
Link to Sunday’s Readings: