What’s Happened To the New Commandment?

Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 13;31-35

We have followed the events of the Passion, the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus for many weeks, but on this 5th week of Easter we go back to the Passover Supper, the washing of the disciple’s feet and the departure at night of Judas from the fellowship to betray his master. The dark time approaches and the time is right for Jesus to give the new commandment in his farewell discourse. This is the crucial precept for all who follow in his steps.

With the mind of St. John we recall the beginning of his gospel, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us – we beheld his glory”. [John 1;14] The glory and divinity of God’s Word made flesh was only known through the perspective of the cross. There the Son of Man dies as a human, but reveals the glory of the Christ and Son of God. It is with hindsight that the evangelist tells us about the Passover meal, when Jesus identifies himself as the sacrificed “lamb of God” as he was first recognised by the prophet at the baptism. [John 1;29]

Simon Ushakov (1685), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At this Passover, Jesus predicts his night of betrayal by Judas who embodies “anti-love” breaking the sacred bonds of friendship. This episode, dark as it is, begins the process by which the light of both Father and Son will shine. [John 13;31] None of this makes sense at the time to the disciples, until they also have gone through times of trial, doubt and despair. Only then will divine glory, the meaning of Scripture be possible. The washing of disciple’s feet becomes the prelude to the unique bond of love that Jesus will demonstrate by his death and require from all who follow him. The washing will underline all that is about to take place and the passionate words of the High Priestly Prayer in Chapter 17 in which Jesus prays that the union between God the Father and the Son will grow in “those you have given me”.

In all of this St. John writing after years of reflection is proclaiming a pivotal moment for the central theme of his Gospel, that the full divinity of Jesus is revealed as he lays down his life for his friends and his enemies too. At the supper he tenderly addresses his disciples and all who will also follow him, “little children, a new commandment I give to you, love each other as I have loved you, by this all will know you are my disciples”. [John 13;35] This is the new commandment and charge to the Apostolic Church, which after the Ascension and Coming of the Holy Spirit is to become Christ’s physical presence in the world. The charge applies to us all and now we are required to restate and reinterpret its unique meaning through the perspective of the cross and resurrection in our age.

Tragically, this crucial commandment is today frequently forgotten within the Church when it thinks in secular institutional terms, with buildings staffed by corporate officials organised to encourage good works, or even worse when it becomes a servant of the political world. Having experienced this failure in Germany, Bonhoeffer was adamant that the Christian Church “founded solely on Jesus Christ and his new commandment, making it absolutely different to all other communities.” The Church, as the body of Christ is to be “Holy” and can only be so if made up with those who have embraced the untranslatable word “agape” Christ’s uses to when speaking of his own love at the heart of his new commandment and manifested even upon the cross.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

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