Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment. In John’s Gospel, it reads like this:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (John 13:34)
I think we might get what Jesus has in mind if we put it a slightly different way. Actually, a really different way.
Try this on for size:
I want you guys to stick together no matter what. Accept each other warts and all. Work like crazy for each other’s well-being and the health of the group as a whole. Do whatever it takes. And, oh, by the way, keep the door open and a seat ready for anybody who wants in. The only criterion for membership is that somebody needs and wants a place to belong.
And so, Jesus started a really unlikely community. Well, strictly speaking, he officially kicked it off after his resurrection. He poured his Spirit into his followers and started what we call the Church. But he had been laying the groundwork for quite a while.
On this particular night, he was putting in the final touches. He washed his disciples feet, driving home the idea that humble, mutual service was to be right at the heart of their life together.
They shared the Passover meal, with a twist. He taught them that the bread was his body, the wine his blood. In other words, he was giving his life away to them. He wasn’t giving his life up. He was giving it away. Sharing this meal would now be the way to participate in that life forevermore.
And now he wants them to love one another in a foot-washing, life-giving kind of way. Just like he loves them.
There’s a lot of talk these days about how disconnected the Church has become from what Jesus actually had in mind. Some of that talk is true and points us toward a healthy renewal of who Jesus wants us to be. Some of that talk is a response to ways of being Church that are so different from the Episcopal universe that I suspect it simply doesn’t apply to us very well.
It doesn’t help to defend yourself from criticism. It’s just not the Jesus-y thing to do. (John 19:9) But dreaming is just the sort of thing Jesus is good at. He dreamed about what we can be as the community of his followers. So let’s remember that dream together this morning.
To really take hold of the dream, remember that it starts with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus does not give up his life for his friends. He gives his life away to them. That is how Jesus loves. He gives his life away to the one he loves.
And he has not selected a group to love by virtue of their spiritual maturity or personal holiness or moral virtue.
He loves the ones whose prayer life is shallow and episodic, whose acquaintance with Scripture is largely hearsay, and whose moral record is pretty spotty.
He loves the cynic and the grump, the whiner and the coward.
He loves the slacker and the control freak, the condescending goody goody and the black sheep who could care less what anybody else thinks.
In other words, he loves everybody even though they really don’t have it coming. Here’s a partial list of the kind of people Jesus invites, wants us to invite, to be part of his community:
Rich, poor, uneducated, sophisticated, black, white, married, single, divorced, gay, straight, rigid, flexible, scared, bold, socially awkward, socialites, dishonest, trustworthy, addicts, tee-totalers, rednecks, jet-setters, Democrats, Republicans, non-voters, illegal aliens, and Daughters of the American Revolution.
In a way, this doesn’t surprise any of us. Jesus, after all, kept odd company. Prostitutes, tax collectors, fishermen, and political radicals. But the love commandment drives home something more challenging than thinking of Jesus as having eclectic tastes in friends.
He insists that all of his friends be friends with each other. And he seems especially keen on their doing so with all their differences and imperfections and annoying habits.
And by the way, when I say “friends,” I really mean friends. Because Jesus said just that: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:14-15)
Some we hunt or fish or golf with. We enjoy each other’s company because we share a common interest. It’s sort of like a play group. We have fun together.
Others you might more accurately call acquaintances or colleagues or team members. We do business together or work together at the same firm or volunteer together in the same organization. We get things done together.
Then there’s a third and very special kind of friend. We don’t have a lot of these. We probably have fun together, and we may well get things done together, but there is a deeper dimension to this friendship. Some friends help each other to be the very best person they can be. They tell each other the truth and support each other in doing the scary, risky business of doing the good they can do every day.
Jesus urges us to take up a fourth kind of friendship. Here’s how he put it a little later in the same evening:
“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.” (John 15:12-13)
In all three of Aristotle’s friendships, we gravitate toward others because we have something in common with them or we find them attractive in some way. We share a leisure activity. There’s something we both want to get accomplished. Or we are devoted to the same sort of spiritual development.
These friendships never require us to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to the ones who make us uncomfortable, stretch our tolerance just by sitting next to them, try our patience just by being themselves, repeatedly need our forgiveness, and always seem like a work in progress.
But that is just the kind of friendship Jesus dreams for us.
It’s sort of like being sent to the Island of Misfit Toys with the express mission to play with those toys just the way you find them. And this will be completely intolerable. It will be completely intolerable unless you finally begin to accept two basic truths.
The first truth is this. We are all candidates for the Island of Misfit Toys. There really is something off and hard to play with in all of us. We are not sent to the Island because nobody wants us. We are invited to the place where everybody can genuinely belong in our quirky, imperfect, oddball, off kilter way.
Second, our friendship is not rooted in something we have in common. It is rooted in someone we have in common. Jesus has called each of us friend. And he wants us to know the joy and the relief and the power of being able to say that any friend of his is a friend of mine.
No one gets voted off this Island. Jesus gave his life to make this Island a safe, hospitable place for everybody. And as his beloved friends, we are committed to make that same friendship a reality for everyone we meet.
That is the new commandment, and that is the community it creates.