The One True Mark of Jesus’ Family, John 13:31-38, 7/28/13

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Jul 282013
 

 

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church

Let me set the scene.  It’s Thursday night, the night before the most pivotal Friday in the history of the world.  Jesus is gathered with his closest disciples around the Passover meal.  He has just stunned them by taking the role of slave and washing their feet, making clear to them that he came to serve them in the lowest place.  One of the disciples, Judas Iscariot, has just left the gathering, led into the darkness by Satan to betray Jesus to those who want him dead.  Events have now been set in motion.  The cross is only hours away.  By this time tomorrow, Jesus will be in a tomb.  His earthly life, the time he has shared with these friends, is rapidly drawing to a close and Jesus knows it.

 

Imagine if you knew the time of your death and on the day before your demise you were able to gather around you the people you loved most, your family and your closest friends, people who would be carrying on without you.  Given such an opportunity, I doubt you would spend that time talking about the weather, or how the Giants did yesterday, or the last episode of Grey’s Anatomy.  No, I suspect that the words you would have to say in those moments would be among the most important of your life.  It should not surprise us that it was no different with Jesus.

 

The next whole section of John’s Gospel includes what has often been called Jesus’ ‘farewell discourse’.  Before Judas returns with the lynch mob at the beginning of chapter 18, Jesus spends the next four chapters clearly instructing his followers how they are to carry out the mission he has given to them once he is no longer physically by their side.  In his instructions he is anticipating a question he knows they, and we, will ask, “How in the world are we now going to follow an invisible Lord?”

 

We are going to spend the next several weeks listening carefully to the instructions Jesus gives here to all who would follow him.  Along the way, I hope you come to see why many before us have called these chapters in John the most precious and intimate in all the New Testament.  They are full of comfort, challenge and hope, and they are marked by the deep relationship which Jesus desires to have with all who would call him Savior and Lord.[1]

 

31When [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little 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.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

 

36Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards.” 37Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” 38Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” (John 13:31-38)

 

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Listen again to the very first line of Jesus’ final discourse.  Referring to himself, Jesus declares, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him,* God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.”  Hearing that again, what would you say is the most important word in this opening statement?  It’s pretty clear, isn’t it?  Jesus wants us to see him in his glory.

 

So what does it mean for a person to be glorified, or for a person to be in his glory?  Well, to say that I am in my glory would be to say that you are now seeing me as I truly am.  Imagine somebody says to you, “Jeff was at the party last night and, let me tell you, he was there in all his glory”?  Such words might be spoken in admiration or they might be spoken in contempt.  Either way, the person would be telling you that one way or another I showed my true colors at the party last night and you should have been there to see it.

 

Jesus has just shown his true colors by taking the role of a slave and washing the feet of those who are about to betray, deny and abandon him.  In a matter of hours, he will lay down his life in excruciating fashion for those same people.  Here we see the glory God as we see just how low God, in Christ, will go to rescue the world.  When Christ bleeds on the cross for the salvation of a world turned against him, we see the true colors, the glory, of God.

 

We hear the affection in Jesus’ words as he tells his friends, “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.’”  Jesus is leaving his friends, and they cannot go with him, at least not yet. [2]  As he is about to explain to them, they will be left behind to carry out Christ’s mission on earth and Christ must go on ahead to do what needs to be done to ensure that this mission is possible in the first place.  On the eve of his departure, therefore, what he is about to tell them is critical.

 

In a way, Jesus here is a bit like a parent turning over the keys to the family car for the first time to a newly-licensed teenager.  I remember the first time my dad handed over the keys.  It was the day of my 16th birthday.  I’d never driven alone before that day, only with him or my mom.  But now, even though the laminate on my driver’s license was still wet, Dad was giving me the keys.  But not until after I received some last minute instructions.  I stood there impatiently in the driveway on the cusp of freedom as my dad systematically reviewed the basics of turn signals, and yellow lights, and parking brakes, and speed limits, and crosswalks, and tire pressure.  Even though this was July in the Bay Area, I even got a quick primer on how to handle the car on ice and snow.  This was it.  Dad was about to turn the car over to me and he wanted to make certain I was prepared to handle it.

 

Jesus is about to turn the mission of the Gospel over to his friends and in a similar way he wants to ensure that they understand the most critical parts of that mission.  In the next verse, in fact, Jesus succinctly gives them the heart of the mission they are called to carry on.  “I give you a new commandment,” he says, “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.”  Love each other, Jesus says, that is your mission.  This is how people will know that you are my followers and that you are carrying on my work.

 

Now, let’s be honest.  This may not be what many of us expect Jesus to say here.  After all, is love really the way people will know that we are Jesus’ followers?  I mean, lots of people love each other, not just Christians.  What about doctrine?  What about our beliefs?  Isn’t it what we believe to be true about God, about Jesus, about salvation, about sin, isn’t it our Christian doctrine that sets us apart as Christians?  Or what about our practices?  Isn’t it the way we spend Sunday mornings, the music we listen to, the money we give away, the books we read, the prayers we pray, the words we use and don’t use, the mission projects we go on, isn’t it our Christian practices which mark us as Christians?

 

Here’s the problem.  You know as well as I do that there are plenty of people who believe all the right things about the Christian faith but who are not really following Jesus in their lives.  As it’s been said before, the devil himself has pretty good theology.  In the same way, just because somebody practices the Christian religion, shows up in church every Sunday, knows all the lingo, prays all the prayers, and even gives away lots of time and money to the church’s ministry, that doesn’t necessarily mean that person is wholly devoted to Christ above all else.  As the apostle Paul famously wrote in I Corinthians 13, it’s quite possible to speak in tongues, have prophetic powers, understand all mysteries, have faith to move mountains, and give away all you possess, even your life, and in the end it can still amount to nothing.  In the end, Paul says, all the right doctrine and right practice in the world is worthless if there is not love.

 

I’m trying to imagine my dad handing over the keys and, without saying a word about the safe operation of the vehicle, simply saying to me, “Jeff, as you head out on the road alone in this car for the first time what I most want you to remember is to make sure that you stop and pull over if you see somebody alongside the road who is in need of help.”  Trust me, that is not what my dad said as I pulled out of the driveway and it likely won’t be what I’ll say when I hand the keys over to my kids.  In essence, however, it’s what Jesus said.  Right doctrine and practice are, of course, vitally important to the mission of Christ in this world.  Jesus talked often about both.  But the most important aspect of the mission is love.  Specifically, how we love one another in the church.

 

Thing is, when I hear Jesus say this, my first reaction is, “Okay, Jesus, we get it.  You want us to love each other.  Of course, we know that.  We’ve always known that.  You’ve told us a thousand times.  But isn’t there something more that we should be doing?  After all, lots of people in this world love each other.  How is that alone going to set us apart?  Certainly there must be something more you want us to do that will mark us as your disciples.”

 

Haven’t you ever wondered about this?  Jesus tells us that the one true mark of his family, the one way that the world will know that we in the church are following Jesus, is that we love each other.  But really, is love all that unique?  After all, I’ve seen all sorts of groups filled with people who are not Christians but who nonetheless show love to each other every day – families, and sports teams, and neighborhoods, and friendship groups, and scout troops, and Rotary clubs, and military units, and on and on and on.

 

We want to ask Jesus how the love we have for each other in the church is going to set us apart.  And Jesus says to us, “Listen.  Listen closely.  This is a new commandment.  This is a way of loving that, before now, the world has never seen and, apart from the church, will never see.”

 

Think about it this way.  Look around our world.  People everywhere do love each other but most always they love each other in groups where natural affinity has clustered them together.  People become friends with other people because they share compatible personalities, because they naturally enjoy each other.  Loving communities form among people who share the same race, or political persuasion, or religion, or culture, or personality.  As much as we might like to think we have made progress, even in a pluralistic nation like ours it tends to be our similarities which unite us and our differences which divide us.

 

And this is how the church is meant to be different.  For in the church we are not drawn together by our common race, or politics, or personality, or gender, or culture.  In fact, the church is often made up of people who have very little, if anything, in common.  In the end, the only thing that draws us together is Christ.  That’s it.  Christ has saved us, redeemed us, and called us sons and daughters of our Father in Heaven.  It is because of Christ and Christ alone that we find ourselves as brothers and sisters.  We did not choose each other.  Christ chose us.  And now, because we belong to him, we also belong to each other.

 

Let me put it this way.  You and I may share absolutely no common ground.  We may have such divergent personalities and perspectives that if we were thrown together in any other context of life we would not only find it impossible to love one another but we might just eventually kill one another.  If, however, you come to trust Christ in your life and I also come to trust Christ in my life, suddenly things change.  Suddenly we begin to find ourselves transformed to the core of our very identities, marked forever as beloved children of God and filled – literally filled – with the very Spirit of Christ.

 

Stay with me here.  Jesus does not simply tell us to love one another.  Jesus tells us to love one another as he has loved us.  That is the new part!  You see, God’s been telling us from the beginning of time to love each other.  That’s not new.  But now, with the revelation of God in all his glory in the coming of Jesus into the world and the ultimate sacrifice of his life which he gave for the world, even for those who hated him and wanted nothing to do with him, we have seen, and not only seen but experienced, the deep, enduring, unconditional love of God, a love which is the very foundation and lifeblood of creation.  This love is not only directed towards us, in faith this love actually comes to dwell within us.

 

This is a love that we can never generate ourselves.  But, once we trust and follow Christ, the very Spirit of Christ comes to live within our hearts and then this one-of-a-kind love begins to overflow from within us.  It is the love of Christ for us which transforms the love we have for one another, bridging all gaps which, beforehand, made it impossible for us to love one another.

 

Perhaps nowhere in scripture is this put more poignantly than the way Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:13-14.  “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made [divided people] one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”[3]  The same love which unites us to Christ then turns and, in ways unheard of before, unties us to one another.

 

In 1994 the African nation of Rwanda experienced the most horrific genocide the world has known since the Nazi Holocaust.  Over the course of 100 days, nearly 1,000,000 men, women and children from an ethnic group called the Tutsis were brutally slaughtered by another ethnic group called the Hutus.  It was the culmination of a long-standing ethnic tension between the two groups which arose because the minority Tutsis had, for centuries, held power over the majority Hutus.

 

A couple of years ago Christianity Today carried the story of two Rwandans, Marc Sahabo and Felicita Mukabakunda, two people who had been friends and neighbors for years.  When the killings began, however, Feleicita, a Tutsi, fled into the marshes nearby her village where Marc and other Hutus were on a brutal rampage.  From her hiding place she heard Marc and the others say that if they could find her they would take turns raping her before they killed her.  She also heard Marc himself boast that earlier that day he had used his machete to kill her father, her uncle and four other family members.

 

Eventually, Felicita and her husband and children were able to flee to a safe area of Rwanda until the violence subsided.  When she finally was able to return to her village she learned that no less than 29 of her family members, including 16 brothers and sisters, had been murdered.  She also learned that Marc had fled the country.  Reflecting on that time, Felicita later said, “I had so much hatred.  I wanted Marc to die a slow, painful death.  I would have killed him myself if I could.”

 

Eventually, Marc was captured in Tanzania and returned to Rwanda where he was sent to prison.  Due to massive prison overpopulation, Mark was released after only seven years.[4]  With no prison bars to protect him he was terrified that surviving Tutsis in the community might seek to take revenge and kill him.  Soon after, however, he was invited to attend a reconciliation workshop by a member of Felicita’s family.  Though at first he thought it was a trap, he eventually attended and, as he put it later, “My heart was changed by Jesus.  I wanted to ask the victims for forgiveness, to tell them I was no longer the killer they used to know.”

 

To this point Felicita had not been ready to forgive.  However, with the encouragement of her brother, who had already forgiven Marc, she agreed to at least meet together with him.  On the day they finally came face to face, Marc immediately got down on his knees, folded his hands, confessed his crimes and begged for mercy.  In one unforgettable moment, Felicita reached out in response, put her hand on his shoulder, and said simply, “I forgive you.”

 

If you go to Rwanda today you will hear stories like this repeated over and over again, stories which collectively have transformed the nation in ways you can’t believe unless you see for yourself.  Today, in fact, Marc and Felicita are best friends.  Their children play together and their families regularly share meals.  The two of them often ride their bikes to neighboring villages to tell their story.  As part of their story, Felicita says this, “I’m not scared of Marc anymore.  Without Jesus, I’m sure I’d go back to hating him.  But because of Jesus, I have forgiven Marc, and I love him now.”[5]

 

Let me put this plainly as I can.  This sort of love does not happen, will not happen, ever, anywhere, apart from the transforming love of Christ mightily at work in the human heart.  Love like this, love which breaks down such formidable walls, only comes from Christ.  This is why, this is exactly why, when the world sees this love in people like Marc and Felicita they cannot explain it and are left to conclude that such a love can only come from heaven.

 

A Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda.  A loyalist and a separatist in Northern Ireland.  A Jew and a Palestinian in the Middle East.  A Tea Party Republican and a hardline liberal Democrat in Washington.  None of these people are ever going to be able to love one another with a deep, sacrificial, forgiving, affectionate love unless and until each of them comes to be transformed by the love of Christ.

 

If these sorts of people, even people here in our own community, began to love one another across these sorts of divisions, can you imagine how much the world would take notice?  The problem, of course, is that we in the church have too often failed to love like this.  History is littered with examples of Christians letting what divides us, even our petty differences at times, demonstrate to the world that in the end we are just like everybody else.

 

N.T. Wright puts it this way, “We have [too often] turned the gospel into a weapon of our various cultures – hitting each other over the head with it and burning each other at the stake with it.  We have defined [Jesus’] ‘one another’ so tightly that it means only ‘love the people who reinforce your own sense of who you are.’”[6]

 

I have to ask myself, as I hope you will ask yourself, do I love with the love of Jesus?  Do I love even the people in my own church this way?  Sure, I love some of the people, the ones I like, the ones I enjoy, the ones I’d be friends with anyway, the ones who see things the way I see things, the ones who’ve never offended me, the ones who love me first.  But what about the rest of you?  What about the people in my church I would otherwise never even know, much less be drawn to?  Are not these also my brothers and sisters in Christ?  Do I love them in the way that Jesus has loved me?  And if I don’t, will anybody ever look at me and say that the only explanation for the way that I love people I never should naturally love is that I must be one of Jesus’ followers?

 

Why is this so hard?  Listen to me.  This is why it is so hard.  To the extent that I have not experienced love in my heart for you is the extent to which I have not experienced the love in God’s heart for me.  Over and over in the New Testament we are told that when we truly come to know and embrace the love of Christ which destroys huge boundaries to draw us in, we will then find ourselves increasingly and supernaturally empowered to love others across boundaries that otherwise would have kept us forever divided.  I John 4:7-8 puts it as well as anywhere in scripture: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God for God is love.”[7]

 

As I close I want to point out what you probably also noticed.  Today’s scripture passage takes a strange twist at the end.  Jesus has just given this new commandment, this heart of his mission for his disciples, and yet Peter seems to have missed it all.  He seems fixated, in fact, on what Jesus said earlier about going somewhere without him.  “Lord,” he says, “where are you going?  Why can’t I follow you now?  I will lay down my life for you.”

 

“No you won’t,” Jesus says.  “Before this night is over, in fact, you will three times deny that you even know me.”

 

Here’s the problem with Peter.  It’s the same problem with us, by the way.  Peter thinks that the Christian faith is mainly something we do for Jesus rather than something Jesus does continually to and through us.  You see, on our own we cannot carry out Jesus’ mission.  We don’t have it in us to go where Jesus goes or love like Jesus loves.  Jesus must go first.  He did go first.  We do not first love him or, for that matter, love anybody else.  He first loves us.  He first gives his life for us.  Then as we, in faith, embrace the love of Christ we then find ourselves able to go where Jesus goes, to serve like Jesus serves, to give our lives as Jesus gave his life, loving even those who otherwise we never before could have loved.

 

And when this happens, if this happens, the world will say about us, “Truly, they are disciples of Jesus.”

 

Amen.

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The Next Step-

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application

 

Read John 13:31-38.  What first catches your attention in this passage?

 

Why do you think it is the love that Christians have for each other that Jesus says is the main way the world will know that we are followers of Jesus?  Is this really our most distinguishing mark?

 

Think of somebody in the church who you do not love.  What stands in the way of you loving this person as Christ has loved you?

 

As much as is possible, put yourself in the shoes of Felicita, the Rwandan woman Jeff talked about.  Do you think that you could ever love like that?  Why or why not?

 

Is the love you experience in this church different than the love you experience in other places?  Why or why not?

 

Think about our church.  What are the things which are most likely to divide us as a congregation?  What are the divisions which only the love of Christ can help us overcome?

 

Give an example when you have seen Christians at their best, loving as Christ has loved us.

 

Read Paul’s powerful words in Ephesians 2:11-22.  What is the heart of Paul’s message here?

 

Suggested Scriptures for the Week: Taken from the Seeking God’s Face resource our church is using daily.

Monday:                               Psalm 33:1-8 ~ Genesis 27:5-13

Tuesday:                               Psalm 34:1-9 ~ Genesis 28:10-17

Wednesday:                         Psalm 35:1-3, 17-18 ~ Genesis 29:16-25

Thursday:                             Psalm 36:5-10 ~ Gen. 37:3-4, 17b-18, 26-28

Friday:                                   Psalm 37:1-7 ~ Genesis 39:1-2, 6b-10

Saturday:                              Psalm 37:34-40 ~ Genesis 45:1-7

Sunday:                                 Psalm 38:1-8, 21-22 ~ Exodus 1:6-14

 



[1] N.T. Wright says something like this in John for Everyone, Part 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), p. 54.

[2] Paul has a great sense of wanting to follow Jesus but knowing that he cannot yet do so because Christ has given him a vital mission to carry out here.  See his words in Philippians 1:23-24.

[3] NRSV.

[4] Because of prison overcrowding, some 50,000 offenders—those who were minors during the genocide or those who confessed, including Sahabo—have been released. (Some estimate that it would take about 400 years to try all of the cases in the courts. So today, only the worst, most unrepentant killers remain behind bars, including a few genocide leaders held in Tanzania.

[5] From an article by Mark Moring entitled “Reconcilable Differences” (Christianity Today, June 2009).  You can read the whole article at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/june/26.28.html?start=5

[6] N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, p. 56.

[7] NRSV.