May 15, 2022
We hear these words from Jesus as part of his farewell discourse in John’s Gospel this morning, “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.” We hear some version of this message throughout the Gospels, and we know that it was at the very core of what Jesus came to teach. It wasn’t easy then and it isn’t easy now. To have love for others is not simply a feeling in our hearts; it is the way we live and act and share and vote and treat not only our family or those who are easy to love, but it is how we care for those who are the most difficult, the most vulnerable, the least and the lost. You may have heard the expression, “Preach the Gospel at all times; use words if necessary.” I have heard it attributed to various people from Saint Francis to Dorothy Day, but I’m not sure if anyone really knows who first coined the phrase. It probably doesn’t matter, but what is clear is that it reflects the essence of Jesus’ words in our passage today when he reminds his disciples that the way that others will know that they are his followers will be whether they demonstrate love for one another. Let us pray, Gracious God, show us how to love. Help us to be patient and kind, careful and forgiving; help us to continue to practice your love in the work of our days. Amen.
Several years ago, I saw a story about a remarkable man who served as a principal at an elementary school in Wilmington, Delaware and has gone above and beyond to help his students believe in themselves. Dr. Terrance Newton or “Newt” as he was called
was known for his skills not only as an educator but also as a barber. He set up shop at the school to give young men haircuts and boost their self-esteem. His innovative approach to nurturing students was recognized often over the years as he took a personal interest in each of his students and helped them believe that they had a promising future. When he first began work as the principal at this elementary school, he noticed the high suspension rate and high rate of behavioral issues among students. He wanted to do something that would not only change students’ behavior but create a bond between him and his “babies,” as he called them.
With experience cutting hair prior to his new position, Newton said, a light-bulb went off in his head and he decided to build a real barbershop onsite. The shop was equipped with professional equipment and Newton’s barber apron, and many of the supplies were paid for from Newton’s own pocket and donations from people around town. “Just like any barbershop, that’s how we learn a lot, that’s how we build relationships,” Newton said, “Ninety percent of what I know in life I learned in the barbershop.”
Dr. Newton explained that when he would go to the barbershop as a kid, the conversations he shared with his barber were about me staying out of trouble, achieving good grades and talking about what was happening in the community. Newton said he learned life skills like communication, listening and proper etiquette — such as respecting your elders — at the barbershop growing up, and he wanted to pass those lessons on to his students.
Once the shop opened at the school, students would get called to the principal’s office — not because they were in trouble, but because it was time for their appointment. Those one-on-one relationships also helped turn the school around; out-of-school suspensions the year before he arrived totaled 103. The next year, that number was four.
The school reflects so many of the challenges of an urban low-income community… behavioral problems, academics, low test scores…
Progress was seen not only in the behavioral department, but in the progress students made with their classmates, as kids who have never connected before began to talk with one another as they waited for their turn. Although the barbershop serves boys, he didn’t forget about the girls of the school. He helped arrange for them to receive the hair cuts and treatments they need as well.
(Abby Cruz, March 4, 2020, Good.MorningAmerica.com)
I was reminded of Dr. Newton recently when I sadly read that he had died in a motorcycle accident in late March. He touched many lives over the years and helped change the course of so many of the students who had the benefit and privilege of knowing him. It was a big loss for the entire community. His love for his students was expansive and he demonstrated it each and every day by forming lasting and meaningful relationships with them and teaching them to believe in themselves.
Our Gospel reading this morning is drawn from John’s account of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. We know that Jesus shares these words after he has gotten up from the table after the meal and takes on the role of a slave, washing his disciples’ dusty, dirty feet.
Jesus reminds them of his mission and prepares his disciples for what is to come. He explains in tender words (“little children”) that he will be with them only a little longer, and that where he is going, they cannot come (13:33) and he focuses on the need for his disciples to live in community, and to love one another as he has loved them (John 13:34). This “new commandment” parallels what Jesus has already told his disciples: “You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:13-15).
The “new commandment” is also paralleled in John 15:12-14 when he says, “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.”
These two parallels help to better explain the deeper message of “loving one another.” Loving one another as Jesus has loved encompasses the mundane; it means serving one another, even in the most menial tasks. This type of love also includes heroic acts of great risk; it extends even to the point of giving one’s life for another. The love of which Jesus speaks and which Jesus demonstrates in his life and death, is a love which extends from the simplest to the grandest gestures and encompasses every kind of self-giving act in between. It is by this kind of love, Jesus reminds them, that everyone will know that they are his disciples (John 13:35). Familiar as it is, Jesus’ “new commandment” is much more than a call to kindness. It is a summons to a distinctive, subversive, surprising form of love, bridging social divides between “above” and “below,” “insider” and “outsider,” “clean” and “unclean.” It is a love for all of our sisters and brothers.
Jesus could not be clearer: It is not by our theological correctness, not by our moral purity, not by our knowledge that everyone will know that we are his disciples. It is quite simply by our loving acts — acts of service and sacrifice, acts that point to the love of God for the world made known in Jesus Christ. (Rev. Elisabeth Johnson)
Following Jesus’ “new commandment” today means living out this dignifying, levelling, bridge-building love in our own lives and circumstances. When Pope Francis — in one of his first public acts as pope — washed and kissed the feet of twelve inmates at a youth prison on Maundy Thursday, including (for the first time in papal history) two women and two Muslims, he embodied this “new commandment” love in his context. So did Keshia Thomas, an African-American teen who helped a man with a Confederate flag t-shirt and an SS tattoo, shielding him from an angry crowd. And so does anyone today whose love helps knit a broken, divided world back together, stitch by stitch by stitch…
The love which Jesus implored his disciples to live out defies expectations, transforms conventions, and builds bridges precisely where no bridge is supposed to be possible. And, it can surprise us and challenge us such that we might ask ourselves: How might we love in this way? In our lives and in our communities, who are considered low, unclean, unworthy, cast out — and how can we, with the Spirit’s grace, help build bridges of love and friendship in unexpected places? At its best, this form of “new commandment” love is humble enough to kneel and wash, to “take the form of a servant” (Phil 2:5-8) — and at the same time, bold enough to protect and connect, overturn conventions, and let the surprising, beautiful glory of God shine through. Humble and bold, ordinary and radiant, reconciling the world, stitch by stitch by stitch. By this love, Jesus says, the love that remakes the world, everyone will know that you are my disciples (John 13:35). (Salt.org)