Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Bit About Jesus' "New Commandment"

In two days, Christians all over the world will celebrate Maundy Thursday. Together, we'll read and hear the account from the Gospel of John about the dinner Jesus had with His disciples on the night of His betrayal and arrest.

In the passage, after washing the feet of His disciples, Jesus says that all His followers--the Church, are to "do as I have done to you." Then, Jesus says, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."

The latter verse, in fact, is where it's thought that the name Maundy comes from. It's the Middle English version of the Latin term, mandatum, in modern English, mandate or command.*

But what's new about this commandment? Isn't Jesus' "new commandment" just another way of expressing God’s will for humanity from the beginning, expressed in the two tables of the Ten Commandments and summarized by Jesus as the Great Commandment: to love God completely and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves?

In one way, yes, Jesus’ new commandment is no different from the Great Commandment that God has always given to us. And who could expect otherwise? God is unchanging in His goodness, strength, and will. In Malachi 3:6, God says, “For I the Lord do not change…” And Hebrews 13:8, says of God the Son, “Jesus is Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” The God Who created us out of love and His desire to give that love away, wills that we not only love Him, but also love all the people He loves. And that’s everybody. So, at one level Jesus’ new commandment isn’t very new at all.

Yet, at another level, it is new. Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet was a kind of visible parable for what He meant when He used the term, love.

For Jesus, love is more than compassion or consideration of others, more than respect or regard. When Jesus washed those filthy feet, He did a menial task which all first-century Judea agreed to be beneath someone hailed by many as a teacher (rabbi) or Lord. In this action, Jesus was just beginning to re-image lordship and greatness, ultimately, deity itself.

Of course, Jesus definitively re-imaged love on the cross. There, He lived a love so passionate that it laid aside dignity as the world sees it, to reclaim humanity from sin and death.

This is what Paul is talking about in citing what many scholars believe was a hynm sung by early Christians, when he writes that "though [Jesus] was in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave...He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross." (Philippians 2:6-8)

This is love as Jesus defines it, a love so great that it willingly dies for the beloved, even when the beloved is contemptuous of the lover. Another word for it is passion, which is why we refer to Christ's crucifixion as His passion.

But, wait. It gets even more difficult and countercultural!

Remember that Jesus says to His followers, "You also should do as I have done to you." Jesus' new command is that we are to love with the same reckless disregard for the reactions of others that Jesus displayed. This is what Paul is talking about when he introduces that hymn in Philippians by saying, "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus..." (Philippians 2:4-5)

Can Jesus be serious? Can Paul?

When Jesus gave His brand of love to the disciples, washing their feet, it didn't change their actions in the ensuing hours. They abandoned, denied, or betrayed Jesus.

And when Jesus offered Himself as the forgiving, eternity-granting Servant King to the Roman and Jewish authorities, they nailed Him to a cross.

And Paul himself, spending his life to spread the good news of Jesus, ended up on the wrong side of Roman "justice," a martyr for the faith.

Why would anybody want to love like that? What exactly is in it for us?

That last question, one we all ask if we're honest, actually has things backwards. Restating it with its implied premise, it might be expressed, "If I love like Jesus loves, what do I get out of it?"

The answer, of course, is that we don't love like Jesus (or, strive in our imperfect, sin-marred human way, to love like Jesus) to get anything out of it. We strive to love like that because we already have been loved like that, because when Jesus died and rose, He opened up new life and eternity to those who believe in Him. As John writes elsewhere in the New Testament, "We love because He [God] first loved us" (1 John 4:19).

We don't love to get anything. We love because through Jesus, we've already got everything--forgiveness, eternity, hope, purpose, love. The game has been won, the A already been given. Because Jesus went through the cross, even death has lost its sting.

Following Jesus doesn't mean we don't suffer in this world. In fact, we may suffer more than non-Christians precisely because we follow Christ. But we feel motivated and empowered to love like Jesus because in Christ, we're freed to love without regard to consequences.

It's fair for anyone reading this to ask me, "Do you love like Jesus? Do you love without regard to consequences? Do you serve selflessly?"

No, I don't love like Jesus. But I pray and hope that by God's grace that I will grow up as a Christian to do so. I ask God to help me obey Jesus' new commandment.

Thank God we're graded on a curve. The curve is called grace, God's charity, and it belongs to all who confess their powerlessness over sin and trust in Jesus Christ to love them into eternity.

With Christ in your life, even when you fail, you can not fail.

*"According to a common theory, the English word Maundy in that name for the day is derived through Middle English, and Old French mandé, from the Latin mandatum, the first word of the phrase "Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos" ("A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you"), the statement by Jesus in the Gospel of John (13:34) by which Jesus explained to the Apostles the significance of his action of washing their feet." (See here.)

No comments: