The gospel for this fifth Sunday of Easter (John 13:31-35) is a ‘flashback’ to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. It begins in the moments after Judas had left the meal to betray Jesus.
When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.”
Judas’s departure to betray him meant that his hour had come. Now!
Yet these sentences shimmer with repeated reference to glory. The word itself subsumes many synonyms: magnificence, splendor, beauty, wonder, grandeur, brilliance, fame, praise, triumph, success, admiration. They all apply. This glory reflects from the Father to the Son and back again in an endless joyful mirroring.
Jesus spoke of his death as the hour of glory for his Father and himself since it was the necessary condition for him to be raised to new life. His death-resurrection were one continuous event. He willingly participated in it as a way of showing his Father’s glory.
Referring to himself as Son of Man evoked the image of Daniel 7:9-14
“As I looked,
… the Ancient of Days (God) took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
the hair of his head was white like wool.
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him…
“… I looked, and before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
At the same time, Son of Man recalled his earlier predictions of crucifixion, such as when he had said Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up (John 3:14).
Jesus’ words - Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him - may have seemed like he was predicting the fulfillment of the joyful entrance into the city on Palm Sunday. His disciples may well have misunderstood his intent.
More interesting is Jesus’ own focus. Most of us, knowing that one of our closest friends would betray us and hand us over to torture and death, would turn our minds to these events and what we would have to suffer. We might withdraw to an internal time of reflection and sadness.
Instead, Jesus turned his attention to his other disciples, “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. Calling his disciples my children evokes a sense of the unconditional love of a parent. At the same time Jesus sensed their dawning despair; they had left everything (Matt 19:27) to follow him. Not only was he leaving, but they would be vulnerable because they had followed him to the fringe of society. They had become different because of him.
The phrase you will look for me carries with it the implication ‘but you will not see me’. Throughout the gospels, the verb ‘look’ is frequently associated with a deeper sense of perception than simply physical sight. In John 1:41-43, Andrew brought his brother to meet Jesus and Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter). This more profound sense of looking also hints at Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances when disciples such as Mary Magdalene, the pair on the road to Emmaus or the seven disciples fishing on the sea of Galilee saw him but did not recognize him.
When he said Where I am going, you cannot come, Jesus seemed to reference his post-resurrection life. He understood that this news of his departure would cause sadness, especially given that he had just been talking about his glory. He was about to ‘pass over’ to a new form of life and glory to which they could not come, at least yet.
Still, he wanted them to move beyond the sense of loss to an embodiment of his spirit. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
This is a hard-edged statement. It is not easy to love everyone, even when we share a common purpose. This morning’s reading from Acts demonstrates that; “when Peter returned to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (A book I am currently reading, The Zen of Therapy, included the sentence, “No matter how intimate people are, there is always room for disharmony.”)
Jesus’ commandment was less like a military order than a heartfelt plea and hope that his disciples abide in and share in his love for each other. Loving one another was a longstanding commandment (Lev. 19:18). What was ‘new’ was as I have loved you… completely self-giving and emptying.
I’ve been in a number of not-for-profit organizations that work for the benefit of people on different edges of society. Even with a shared commitment, alternative strategies or interpretations sometimes drive a serious wedge between people as they strive to fulfill the organization’s purpose and ethos. Churches experience the same. People sometimes rub one another the wrong way while pursuing the same overall goals. A different sense of the appropriate or a different understanding of theology can sometimes divide us. It is hard to ‘love one another as Christ loved us’ in all these circumstances… yet that is precisely what he called for. And he recognized the challenge. He didn’t say ‘it would be nice if you got along’, instead he told them it was a commandment, a requirement, a ‘must-have’.
One of the greatest moments of glory that I’ve participated in was as a facilitator during the Ignatian Spirituality Project - when a group of people in recovery from addiction come on a weekend retreat. Three co-facilitators take turns outlining the different exercises then participating with the retreatants in doing them. (There is no single retreat director.) On the drive back to Toronto after the retreat one of the retreatants said that the thing that he noticed and that impressed him most, was how well the facilitators worked together and seemed to respect each other. He said that our example, as much as the various exercises, was what would stay with him. It wasn’t about me, but about us, together.