If you were here a few weeks ago during Holy Week services, you might recognize that today’s Gospel is part of the same Gospel that is read on Maundy Thursday. Even though we’re now well into the season of Easter, the context of today’s Gospel takes us back pre-crucifixion, to Jesus in Jerusalem during Passover, right before his arrest. Jesus has made the long pilgrimage from Galilee in the north with his followers. On arrival he mounts a donkey, and the people create a path to the city gates with palm branches. And then once inside the city, Jesus ends up in a confrontation in the Temple, driving out merchants and money-changers from the Court of the Gentiles, the outermost area of the Temple. That confrontation enrages the religious elites, who are already antagonistic to Jesus and his iconoclastic message. The tension has never been tighter, and Jesus knows that his life is on the line. So, anticipating the worst, he gathers his closest followers together for one last celebration of the Passover meal. And as they’re finishing eating, Jesus says to them what we just heard read: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
What Jesus is saying sounds pretty consistent with everything that his followers would’ve already heard him teach. It might not strike us as anything out of the ordinary. And yet Jesus says that he is giving a new commandment. There’s clearly something distinct about what Jesus is saying, something new, something that his followers hadn’t heard before. What is the new commandment? “Love one another,” Jesus says, “just as I have loved you.”
What makes this commandment new? What sets it apart from what Jesus had previously taught up to this point? I think there are two ways to answer this question. First, you may remember the episode earlier in Jesus’ life when a religious leader asked him, “What is the greatest commandment in the law?” Jesus replied that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is like it: to love your neighbor as yourself. This second greatest commandment, drawn from the book of Leviticus, amounts to what we know as the Golden Rule: do to others as you would have them do to you; or, negatively, don’t do to others what you would not want done to yourself. As cherished as it is, the Golden Rule has faced critique. Over the centuries, some have pointed out that it’s often impossible to know whether the way you would want to be treated is congruent with the way any other given person, particularly a stranger, would want to be treated. The Golden Rule seems to rest on our own subjectivity, such that I ultimately determine the way in which I demonstrate love. It can lead us to imagine that what is good for me is necessarily good for my neighbor.
In Jesus’ day the Golden Rule was upheld as a key part of Jewish law. But as Jesus wandered about encountering various people from all walks of life, he didn’t see the Golden Rule accomplishing a social transfornation. Instead, he saw economic disparity, exclusion, hypocrisy and elitism. Before Jesus emerged as a public figure, John the Baptist was issuing fiery calls to repent and be baptized, but it didn’t turn out to be enough to effect widespread change. Something more radical than the Golden Rule was needed. I think Jesus was deeply aware of all this, as he ate with his followers and contemplated his looming death. So he gives them a new commandment, putting a twist on the Golden Rule. He doesn’t remind his followers to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Instead, he tells them to “love one another as I have loved you.” He wants his followers to pattern their practice of love not after how they would want to be loved but after his own practice of love for them. The new commandment is to love not as we would want to be loved but as Jesus has loved. The benchmark is now higher. It’s a shift, if you will, from our own subjectivity to the objectivity of Jesus’ life, which is the standard by which we measure our own practices of love.
Let me mention a second way in which Jesus’ commandment is new. In Jesus’ day it was assumed that the Golden Rule, as it appeared in Jewish law, applied to relations within Jewish community. It was an ethic internal to Judaism. In other words, if you were Jewish, the command to love your neighbor as yourself, was relevant only to your Jewish neighbors and all other Jews with whom you were in contact. The command was not understood to have a universal, transnational scope. By contrast, however, Jesus is telling his followers to love more—to love everyone as he does, Jew and Gentile alike, but especially those marginalized because of race, ethnicity, gender identity, economic standing, or other social factors. The community of Jesus’ followers knows no borders, and Jesus’ new commandment is to practice love to the extent that borders and barries are broken down. It took the earliest Christians some time to figure this out—that’s the point of the first reading we heard from the book of Acts.
You may be aware that once each year around this time churches observe Refugee Sunday. It’s observed near Pentecost, which is when we’re reminded that the church is a place of welcome for all, regardless of one’s country of origin. Given today’s readings, I think it’s very fitting that Bishop Andrew Asbil has designated today as Refugee Sunday 2022. The new commandment that Jesus gave us—"love one another as I have loved you”—surely speaks directly to how we must respond to the crisis of people fleeing their homelands for refuge elsewhere. St. Aidan’s has not sat idle. We’ve joined with other churches and faith communities to sponsor refugees so that they can begin life anew in Canada.
But the work continues. While many people in Canada might hail the Golden Rule as the basic ethic of a just society, tensions in Canada are worsening. We’re seeing widening economic disparity, racism, and ethnic hatred. (Case in point: the malicious harassment of federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh this past Tuesday at a campaign rally in Peterborough.) Jesus’ new commandment is as meaningful and radical in our day as his own time. It’s a high calling—to love our neighbors, even our enemies, unto death—but we must take it seriously if we are to follow Jesus with integrity.
How do we even begin to practice this love? Recently I heard a Buddhist teacher say that love begins with empathy—walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins, as the poet Mary Lathrap put it. Empathy isn’t synonymous with love, but it can help us get there. No one ever said Jesus’ way of love is easy. It isn’t. But empathy can open us to absorb the full impact of what he said to his earliest followers, and what he says to us today—“I’m giving you a new commandment: in the same way that I have loved you, so you also must love one another.”