Our text begins at a turning point. Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet. He’s shared a final meal with them. He’s told them he will be betrayed, and out of the room Judas flees. It’s a scene fraught with tension and fear. What’s next? What will happen to Jesus? To the disciples? In John’s gospel, Jesus graces his disciples and the church with a long talk that gives comfort and hope about what is to come. He begins the talk with a concept that might feel foreign to us—glory.
What is glory? What does it mean to glorify something or someone? What do we glorify today? Celebrity, for sure. After all, who dominates our media? We glorify stars of screen, and we glorify athletes. We know their statistics. We know what they did last night. We know who they’re dating. That’s who our culture glorifies.
We don’t really think about glorifying God much, do we? At least not purposefully. To do so, we’d need to hold God high above other things in our lives. Above celebrities and athletes for sure. But also our self-interest, our desire for success, our desire to curry favor from others. Giving glory to something means not giving glory to other things.
Yet, as things grow grim for Jesus, he speaks about how God is going to glorify him. Jesus stays present with his disciples to show them how being present in difficulty is an act of love and is a place where God’s glory is revealed. Jesus is showing them that they actually participate in Jesus’ glorification if they love each other like Jesus loves them. That’s what will give them the strength to be the kind of people they need to be to live without Jesus physically present in their midst.
Glory is not at all what we’ve made of it. Glory comes in being open to the presence of God in our midst. When we are with Jesus, “love is the air [we] breathe” and loving becomes a matter of basic existence, not something we have to fake it until we make it. “Glorification is an act of filling, or becoming heavy with the presence of God, of love,” one interpreter shares. “When I seek your good, and when you seek mine, we go from skimming on the edges of God’s glory to entering into the heavy, overwhelming space of love. We cause God to delight when we do like [God] is. It’s an important reminder and warning for us as a community of faith, that how we do proclaims who God is.”
How we do proclaims who God is. Not how we are or how we want to be. How we do. How we act. That’s what proclaims who God is.
It’s not often that I find a way to work the wonderful and challenging book of Leviticus into worship, but today is one of those lucky days. Leviticus is a book that gives instructions by which God’s people can live well with each other and with God. While much of the book can feel pretty foreign to our context, the few verses we shared today are surely as appropriate today as they were then. Could you imagine living in a world where we could trust that the following was true because how we acted was a proclamation of who God is?
Don’t pervert justice. Don’t show partiality. Judge your neighbor fairly. Don’t slander others. Don’t hate a neighbor in your heart. If you must rebuke a neighbor, do so with a clear conscience. Do not seek revenge. Do not bear a grudge against another. Love your neighbor as yourself.
I think we can all agree that living in this manner is part of living in a just community. But, there’s another layer to this. After all of these commands and prohibitions, the sequence ends with “I am the Lord.” Why? Because our ethics are wrapped up in who God is. If we were to read the whole of chapter 19, some version of “I am the Lord” repeats at least a dozen times. It’s not just about behavior. No, it’s about just behavior that is firmly rooted in who God is. When we divorce our behavior from who God is and who God says we are, our actions are vanity—a chasing after the wind.
So, this much we know: God is glorified in Jesus. Jesus is preparing those who come after him to carry on his work, so that they might participate in that glory. How are we to do that? How does what we do proclaim who God is? The answer is simple: Love.
“A new command I give you,” Jesus says. “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.” Now, let’s be clear. This commandment is not new. We just heard in Leviticus that we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. But learning to love each other in the manner of Jesus is new. It goes further. It takes the strength we were mustering to do our best to love our neighbors and transfers the effort towards knowing and loving Jesus so that a natural (or maybe even supernatural) consequence of that reliance spills over into Christ-like love for our neighbors.
On the surface this seems easy, but we all know how hard it is to live out. Not all of our neighbors are easy to love. Not all of us are easy to love. We have good days and bad. We have limits to our love, and trusting in our own strength certainly will not result in Christ-like love.
Think about it. “[This] new commandment is simple enough for a toddler to memorize and appreciate, and it is profound enough that the most mature believers are repeatedly embarrassed at how poorly they comprehend it and put it into practice.” So, knowing that this is hard to put into practice, how are we to aim for having the quality of love that Jesus demonstrated?
It begins by being rooted in relationship with Jesus. A little later on in his parting words to his disciples, Jesus will instruct them to “abide in me.” That means to remain or stay with him. That means seeking his presence in their lives, something that will be possible through the work of the Holy Spirit since Jesus will no longer be physically present with them. But it’s important to understand that in this moment Jesus is with his disciples even when things are getting hard. He is with them even when Judas runs off to betray him. Jesus sticks around for the hard part. If we are to love like Jesus, then we need to learn how to stick around through the hard parts as well, to be there in the grief and sadness and hurt and pain, not just the best parts of life together. Being with Jesus teaches us to love like Jesus, Sadly, “Unless one has a profound experience of being loved, it is virtually impossible to express profound love for another.”
But I also think that listening to this command of Jesus puts us in the posture of neighboring. I think neighboring is one of the great gifts of the church to the world, and it’s something that almost all Christians and churches could do better at. There have been seasons when the church’s witness depended upon good neighboring. During the church’s earliest years as a small movement within the Roman Empire, Christians gained a reputation for looking out for others, for caring for the sick and poor among them, for helping the helpless. They were neighboring. In an empire filled with violence and sharp social divisions, Christians were known for their love. In the third century, Tertullian was able to boast about the reputation of Christ-followers as neighbors, “See,” they say, “how they love one another…see how they are ready even to die for one another.”
Gary Burge encourages us here, “Nothing so astonishes a fractured world as a community in which radical, faithful, genuine love is shared among its members.” Think about it. In our world there are many clubs you can join because you share a common interest. You can be a Rotarian. You can join a rec league softball team. You can join the PTO. It’s easy to find groups of people who will cheer for the same team, promote the same candidate, or share the same social cause. I actually think this church does a pretty good job of neighboring with our members. We’re far from perfect, but we do pretty well for sure. But the church has a greater mission in neighboring. It can’t just be about those who already belong to this community of love. It has to keep expanding ever wider to invite in those who aren’t connected yet but who need that same kind of love and care on offer.
The church is to be a community of love, rooted in Jesus’ love and living out his command to love each other as he loved us. Within that circle, we invest in each other, not because we owe each other or because we’re similar but because that circle of love is ever-widening to its neighbors, accepting them the way Christ accepted us. The circle keeps getting bigger and bigger because it can never outpace God’s love for any who would encounter it. The role of the church is to keep opening itself to welcome others into this circle of amazing love.
So, church, are we doing that? Are we taking seriously this belief that all who would come can belong? Is our gaze focused just inside this community, or do we look outside of this circle to our neighbors and live in such a way that we become actual neighbors in deed, not just because they happen to be adjacent to us? Are we getting involved in the lives of our neighbors the way Jesus would get involved with them? Are we inviting them to be a part of this great thing we call church, or are we passively waiting for them to muster up the courage to pop in here some Sunday?
To live in a way that experiences the glory of God means loving and knowing Jesus and using that to truly become neighbors to our community. We are not here by accident. We are here because God wants us to be here. Jesus has shown us the way of neighboring love, so let’s follow his command and love each other and the whole world in the manner of Jesus.