Recently, I had a set of experience that led me to feel I needed to remove myself from a certain community. My issues began with the sexist comments made by one of its members, continued with the same member’s harsh “joking” at my expense (and lack of anyone standing up for me), and culminated in the leader of this community not really seeing, hearing or understanding my feelings or needs and then refusing a compromise proposed by one of our professors in the name of “being himself” while leading. “I feel unsafe,” I said. To the point of being unable to be vulnerable as this community requires. “Community is messy,” was the reply. In other words, “toughen up and be vulnerable anyway.” I can’t say I disagree with the idea or experience that community is messy, but in the New Community Christ calls us to – the one in John 13:31-35 where He gives the “new commandment” to “love one another as I have loved you” – this is no response to expressions of unsafety.
John 13:31-35 is sandwiched in portends of perfidy. Jesus predicts Judas’ betrayal on the top (and sends him out to “do what he must do quickly” (John 13:27) and foretells Peter’s denial on the bottom. Community, yes, even Christian community, is surrounded by mess. In the midst of this mess, in between sending out one of His own, who will soon prove himself weaker than silver, and warning or lamenting another’s failure of loyalty, Jesus tells this band of bumbling bafoons to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). The context of this entire scene – which is the Gospel of John’s rendition of the Last Supper – is Jesus washing the disciple’s feet. There is no denying the risk and mess. But…two things:
First, Jesus issues the command to love one another AFTER the traitor in their midst has left and before the denier has done his deed. In John’s Gospel, Jesus demonstrates a lot of foreknowledge; Judas Iscariot is a lost cause; Peter has potential. This is called discernment: Jesus doesn’t just demand His disciples love Him indiscriminately; He waits until the timing is right and the community is ready. Community is messy, yes. This is precisely why safety, and thus, discernment, are needed. And this is why Jesus waits to give His command. There is treachery afoot and Jesus waits until its perpetrator is out of earshot to form His disciples. Community is always messy; there is a time and a place for issuing “commands.”
Second, notice what the command actually is: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). Just as I have loved you. How does Jesus love? Does He ask His disciples to do some difficult things – like feed five thousand with a bread crumb? Does He ask His disciples to do some “impossible” things – like cast out demons, open blind eyes and raise the dead? Does He ask His disciples to do even some unsafe things – like go out and preach the good news to all nations? Yes (and amen) to all these things.
But most importantly, Jesus gives Himself up for us. He lays down His life for His bride, the
Church. Sisters and brothers, if we are to be part of this new community loved into being by the shed blood of the Lamb of God, there is no room for self assertion, as leaders or members. As ministers of the Gospel, particularly as leaders, we are called to lay down our lives for our friends (John 15:13). This means, among other things, that before we issue any command (if we ever have the authority to do so), we need to be very discerning: we need to know the difference between discomfort (“Peter”) and lack of safety (“Judas”). We need to know how to serve those whose company we keep, in other words, what they need: foot washing, for example, was a much-needed practice for sandaled feet on the dusty streets of 1st-Century Palestine. And, above all, we need to know the hearts of those we are trying to form and help grow in this love that will be the marker of Christian discipleship (John 13:35).