As most of you probably know, the liturgical designation of this day as Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin word Mandatum which means “command” (like our word “mandate”) because in the gospel reading for this day, the church has traditionally read out Jesus’ new command—his “mandatum novum”—that his disciples love one another as he has loved them. And our reading has given us a clear picture of what that love looks like: it looks like service. In fact, service to one another in the humblest of ways. The love we are to have for one another as sisters and brothers in Christ is not, first and foremost, warm feelings but a willingness to meet the practical and immediate needs before us. “By this they will know that you are my disciples, if you have this sort of love for one another.”
But as an isolated command, removed from its larger context in Jesus’ long Farewell Discourse in John, this is a lofty but intimidating command. Who could possibly love like Jesus? Who is up to such a task? Who really will “lay down his life for his friends” as Jesus will later define truly loving? We are left with a command so demanding that it is hard to see how, new or not, it is good news for us. It is, it seems, yet another command we are destined to fail at fulfilling.
But Jesus has a good deal more to say in the continuation of this Discourse about loving and about his relationship with his disciples. In chapter 15 Jesus will tell his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love…..This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” What precedes these statements is crucial. Throughout John, Jesus’ connection with the father has been portrayed as indivisibly close, a connection so close in fact that it amounts to actual identification, such that Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.” Now in ch. 15, Jesus says to the disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; … love one another as I have loved you,” linking Jesus’ identification with the Father and his disciples’ identification with him. Lest we get hopelessly muddled in the long threads of pronouns in this section—I in him, you in me, he in us—Jesus provides us with a word-picture, a metaphor: that is, a vine and its branches.
Jesus says: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” The picture Jesus gives us here is botanical—and gracious. Through our identification with Christ—by being intimately, organically joined to him through faith and through our baptisms—his “sap” runs through us. His very life infuses what we do in ways that are wholly unconnected to any striving on our parts. Our bearing of the fruit of love for our brothers and sisters is portrayed like the growth of fruit on a plant—the plant does not struggle with its will to produce the fruit, it grows naturally because of the life that flows through it from its connection to the vine.
But that is tricky part, isn’t it? Connection. Jesus says “IF you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” There is the very real possibility of not abiding and not bearing fruit—of not loving our brothers and sisters in humble service—and if we do not abide and cut ourselves off from that life, we both be unfruitful (as Jesus says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing”) and we will bear the consequences God’s judgement on our fruitlessness. So how do we maintain that connection that makes possible the flow of Christ’s life into us?
I think we look to the rest of John to understand this. One of John’s great themes is believing in Jesus. The prologue says that “To those who received him [that is Jesus] who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God.” But for John—and for the Christian tradition historically—that believing has not been just about mentally agreeing to ideas about Jesus. No. Much more fundamentally it has been about trust. Faith as trust. Reliance. Letting go. Our life-giving connection to Jesus—the one that produces fruit and empowers selfless serving love—is established and maintained by our letting go of our own lives. Of trustfully falling into what God is calling us to do and be, believing that Jesus catches and carries us when we do that.
And that is salvation. That trust-built connection to the vine that allows us to become children of God, and allows God’s life to flow through us. Life that not only by its power cleanses us and so saves us from sin, but life that indeed saves not ONLY us but our brothers and sisters as well. That life of God flowing into us, causing us to love and serve, saves THEM from the power of sin in our lives as we bear the fruit of Christ’s love.
So in a few moments we will eat Christ’s body and drink Christ’s blood. We will, in fact, take that very life-stuff of Jesus into our own bodies. It will flow through us and become part of us. And may it, as he has promised, produce the fruit of serving love toward our brothers and sisters, now and always. Amen.