A New Command (Holy Thursday)

Video of Vespers is here. The sermon begins around the 23:00 mark.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

At some point in the 19th century, it became common to say that a bride should have “something old, something new, something borrowed, [and] something blue”– and then, later, a silver sixpence in her shoe, for prosperity or to keep frustrated boyfriends from interfering. It’s all intended to give the newly married a good start, hoping that a little bit of luck will rub off. Of course, luck has never been enough to sustain or save a marriage, but it’s sort of like the Athenians praying to all the gods, hoping that they’ve covered all their bases.

As Jesus is sitting in the upper room with His disciples, He is giving them everything they need as the Church, His Bride. Here is everything for the family of God, to sustain them and, yes, save them. There’s nothing lucky about it; it’s the concrete gift of God’s eternal life in the flesh of Jesus. Jesus says that He’s giving them something new: a new command I give to you, Jesus says to His disciples: love one another. But what is new about it? At least the idea of the command goes back to Leviticus 19: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart…you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am Yahweh” (19:17-18). So what is new is also old. And Jesus isn’t actually very original; it’s something borrowed, as well, from Moses in Leviticus—although I guess, in some sense, Jesus is borrowing from Himself, as the Word of God made flesh. Even more, there is something blue, though not literally: what He says to them causes them sadness. “Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart” (John 16:6).

Loving one another is a very old command, because the love of God for His people is the oldest story. Jesus is simply that love made physical, in flesh and blood. And He is made flesh in order to be given into death. The God who is Love has never loved His people in the abstract. He doesn’t just say nice things in order to get what He wants. He is not one thing before the wedding, and another thing after. He doesn’t have trouble living up to His vows. He is what He says, and He speaks as He is. There is no distance between who He is, what He says, and what He does.

So when that Love is spoken into this world, full of everything except love for one another and for God, what happens? We must kill the Love that puts our pretend love to shame. But Love is not surprised. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. And Love endures all things as a slave, all the way to death. Peter catches half of it: it should not be this way. The Lord should not act like a slave; His slaves ought to serve Him, wash His feet. But in this world where everything is upside-down, Jesus pours out Himself as Love for His slaves. In the same way, Jesus is before and greater than John, but Jesus submits to the baptism of repentance for the sake of the sinners there, and to be revealed as the One who has come to take away their sin.

This Lord is not here to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down His life for His friends. Jesus says, You are My friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you (John 15:13-15). Jesus’ friends are not like our friends, where we give and take, and live as equals. Jesus’ friends are like the friends of a king, who are not equal to the king, but those on whom the king pours out His benefits. If you’re the king’s friend, you don’t have the right to make demands, but he invites you into his throne-room and you get to share his table and his protection and his counsel.

This King is unlike other kings, riding to His victory on a humble donkey, securing that victory by His own death, sharing that victory with His friends by rising from the dead. Jesus says to Peter that he wouldn’t understand now what He is doing, but he and the other disciples would understand “after these things.” None of them understands what Jesus is doing until after His betrayal, His suffering, His death, and His resurrection—and even then, it takes the giving of the Holy Spirit and at least three appearances by Jesus before they go and do for one another as Jesus had given them an example of doing. When they do love one another, it is not exactly in the same way as what Jesus does. Though it might sound a little strange, the disciples’ vocations are not the same as their Lord’s vocation. It is the Lord’s vocation to die and rise, sacrificed for the slaves; it is the vocation of the slaves—now the friends—to love one another as living sacrifices. By doing this, they bear witness to the love of Jesus; in this, all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love among one another (John 13:35).

This is the Love that searches for and finds and washes clean a Bride for Himself. It is no coincidence that the beginning of Jesus’ signs is at a wedding. And later He sits by a well, like His ancestors according to the flesh, seeking a Bride. And then from His side, by blood and water, is created the Church, which is flesh of His flesh and blood of His blood; they shall be called Christians, because they are taken out of Christ. Thus men and women will leave Adam and Eve, their parents, and be joined fast to Christ, one flesh. To the Bride is given everything that is of the Husband. In this marriage—unlike in every human marriage—the Husband has all holiness and righteousness, and the Bride has all the sin. But this Husband’s love—unlike all human love—is enough to purify the Bride forever. His vow is written in blood, and He speaks it in perfect truth: Already you are clean, Jesus says, because of the Word that I have spoken to you (15:3). He breathes into the Church the Holy Spirit and she becomes a living creature. “I made My vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord Yahweh, and you became Mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. I clothed you with…fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth” (Ezekiel 16:8-13).

To His Bride, the Lord speaks tenderly: As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full (John 15:9-11). And the love of the Father, which is the love of the Son, He now gives to His Bride, as a love for the whole family, children born from above by water and the Spirit. “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. … These things I command you, so that you will love one another” (15:12, 17).

Something old becomes something new. What is new about it? Only that we have now seen what this love looks like. “It is a new commandment,” St. John says, “which is true in Him” (1 John 2:8). We might think that loving our neighbor means loving only for those we like or who are like us; only for those who treat us well; only for those who have proven that they deserve it. But the new thing about love, that we never would have imagined, is that the Love of God is for those who are not like us and maybe don’t like; for those who do evil for us; for those who have proven the absolute opposite of deserving it. “By this, we know love, that He laid down His life for us…In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son in to the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 3:16, 4:9-10).

And out of that love, until love is perfected in us, we borrow that endless love to give to one another. He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers (1 John 3:16). This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as He has commanded us (3:23). Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us (4:11-12). We love because He first loved us (4:19).

While God is Love itself and eternal, we have only known love because of the sorrow of this world. In the sorrow of sin and death, and everything that comes along with them, we have the Love of God given to us as a crucified Love, lifted up to draw all people to Himself. The Hour of Jesus’ glorification in this world begins its ominous tolling with a betrayal of God’s love. But even in the midst of that betrayal, Jesus gives His disciples His own Divine Service, along with a pattern of service. He invites them to the meal, washes their feet, and gives them what had earlier told them about: His flesh and blood as true food and true drink, as Life eaten and drunk as Death passes over them to take the Firstborn Son. And so it goes until the marriage feast of the Lamb is eaten in its fulfillment: by His mercy, by His Meal, He strengthens us in faith toward Him, and in renewed and fervent love toward one another. As He has loved us in His perfect love, we love one another in part and incompletely. Nevertheless, it is the love we have for one another that bears witness to the Love He has and is for us.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too (2 Corinthians 1:3-5). Christ loved us in words and deeds, with real action and real blood and real resurrection; let us love in deeds, and not just words. In the midst of an afflicted and comfortless world, we have the eternal comfort and love of God in Jesus Christ, caring for one another in body and life, in real needs, as well as bearing witness to the eternal action of Jesus, pouring out His life and giving it to us in Baptism, Word, and Supper. Real flesh-and-blood love, real bearing of burdens, real action on behalf of others. Something old that is something new, something borrowed in the midst of something blue—none of it luck or chance; all of it gift to sustain and save us and the whole world.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/8/20

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