A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
April 18, 2019
Mandatum novum. These words begin the reading of Maundy Thursday’s Gospel text in the Latin Bible. The term “Maundy” is thought to derive from the word “mandatum,” with which the day’s liturgy is so deeply associated. So we could call it “Commandment Thursday.” That doesn’t quite have a Holy Week ring to it, though.
Jesus had much to say about commandments. In doing so he cited the Hebrew Scriptures, noting that the greatest commandment of all was to love the Lord with all our heart and soul and mind. A second is likewise important, he followed, to love our neighbors as ourselves. (Matthew 22:34-40) What Jesus said about the Sabbath command is true of all – they were made for us, not we for them. (Mark 2:27) They are for our benefit, not for our servitude.
Jesus offered only this commandment as something new: “Love one another as I have loved you.” The command to love one another is not new, something already included in “love your neighbor as yourself.” So what’s new is the second part, “as I have loved you.” What is it about Jesus’ way of love that makes the commandment new?
The command to love our neighbor as ourselves admits to self-love as its standard. It does not diminish self-love, but exalts it. Self-loathing is far too widespread among us; healthy human beings properly love themselves by showing high enough regard for themselves to take good care of their bodies, minds, and spirits. So let’s honor self-love appropriately. But Jesus’ love for his disciples was rooted not in his regard for himself, but in his regard for them. This is what makes the commandment new. It is a commandment to lay down our lives for one another, to abandon self-interest for the sake of each other. The consummate expression of this was Jesus’ embrace of the cross for their sake and ours.
And he commands his followers to do likewise. Abandoning our own interests for the sake of serving the interests of each other is the essence of properly Christ-ian love. Yes, we believe in a prosperity Gospel – a gospel that seeks the prosperity of each other, not ourselves.
The mandate of love is addressed more often in the writings of the apostles than any other. By far. Why? I offer two paramount reasons.
First, such love monumentally difficult, and thus so easily abandoned. It is the essence of Christian living, and Christians continually struggle to live up to it. We fail by factionalizing amongst ourselves. We fail by ignoring the plight of those among us who suffer. We fail by prioritizing our own interests in how we use our resources. We fail by seeking always to defend ourselves. The list could go on. The early Christians struggled mightily to live up to this commandment, needing constant reminders and encouragement to do so. How much more is that so with today’s Christians!
Second, our embrace of this new commandment has direct consequences on whether those who claim to follow Christ have any credibility in their public witness to the Gospel. Loving one another as Jesus loved us is an evangelical imperative. It is our love within the community of Christ’s followers that is at stake here, not our disposition toward those outside. Jesus tells his followers, “By this shall everyone know you are my disciples, that you love one another.” When we are wracked with division and mutual disdain within the community of Christ’s followers, we cannot expect the world to believe in Jesus. Words of Gospel invitation ring inevitably hollow.
Jesus demonstrates this form of love by stooping to wash the feet of his disciples. This is how we should live all the time, he says. Always washing each other’s feet. Being attentive and responsive to each other’s needs, rather than our own. Thinking more highly of each other than of ourselves.
Easter discloses that this is the pathway to the deepest and truest joy of all. Jesus invites us not to self-denying morbidity, but to resurrection life. The way to get it is to give our lives away. This new life is impossible for us manufacture; it is given to us by the Spirit of God. The Spirit that raised up Jesus from the dead quickens our mortal bodies to live by this new commandment, thus finding the unquenchable joy that such a way of living engenders.
As great as that joy is, it is never to be confused with harmonious bliss. Loving one another as Jesus did is never a walk in the park. We will continually fall short of its perfection. But we dare never abandon it as our highest and deepest aspiration.
Mandatum novum. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister