About a month ago, on Palm Sunday, we reopened our church door for in-person worship services after two or so years of meeting mostly online. This was not the first time to try to open our church doors during this pandemic, but we do hope that this time it will be different, different from the past in that, this time, we hope to continue to open our church not only for worship services but to offer activities in our building without interruption or major concerns about the pandemic. We were isolated; we felt lonely; we longed for a place to gather together without worrying so much about the pandemic. During the pandemic, we rediscovered the importance of community, particularly a faith-based community where we find ourselves in God’s kin-dom and work with others for the common good. With this hope and yearning, we decided to gather after the Sunday morning worship service for refreshments and take this opportunity to greet each other with signs of peace that we haven’t been able to do for so many months and years. Many of you responded warmly to this hope and lo and behold, many of you have been gathering joyfully in our Community Hall.
Community is important, isn’t it? As a newcomer to Vancouver, I often ask myself how I can participate in our common life beside West Point Grey United. We could try to live disassociated from the community as if we did not know anyone else, but as human beings, we cannot live alone. We need to belong to a community. We have a fundamental yearning to be connected with each other and work together for the common good. We need to build a community we call home. How, then, do we create community?
Let us first listen to Martin Luther King, Jr’s words. “This is the great new problem of [humankind]. We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu – a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.” We cannot live apart, but regardless of our differences or rather, in order to celebrate our differences, we must learn to live together.
With this in mind, let us go back to today’s scripture. The writer of the gospel of John put today’s gospel reading on the Thursday of what we call Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, a day before the death of Jesus. The word “Maundy” derives from the Latin for “mandate,” the new commandment that Jesus gives his followers in John 13: 34, “I will give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” After the story of the foot washing, Jesus speaks this new commandment. We need to reflect on the circumstances of both Jesus and the writer of John to better understand its meaning for us today.
Let us first think about Jesus’ situation. Since he will probably soon be killed by the Roman colonial power for his radical stance for justice, Jesus knows that he is about to leave his disciples. Jesus does not want to give up his vision for building community, so he commissions his disciples with this new commandment to carry on their common mission. He hopes God’s mission will be accomplished by the practice of the new commandment.
Note that in this new commandment, there are no conditions allowed for avoiding its fulfillment. Jesus makes it clear and simple. This new commandment is a radical one that transcends the familiar Ten Commandments. The new commandment moves beyond the religious tradition and conventional wisdom. As the world becomes smaller and resources become more limited, society becomes more fearful, violent and destructive. However, Jesus believes that through love for one another, we can build a loving community.
As for the context of the writer and readers, about seventy years after the death of Jesus, the “Johannine community” is facing a serious conflict with the synagogue. Originally the Johannine Christians were part of the Jewish synagogue but at some point they found themselves excluded from the synagogue and needed to build a separate community. We don’t know why the Johannine Christians were expelled from the synagogue, the centre of Jewish life, but we can imagine that as a result, their social and religious status must have been changed dramatically from top to bottom. In this situation, the community relates a story of Jesus introducing a new commandment as they begin to build a new community. In the hostile world the Johannine Christians find themselves in, they do not give up the new commandment; rather they embrace it as the foundation for the building of their new community.
The vision of Jesus and John’s community inspire another writer called John to write of his own: “God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s people. God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more: morning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. … ‘See, I am making all things new” (Rev 21: 4-5). In this vision, we see that God is not separated from human beings. God is fashioning a new world of wholeness and well-being from which no one is excluded. In the presence of God, there are no tears; there is no death, no pain. All things are new.
Now our church and society are moving from a pandemic to an endemic. We are moving from lockdown to more open environments. In this new situation and in this transition, a return to daily life can begin to arouse different feelings, thoughts and concerns. We will open ourselves as we gain courage. We will open our hearts to God and to others who may be trying to make difficult transitions. We will open our hearts to rebuild our faith community with the vision of a renewed earth and a new heaven.
We Christians have inherited the vision of Jesus, of John the gospel writer and of John the visionary of the book, Revelation – the vision of the new faith community. We take the new commandment seriously. We gain strength from the community to live this new life every day, and to love one another. We pray for the courage and strength we need to practise our love in this faith community and to practise our faith at work for the communion good for all.
“There, there where we work with the love of healing hands.
Labour we must, true to our trust to build a promised new land.”
(From Carolyn McDade, “I See a New Heaven,” VU 713, vs 4.)