The Fifth Sunday of Easter (A)
May 10, 2020
O Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know thy Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leadeth to eternal life; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Peter 2:1-10
This Eastertide I have been building on the theme of relationship. Of course, it is a theme on which I often preach. You know what they say about preachers having only one sermon.... Yet, in this season, the idea of knowing Jesus and Jesus knowing us has been prominent in the Scripture we have read. It is an important message in a time in which we are separated from one another physically, in which it is easy to feel alone, cut off from our work, our play, our friends, separated from the relationships that matter to us so much. In these weeks we have been reminded how much God in Christ knows and loves us, is our companion in our suffering, walks with us, breaks bread with us, and calls each of us by name.
The Resurrection stories have taught us that the Risen Christ comes to us in the midst of our sadness and sorrow, our confusion and concerns, and breaks into our lives, disrupting those feelings and showing us that we have a living connection with something larger than ourselves. We are reminded that we already have a relationship with God in Christ about which we had, perhaps, forgotten. We realise that, indeed, because of what God in Christ has done for us, because God in Christ has drawn us into relationship with him, that love is at work in the present moment, that death never has the last word.
Today’s Gospel helps us understand a little more deeply the centrality of relationship and interconnection to the nature of Christ. It helps us understand how our relationship with Christ is both supremely important to how we live our lives and that it is our most tangible point of connection to God. Our relationship with Christ is, in and of itself, the Way, our path in and through life.
Jesus’ words for us today are not taken from John’s Resurrection accounts, but rather from Jesus’ farewell discourse at that last supper he shared with his friends. It is part of a larger whole, of an event really, during which Jesus had washed his friends’ feet and spoke to them and with them about himself, their relationship with him, and what is to come.
What we hear today, therefore, does not exist in a vacuum, rather it is the culmination of what has come before it. Knowing “that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, and having loved his own who were in the world,” Jesus shared a meal with his friends. At some point during the meal, he “rose from supper, laid aside his garments and girded himself with a towel,” and proceeded to wash his friends’ feet. This act of humility, of seeming mortification, surprised and confused them: “Lord, do not wash my feet,” Peter said to him. Jesus explains that he, their leader and teacher, has performed for them a service and shown them how they are to treat each other. His desire for them is “that you should do as I have done to you” (13:15).
He then makes his point more emphatically,
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all ... will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (13:34-35).
Jesus makes it clear that he and his disciples are bound together in and through acts of love: as Jesus has done for his disciples, so they are to do for each other and, really, for everyone else. “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives any one who I send receives me; and he who receives me receive him who sent me” (13:20). Anything the disciples do—anything that we do—as an act of love in the name of Christ is on behalf of the God who made us and who loves us. Everyone involved is tied in a web of interrelationship based on acts of love performed by Jesus as our model and continued in the work that we do.
Why then has Jesus chosen this moment to wash their feet and give them their marching orders? Why do they (and we) need to know that we have a new task set before us to love each other, and that any works of love we perform reveal not only Jesus, but God the Father? Because, Jesus also explains, he will not always be with them. He will be handed over and suffer and die. He will be raised from the dead, but his work will not continue in the same form as before. He will return to his father, leaving us empowered by his new commandment and the Holy Spirit to do the works of love set out for us. Jesus needs us to know that in and through these momentous events, events we have lived out ourselves in this exceptional Holy Week and Eastertide, that he will always be with us, that he has given us authority to act in his name, and that he will go before us, make a place for us in the larger life that lies ahead of us.
He proceeds to tell them,
Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.
This may sound all well and good, but the disciples (as usual) don’t really understand. To be fair, they have had a lot to process. Remember, this is all unfolding during the course of a single evening, of one long dinner party in the middle of which Jesus, in a surprise move, strips down and washes their feet. On top of this, Jesus has also told them “one of you will betray me.” It makes sense that they don’t completely get it, that they are a little dumbfounded when Jesus tells them in summation but, “you know the way where I am going;” you know the way, not only to eternal life (a concept too big for any of us to completely grasp), but the way they should live here, now.
“Do we really?” they ask themselves. It is our friend Thomas who has the courage to put their wonder into words; Thomas who wants it spelled out for him, who needs, like many of us, to touch and see. “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” he says. Jesus could have been frustrated with Thomas and the others. But he isn’t. Just like in the Resurrection story from a couple of weeks ago when Thomas finally meets Jesus in the flesh, Jesus speaks plainly and simply:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him.”
If they know Jesus, if they have seen him, been with him, been in relationship with him, they already have all the answers. “You should do as I have done to you.” “Love one another as I have loved you.” Do this and you have faith, a relationship with God. It is as simple—and as hard—as that.
Indeed, even with this further explanation, it was still difficult for the disciples to understand. Even when Jesus said, “I am the Way.” Even when in this act of self identification he uses the name of God, “I AM” (which should have been a dead give away), they don’t see how Jesus and the Father are connected. It is Philip, whose feast day we celebrated last week, who this time sticks his neck out, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” And, perhaps this time with a bit more urgency, Jesus replies:
Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, “Show us the Father?” Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves.
Jesus and the Father are untied, in relationship, connected and are therefore one. If you have seen and known Jesus, then you have seen and known God. It’s like in life: if you have seen the works of love, Love in action in the world, then you know and have seen God in Christ. If you have acted in love, then you are one with Jesus, one with the Father.
As I have said many times over the past seven or eight weeks, in the midst of this very real crisis it is easy to forget the gifts we already possess; forget how much we are already loved; forget we are connected with God and God with us. It is easy to get caught up in fear and worry. We all do it. We all have had trouble sleeping or bad dreams, many of us are anxious about our health or our finances. It is a true moment of uncertainty and I can’t blame anyone for having these feelings. At the same time, we already possess all we need for us to respond, to be comforted, really, to be empowered in this moment to continue in the work of ministry, the works of Love. In short, we don’t need anything we don’t already have.
Our existing relationship with Jesus is all we need. He knows us and we know him and if we keep ourselves open to the reality of his presence in our lives we will realise that we already have faith. In and through that relationship, born in Baptism and sustained in the Eucharist, we become the Body of Christ, one with each other, one with Jesus, and one with God the Father. And if we forget, if we find it hard (which we will), we always have a community here to remind us and support us, for that is what we do. That is what the foot washing was all about. That is the Way of which Jesus speaks, which Jesus is. It is a life of mutuality, relationship, and support in which the duty and responsibility of everyone is to love each other.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Easter Feria, 6 May 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume