Welcome to Girardian’s Virtual Bible Study! Each week we explore the lectionary passage with the help of by Rene Girard insight into human relationships. You can continue to join the GVBS at 10:30 a.m. Central on the Raven Facebook Foundation page during the month of May. This episode explores Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35.
Revisiting the new command
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
This week we revisit these words of Jesus spoken at the Last Supper. The new commandment, the mandate from which the name “Holy Thursday” derives, is that we love ourselves not just as we love ourselves, but as the Self of Love loves us. The incarnate love, Jesus, perfects our love and offers and empowers us to continue to love one another.
What is perfect love? It is the love that sees through all of humanity’s violence, rupture and separation from God and from each other. It is love that supports all of this and that forgives, heals, renews. It is love that finds us through fear and hate and burns through cruelty, bitterness and brutality and melts away anxiety and shame, restoring us to our true nature as children of Love. It is a love that Jesus embodies in concrete acts of embracing the outcasts, healing the suffering, and breaking bread with the broken. He is fully revealed on the cross and vindicated, magnified and dispersed throughout the universe at the resurrection.
Thus, if the lectionary has recently explored this text during Holy Week, it is appropriate to return to the new commandment to love one another before the resurrection, when we can see its breadth and depth more clearly. The magnitude of this command is explored in Acts 11, to which we now turn before returning to the Gospel.
Acts 11:1-18: The Breadth of God’s Love
Who should we love?
“Why do you go to the uncircumcised and eat with them?”
Peter patiently explains to these disciples of Judea why he keeps the uncircumcised company. He has patience because not so long ago he would have been reluctant to eat with such “unclean” people himself. He is in the process of overcoming his own biases and prejudices, which not only disappear once exposed but take time to be completely extracted from the human heart. So he remembers a vision that helped him see everything in a new light:
“There was something like a great sheet descending from the sky, lowered by its four corners; and he approached me. Looking at it closely, I saw four-legged animals, beasts of prey, reptiles and birds of the sky. I also heard a voice saying to me: ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat. But I said, “Not at all, Lord; for nothing profane or impure has ever entered my mouth. But a second time the voice from heaven answered: ‘What God has made pure you must not call profane.’ »
Peter goes on to make the obvious connection between this metaphor and people. “What God has made pure you must not call profane.” Peter had looked at animals that violated his dietary restrictions with disgust, until God told him not to. God made all things, and God makes all things pure. God created the whole world and declared it good. The uncircumcised, those who grew up with different customs and traditions…these were also people that Peter once considered unclean. But God told him to “make no distinction” between them and himself. God made these people. God loves these people. Who is Pierre not to love them too?
There is a common anti-Semitic reading of this passage that completely misses the point. Some have used this text to mock or feel superior to Jews who observe dietary laws. To use this passage against anyone is to completely miss the point. It is about the universal love of God and his blessing on all mankind. It is simply not about expanding our diet but our heart.
The rituals and traditions by which people can know each other are not necessarily bad. But the mark of who we are should be how we include others, not how or who we exclude. We should seek to be recognized as disciples of the Love by our love.
Peter follows Jesus and learns what it means to love. He knows his own weaknesses and knows he has a long way to go. He speaks to those who chastised him, not with anger, condescension or arrogance, but with humility. And his detractors are moved, I think as much by his attitude as by his words. They praise God saying, “Then God gave even the Gentiles repentance that leads to life.”
So who should we love? God has blessed even them. Is there anyone we’ve stood up against? Are we ready now not just to accept but to rejoice in God’s love for them? Are we ready to recognize that God calls us not to distinguish between them and us?
John 13:31-35: The depth of God’s love
So who should we love? Everyone. Without exception. And How? ‘Or’ What will we love?
How Jesus loved us.
This is the new command given to the disciples after Jesus washed their feet.
This is our new command.
We must love with a love that makes us vulnerable. As Fr. James Alison explains, you cannot wash someone’s feet without physically getting under them in a position in which you can be knocked down. So it’s a love that trusts, a love that takes risks. It is a love that can open others to love, a love that can bring out the best in others and ourselves, but also a love that is scary. It is a love that reaches out to the needs of others despite the cost. It is a love that we can give because it is a love that we are given.
We must love with a messy and daring love. We must love with a love that draws us to people, places, and situations that we might have wanted to avoid.
Jesus washes the dirty, smelly, desert-trodden feet of his disciples. He sees the places we try to hide, sees the sides of us we try to cover. We are called to deal with the disorder, the brokenness, the unpleasant. What may have caused us to recoil or retreat, we are called to draw near and see that God is there. We are called to deal with the anxieties and shames of others with gentleness and attention.
And moreover, we are called to open ourselves to the love that exposes us, that lays bare all our own anxieties and shames. Our call to be Christ for one another is also a call to allow others to be Christ for us, to be Love for us. It is a love that calls us to let our guard down enough to be loved.
What wonderful love is this?!
It is the love that manifests itself fully in the cross and the resurrection. The love that absorbs, exposes, forgives and heals our violence. The love that reveals God in those we have victimized, so that we can change our harmful relationships with others. It is love that shines through us and can reach the eyes of those who hurt us. It is the love that glorifies God, the love in which the glory of God is magnified for the world.
Jesus gives the new commandment to his disciples after Judas leaves. Frederick Niedner, of the Institute of Liturgical Studies at the University of Valparaiso, asks if any of the disciples took this commandment to heart and went to find Judas, to listen to him gently, to help him in his distress, to extend this love. Maybe not. Maybe they didn’t because they didn’t realize Judas was included in that love. Perhaps because they did not yet realize the extent of this love to which they were called. Maybe they didn’t reach out to Judas because they didn’t realize how much they themselves needed this boundless and merciful love. At the last supper, Jesus tells them to love as he loved, but the fullness of his love will not appear until he comes to them after his crucifixion and forgives them their own abandonment and even their refusal.
Peter denied Jesus. Peter saw how Jesus forgave him. And that helped him understand that God’s mercy extends to everyone, even those he would have excluded.
This is why it is so important to revisit this Gospel from this side of the resurrection. That’s why it’s important to keep revisiting this gospel again and again, always marveling at the breadth and depth of God’s love, remembering that love is our calling. Because we never know how much we ourselves will need in this life of mistakes that awaits us. So whenever we find ourselves reclaiming our identity by drawing distinctions from those we are not, we can remind ourselves that God is calling us to love them too, with a love that calls us to see the vulnerability of others. with a vulnerability that is unique to us. We need to revisit these passages so that we can look at our own dirty feet, our own broken feet, and recognize that God even loves us.
As we are loved, we are called to love. May we listen and follow. Amen.
Picture: Screenshot from Youtube: “Footwashing Explained (Bible)” by Preparing the Bride.