By Father Casey

For the first few weeks of the season of Easter, the gospel stories we hear in church feature encounters with the risen Jesus. But midway through the Great Fifty Days, we set down the resurrection appearances and pick back up with Jesus and the disciples on his last night of mortal life.

For a long time, I didn’t understand or even like this mid-season pivot. It seemed strange to me that during Easter we wouldn’t focus exclusively on what happened after Jesus was raised. Those stories also happen to be some of my favorites in the Bible, and I could hear all of them every year. But here we are, less than a month from Easter Day, and we will be yoyoed back to the Upper Room at the Last Supper.

The longer I live, however, the more I understand why we do this (isn’t that true for so much in life). As much as the resurrection of Jesus changes everything and proves that the worst thing will not be the last thing, nevertheless, we still live in a complicated and often cruel world. We have not yet experienced the perfect completion that will one day come, which is why, even with the promise that Jesus will one day lead us out of death, we still need the words and witness of Jesus to lead us through this life.

So, I’ve gotten more comfortable with our mid-season shift back to the Upper Room to hear again what Jesus teaches before his death, and I hope you will, too. Because this weekend, we’ll hear one of the most important of all of Jesus’ teachings, which is so essential to the work of living our faith that we hear it every year on Maundy Thursday (maundy, from the Latin for “command”).

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,

if you have love for one another.”

Now, notice what he doesn’t say: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples…

…if you believe the right things.

…if you put a fish decal on your bumper.

…if you post religious messages on Facebook.

…if you hold a particular position on certain divisive social issues.

But, if you have love for one another. That is how he wants us to show we are his followers. That’s how he wants us to not only believe in him, but to live like him.

Comb the gospels, and you will find that nothing irritated Jesus quite so much as self-righteous religious people. These were the ones telling other people what to do, lining up with stones to hurl at “sinners,” and abundantly clear about which side God was on – their own. Instead, Jesus offered a strikingly different way. He walked humbly and practiced mercy. He sought out the very people that the so-called religious leaders had judged and dismissed. He taught that the key question isn’t whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God’s side. And the way to be on God’s side is to love.

Today, as then, the sickness of self-righteousness infects many lives, including many of the most outspokenly religious. Plenty of people claim with too much confidence that God is on their side, and plenty of people have too much certainty about what God desires and demands. And today, as then, this religious certainty tends to manifest in telling other people what to do, and lining up with stones to hurl at someone else. Which is why we need to remember the great commandment of Jesus on his final night of mortal life. We will show we are his disciples – and if his disciples, then also on the side of God – if we have love for one another.

There are very big debates happening in our society, debates about abortion, racial justice, war, climate change, and education, to name just a few. As hard as some try to make these debates simple and straightforward – two opposing and contradictory views that you must choose between (and woe to the person who chooses the wrong side)  – the truth is that all of these debates are complicated and nuanced. Thoughtful people can carefully engage these topics and come to different opinions.

Which is why we need to remember that we will show we are disciples of Jesus not by the “side” we’re on, but by our love for one another. And frankly, we would all be better participants in these important debates, and do more to help our society find its way forward together, if we tried harder to love like Jesus – practicing humility, mercy, empathy, and kindness. So remember, friends, what you have been commanded, and how you will show that you are a follower of Jesus: by the way you love.

It’s as ridiculously simple, and as incredibly hard, as that.

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