In 1955, the average cost of a new house was $10,950. The first McDonald’s restaurant was built. “Gunsmoke” made its debut on CBS. And America was just starting to run on Dunkin’. The donut shop, started in 1948 by William Rosenberg in Quincy, Mass, in 1948 as “Open Kettle,” was rebranded “Dunkin’ Donuts” in 1950, and in 1955, it became a franchise. But successful businesses need to change with the times. That’s why in 2018 Dunkin Donuts rebranded once again, dropping donuts from their name and becoming simply “Dunkin.” Now I have to say: I’m not a fan. Of course, I am not of the demographic at which the new marketing was aimed. I already know that no one makes a better Boston Cream donut than Dunkin Donuts. But I guess that’s not what the modern consumer is looking for, so their marketing people have tried to position them as an on-the-go brand that prioritizes premier beverages and serving them fast. At the risk of sounding old, I have to say that, regardless of the rebranding, they’re always going to be Dunkin Donuts to me. And no matter what fancy coffee drinks they serve or how fast they serve them, it’s always going to be about the Boston Cream donut for me. But like I said, the rebranding is not for me.
At first glance, it might appear that Jesus is doing some rebranding of his own in John 13:34. He says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” A new commandment. But what is new about it? Hasn’t it always been about love? Loving one another underlies seven of the Ten Commandments. Honoring our parents, not harming but helping our neighbor, being committed in our relationships, not stealing, being truthful, and not wanting what belongs to another – all these commandments have at their core the very old command spelled out in Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love. Being faithful to your family and friends. Looking out for the good of the whole community. It’s at least as old as the Ten Commandments. So what is new about Jesus’ commandment? Is Jesus just rebranding it, bringing it up-to-date, trying to attract more attention (and more obedience) to the original?
Maybe. But I would argue that Jesus’ commandment here is something altogether new because he takes it to a whole new level, a brand new depth. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, he adds, just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” And here is where reading these verses in context is instructive. Because if you read John chapter 13 in its entirety, you would find that Jesus says these words on the night he was betrayed. He speaks this commandment to the disciples right after he has washed their feet – usually the job of a slave – and commanded them to follow his example. So loving one another as Jesus has loved us means willingly, voluntarily doing things for others that we ordinarily would not because we find them repugnant or beneath us.
In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World, she writes about a church where she was once the pastor and which housed a homeless shelter. She wasn’t a regular volunteer at the shelter, but in order to show her support, she would show up to help once a season or so. One morning after the clients left, she wound up with the task of cleaning the toilets, all of which had been, let’s just say, used hard. “Short of falling headfirst into a septic tank,” she writes, “I could not imagine anything worse, which made it the perfect job for me. Scrubbing the bowls one by one, I thought of Saint Francis kissing lepers. I thought of Jesus washing feet. I thought of Mother Teresa bathing the dying of Calcutta. By the time I reached the third bowl I was entirely out of spiritual fantasies, which left me free to remember that I too used toilets, occasionally as these toilets had been used . . . What came out of me smelled no better than what came out of anyone else.” It’s a gross image, I know, especially after preaching about donuts, but it reminds us that the love Jesus commands isn’t sweet like a donut. It does not go down easy like a Boston Cream, nor do we necessarily enjoy the experience. The love Jesus calls us to live goes way beyond the Ten Commandments’ goal of ordering society. It is the extent to which Jesus wants us to put love into action makes this commandment new.
And that’s not all. If you were to read all of John 13, before you got to the new commandment, you would see another way that Jesus intensifies the way love is to be enacted. Because after Jesus washes their feet, all of their feet, including the feet of Judas, Judas leaves the table to turn Jesus in to the authorities. Think about that. Jesus knew what Judas was about to do – and yet as he went around the table washing feet, he did not hesitate when he came to Judas. Jesus demonstrated that his love excludes no one, not even his betrayer, and he calls us to love with the same radical inclusiveness: even those who would betray us, even those who do hateful things to us, even our enemies. “Just as I have loved you,” says Jesus, “you also should love one another.”
This is a new commandment – not just a rebranding of familial love, not just another way to say that the whole community is best served by our respecting and looking out for one another. Jesus’ love commandment is new because of the lengths to which it goes, where nothing is too much to ask and no one is out of bounds. Jesus’ way is hard – too hard for us to follow by our own power. There is no way that we can will ourselves to love to this extreme – no way we can coax ourselves to live and love in this way. If the story of Jesus’ life ended here, with this new commandment, we would all be sunk. But this is not where the story ends. It’s still Easter, friends – that season when we lean into Jesus’ resurrection, which reminds us that, with God, all things are possible. He lives again to show us that nothing – not even that which appears totally crazy and impossible for us – humbly serving our neighbors (even if it means scrubbing toilets) and loving our enemies (even the ones who might very well stab us in the back) – nothing is impossible with God. By this “impossibly possible” love, everyone will surely know that we are his disciples, if we have this new kind of profoundly humble, radically inclusive love for one another. May the spirit of the living Christ empower us to live by this truly new commandment.