Easter 5C Sermon (1998)

5th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 13:31-35;
Rev 21:1-6; Acts 11


Today’s gospel tells of the new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.” The setting is Jesus’ last supper on the night of his betrayal, and he give his disciples a new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” But what is the old commandment? And why do we need the new one now, here at the last supper which foreshadows the banquet we’ll share in the End Time?

The answer, I would propose, lies in the first words of this lesson, “When he had gone out…” Who had gone out? Judas, Jesus’ betrayer, had gone out to do his dastardly deed. But now that Judas has left the table everything is different. Jesus is about to go to the cross. Jesus is about to reveal to us a love and forgiveness that takes him all the way to the cross. Extraordinary! So he gives his disciples a new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

But everything has changed with Judas gone out because there is now an extreme test case for this love of Jesus that takes him all the way to the cross? Will this love extend even to Judas, and to the Judases of this world? Have you ever wondered whether, upon hearing Jesus’ new commandment, any one of the other disciples went out into the night looking for Judas in order to extend that love to him? Did anyone fear for him, miss him, or try — even after he brought soldiers to Gethsemane — to bring Judas back, to talk him out of his shame, his anger, his rapidly deepening hell?

We know not how to answer those questions. My guess is no one found him, even if someone tried. To this day it seems that no one has found Judas. He is still out there, it seems, wandering somewhere in the night, forsaken by every generation of disciples since that ancient Thursday, the night of the new commandment. Every time we gather for our sacred meal we commemorate Judas and his unforgivable behavior when we speak of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when he was betrayed,” taking bread. We speak of his sin, but we do not name him. We have not searched for him, and we have not found him. His place at the Lord’s table remains empty.

We are no strangers to such brokenness, either, or to its accompanying pain. In our generation we have known the pain of broken churches. We all bear the name of Christ, but there are some with whom we would not eat his meal. We all claim to be the heirs of Abraham, our father in the faith, but some among us cannot abide even the presence of a real, live Jew. Our families, too, know the pain and shame of places at the table where no one sits any more. We ache and we sob over friendships that were put to death with hasty, angry, bitter words. For each of us, at least one Judas wanders about in the night unforgiven. From another perspective, each of us is Judas, slipping about in the shadows, unforgiven, unloved, utterly alone. […]

How then shall we love one another in the family, as the new commandment requires? The very love we need if we’re to love in that new way is given to us as a gift by the one who commands its practice. Our gospel lesson records Jesus’ identification of the moment of Judas’ departure into the night as the moment in which Jesus’ glorification began. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ glorification is the ironic code word for his crucifixion. Jesus will be glorified and his Father will be glorified in him when he loses his life, when he gives it up. Then, and only then, comes the glorification.

Jesus loved truly by giving himself away, by losing himself. Genuine love always means losing oneself — in another’s arms, in another’s laughter, in another’s tears. But more, to love is to lose oneself and thereby to find oneself, to find one’s true humanity. Such was and is the love of Jesus. He lost himself when he gave himself up for us. And now, risen, he lives. He lives in us who are his body, the baptized who are animated by his Spirit. In us he has found his place for loving. The love that he commands he also gives. It lives — he lives! — restlessly within us, looking for Judas, searching for all the traitors out there in the night. We who are baptized and have lost ourselves in that Lord of ours now search out whomever it is that has become Judas for us that we might lose ourselves in the pain that he or she has inflicted upon us, or we have inflicted upon him or her. And in that losing ourselves, the Risen Christ promises us, we shall find ourselves. We shall live, and we shall find our real selves, loved, forgiven, and seated again as friend at the table with one who has betrayed me, or whom I have betrayed, one with whom I had lost the capacity to share humanity.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have loved one another,” Jesus said. Jesus gifts the world with his love by losing himself in this community which still has its agents out looking for Judas, a community restless forever with the love of the one who gave the new commandment the moment Judas left the room on a mission from which he still has not returned. If you would find God in this lonely world, then look for the community that has its messengers out searching the ditches and hedgerows for you, and for me. There you will find the love of God. There you will find God. There you will find yourself.

I’d like to retell one of my favorite stories, by Christian counselor Dennis Linn, about how his mind was changed about God. (2) He describes how his image of God was like stern old Uncle George, that Good Old Uncle George was the sort of person that people respected the old fashioned way [raising arm and fist to indicate ‘respect’ by brute force]. Then he tells this story of how his mind was changed:

One day Hilda came to me crying because her son had tried to commit suicide for the fourth time. She told me that he was involved in prostitution, drug dealing and murder. She ended her list of her son’s “big sins” with, “What bothers me most is that my son says he wants nothing to do with God. What will happen to my son if he commits suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God?”Since at the time my image of God was like Good Old Uncle George, I thought “God will probably send your son to hell.” But I didn’t want to tell Hilda that. I was glad that my … training had taught me … to [instead] ask …, “What do you think?”

“Well,” Hilda replied, “I think that when you die, you appear before the judgment seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell.” Sadly, she concluded, “Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell.”

Although I tended to agree with her, I didn’t want to say, “Right on, Hilda! Your son would probably be sent to hell.” I was again grateful for my theological training which taught me a second strategy: when you don’t know how to solve a theological problem, then let God solve it. So I said to Hilda, “Close your eyes. Imagine that you are sitting next to the judgment seat of God. Imagine also that your son has died with all these serious sins and without repenting. Your son has just arrived at the judgment seat of God. Squeeze my hand when you can imagine that.”

A few minutes later Hilda squeezed my hand. She described to me the entire judgment scene. Then I asked her, “Hilda, how does your son feel?” Hilda answered, “My son feels so lonely and empty.” I asked Hilda what she would do. She said, “I want to throw my arms around my son.” She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined herself holding her son tightly.

Finally, when she had stopped crying, I asked her to look into God’s eyes and watch what God wanted to do. God stepped down from the throne, and just as Hilda did, embraced Hilda’s son. And the three of them, Hilda, her son, and God, cried together and held one another.

I was stunned. What Hilda taught me in those few minutes is the bottom line of healthy Christian spirituality: God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most.

Will we ever find Judas? Will he ever sit again at his place? Only God knows. But we have reason to hope. Despite what all the other passages in the New Testament say, we can hope if for no other reason because of the promise in today’s second lesson in Revelation 21. Some day, one day, when the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven decked out like a bride approaching her breathless husband, God will set out a great marriage feast. God will throw the party to end all parties at which God will wipe away every tear. Then will end all mourning — no more tears, no more pain.

Will Judas be present? Dare we hope that? I suspect we can. He will sit amongst all the rest of us who bear the scars of our own treachery beneath our white robes. For so long as Judas remains out there in the night, wandering alone or swinging lifeless in the breeze, there will be tears and aching in the community where his place is still set at the table, but where he does not sit. When he has been found, then I know that I, too, shall have been found, and forgiven, and loved.

The banquet is set before us. We remember once more that night of the new commandment, but also we look ahead to the day of its fulfillment. Let us celebrate the joy we have in sitting together as family, reconciled to each other, having lost ourselves but having also found ourselves in each other, and living in hope while waiting for the day when every place at our table will be filled. And let the people say, Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmanuel Lutheran,
Racine, WI, May 10, 1998


1. Much of this sermon is based on, and taken from, “Proclaiming a Crucified Eschaton,” by Frederick Niedner (Institute for Liturgical Studies, Valparaiso University, copyright 1998), pp. 10-14.

2. Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God, by Dennis, Sheila, & Matthew Linn [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994], pages 8-11.

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