Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Other Commandment


On Sunday, the gospel lesson (John 13:31-35) recalls for us Jesus' new commandment: love one another. As Steve Pankey wrote Monday in a great piece that has me (again) rethinking my plan to preach on Acts 11, this is a wonderful lectionary opportunity--all the loving mandate of the Last Supper but without the gross foot-washing. Now, I'm looking forward to Sunday's gospel in a new way. But, before we get there, let's stop and think about another commandment Jesus gives right before that Last Supper speech.

In the daily Eucharistic lectionary for Eastertide, the gospel lesson for Wednesday in the fourth week of Easter is John 12:44-50. Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He has predicted his death by describing the necessity of the lifting up of the Son of Man. He has confronted the unbelief of the people, quoting Isaiah's "He has blinded their eyes" passage. And now, in this passage, Jesus is yelling at whoever will listen, "Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in the one who sent me." If you go back and read John 12, you can see that today's passage, which immediately precedes the Last Supper feet-washing scene, is an emotional mini-climax. Jesus has whipped himself up into his own frenzy. His time is short. His work is not finished. He's agitated and not afraid to show it.

At the end of chapter 12--again, right before the feet are washed--Jesus says, "...the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life." Jesus has a commandment to give. But it's not his. It's straight from the Father. And, despite what you may be thinking, he seems to say, the commandment itself is eternal life.

What does that even mean? The commandment is eternal life. Not "the commandment leads to eternal life." Not "the commandment is accompanied by eternal life." Not "the commandment is the product of eternal life." The commandment itself is eternal life. How are we to make sense of that?

I hate to do it, but I'm turning to the Greek (long sigh). The Greek word for "commandment" is "ἐντολή." It means "commandment" or "ordinance" or "injunction." In the New Testament (written in Greek), it is used for "law." So when Jesus tells us that he has a commandment from the Father, it's not unfair for us to picture a new Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai with a new, albeit shorter tablet in his hand. This is the Commandment (capital-C) from on high. But what is a commandment? As Strong's Concordance shows, the Greek word "ἐντολή" is derived from "ἐν" + "τέλος" which in English is like "in" + a word that means "purposeful end." The word τέλος is used to describe the ultimate direction for life. Our τέλος is our ultimate purpose. It is where our lives trajectory is pointing. The Greek behind the word for "commandment" points us toward our real, true fulfillment. A commandment is that which is rooted in our ultimate trajectory. Starting to make sense?

When God issues a commandment, it isn't simply an "do this or else." It is an instruction--in the teaching sense of the word. It is a direction--in the pointing sense of the word. With all apologies to those who want to look at "commandment" and emphasize the Latin root of "mandare," I think the real theology of this moment is in "ἐντολή" and its teleological foundation. How is the commandment eternal life? Because that is both our ultimate trajectory and end and also the means by which we get there.

Jesus is showing us what the Father's will is and, by delivering an ἐντολή, is directing us to the fulfillment of that end. Whether you're preaching today on John 12 or preaching on Sunday on John 13, keep in mind the etymology of commandment and remind the congregation why the commandment isn't just a step in the right direction but the direction itself.

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