Written by Brian Johnson, Pastor of Haymarket Church in Haymarket, VA
The structure of John’s Gospel is a little weird. All of the Gospels, in their own way, zoom in on Holy Week, and especially on the crucifixion – giving us much more detail about the events of Jesus’ last days than they do about the rest of his life. John, for example, covers the first three years of Jesus’ ministry in the first 11 chapters of his Gospel. John chapter 12 begins the day before Palm Sunday, and covers Palm Sunday and most of Holy Week. But, starting with John 13, we spend 5 chapters (John 13-17) at the Last Supper (the meal Jesus shared with his inner circle before he died). Chapter 18-19 (which are VERY long chapters) focus on Jesus arrest, trial, and death. And then chapters 20-21 tell stories of the resurrection.
So, think about that. John 1-11 covers 3 years. John 12 covers 5 days. But John 13-17 covers one meal. Clearly, John thought that what happened at the last supper was absolutely essential to the story of Jesus.
John begins his story of the Last Supper by talking about what happened after the meal was over. After Jesus and the disciples eat, Jesus washes their feet – an act of humility and service – and commands them to do the same for each other. After commanding them to love each other, Jesus begins a long block of teaching. This teaching is often called “The Farewell Discourse.” It’s Jesus saying goodbye to his closest followers (and friends), preparing them for what it will be like after he has died (and been raised from the dead). He’s getting them ready for what’s about to happen – preparing them for what they are going to face and what God is calling them to do next.
In the midst of this, in John 15, Jesus tells them that they are going to be hated. It’s an odd moment, because Jesus has just commanded them to love each other. And, then, right after talking about love, Jesus transitions directly into talking about hate. He says “If the world hates you, know that it hated me first.” Jesus knows what’s coming for him – Judas has already left the other disciples and is preparing to hand Jesus over to the authorities. The storm clouds are gathering. The world is about to violently reject the very One who created it. The armies of death are assembling, getting ready to unleash their attack.
And, here, Jesus says, quoting Psalms 35 and 69, that the world hates him without any reason. Jesus has done nothing to deserve the violence he’s about to receive. He is truly innocent, and yet that will not stop the powers that are arrayed against him. And he’s warning his disciples that, if they stick close to Jesus, the same fate – the same hate – might come for them too.
Jesus invites his disciples – invites us – to stay close to him and abide in his love. We are invited to practice love beyond society’s expectations, to welcome the outcast, to accept those who have been rejected, to forgive even when it seems impossible, to tear down walls and cross borders and break every chain that holds people down. If we do that – if we stay close to Jesus by living the way he invites us to live – he warns us that we are sure to experience resistance, even hatred. Part of what is happening here is that Jesus is warning us to count the cost – to make sure we know what we are getting into when we sign up to follow him. Following Jesus, if we really try it, isn’t going to be easy. This isn’t some spiritual-sounding formula to improve your life in 6 guaranteed steps. This is a way of life that leads to the cross. So, Jesus says, get ready. If the world hated me, it’s going to hate my followers too. So, if you want to live my way of cross-shaped love, know that it won’t always be easy.
Psalms 35 and 69 are poems in which the author begs God for mercy – people hate me but I didn’t do anything wrong! Jesus, by quoting these psalms, is reminding his followers that, if we are going to follow him, the only way to make it will be by putting ourselves into God’s hands. We can’t sustain ourselves – we can’t survive this on our own – our only hope is in God’s grace and mercy.
The other thing that’s happening here is that John is reminding us – by pointing to this Psalm – that Jesus was the only one who was truly innocent. Jesus is the spotless lamb who goes to the slaughter. He is the innocent one who nevertheless accepts punishment in our place. John is reminding us that the world hated Jesus for no good reason. He was perfectly good, and yet we treated him with nothing but hatred and contempt.
As we move towards the second half of Holy Week – and as we prepare to dive deeply into the stories of the last supper and the cross – we are invited to turn our eyes towards the Innocent One who was nevertheless counted as guilty. We are invited to be honest about what real love – not a sentimental feeling, but the active love that lifts up the downtrodden and offers healing to the broken – we are invited to be honest about what real love costs. The story we tell this week is an invitation to cling to the One who was hated for our sake, and yet did not respond in kind.
We hated him for no reason. And he responded by offering us unimaginable love.
Thanks be to God.
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