5th Sunday of Easter: ‘I Give You a New Commandment: Love One Another’

SCRIPTURES & ART: Jesus teaches that belonging to his sheepfold means adhering to his ‘new’ commandment of loving neighbor ‘as I have loved you.’ Why a ‘new’ commandment?

Ford Madox Brown, “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet,” 1852-1856
Ford Madox Brown, “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet,” 1852-1856 (photo: Public Domain)

As noted last week, the focus of the Gospels of the latter Sundays of Easter switches from accounts of Jesus’ appearances to his Apostles after Easter to elements of his teaching, in preparation for his definitive departure at the Ascension and the gifting of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Last Sunday, hearing Christ’s voice was one mark of belonging to Jesus’ sheepfold. This week, loving neighbor with the measure that God loves us is presented is another mark of belonging to that sheepfold.

Jesus’ teaching is presented in the context of the Last Supper, specifically in the long Farewell Discourse that we find in John 13-18. Wait, you say this comes from the Last Supper? So what makes this an Easter Gospel?

Jesus’ Passion, Death and Resurrection (PDR) are indivisible. They are one act, all of whose elements are essential to our salvation. In sacificing himself unreservedly out of love unto death, Jesus does what Adam and all his children didn’t. In being raised from the dead, the Father affirms the truth and efficacy of whom Jesus was and what he offered. 

The fact that Jesus spoke in the Farewell Discourse of his going away and his sending the Holy Spirit does not in any way diminish the Paschal relevance of that teaching. As a previous essay noted, we human creatures subject to space and time need to parcel out what is one act of love on God’s part.

In today’s Gospel Jesus already speaks of “the Son of Man [being] glorified, and God glorified in him.” Jesus is already glorified, a glory that will find its consummate expression in the Risen Body of Christ.

That glorification occurs outside the presence of sin. Today’s Gospel notes that Jesus speaks of his glorification “when Judas had left them.” Judas has gone off to play his freely chosen part in Jesus’ PDR. He will set in motion the immediate events that lead to Jesus’ glorification. Jesus had sought to cleanse his Apostles by washing their feet, observing “you are clean, though not every one of you. For he knew who was going to betray him, and that is why he said not every one is clean” (John 13:10-11). Just before today’s Gospel, John notes that after Judas’ sacriligeous Communion, he left the table and “it was night” (John 13:30). For John, that “night” was not just an astronomical observation relevant to when the Passover Meal should begin. It is the reign of darkness and evil, a reign whose power Jesus would within a day destroy.

Today’s is also an Easter Gospel because of Jesus’ allusion to his imminent going away: “I will be with you only a little while longer.” While that text is immediately true of the Last Supper context — Jesus would be dead within approximately 20 hours — it is also true of these 40 days between Easter and Ascension, when Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances to his Apostles will definitively cease (and for which the Sunday Gospels are already preparing us by their shift in content).

Finally, Jesus teaches that belonging to his sheepfold means adhering to his “new” commandment of loving neighbor “as I have loved you.”

Why a “new” commandment?

Jesus had been previously asked by the Pharisees to identify the “greatest” Commandment. He identified two: love of God and love of neighbor (Matthew 26:36-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). He had previously said he came not to abolish the Law (of which these Commandments are part) but to “fulfill” it (Matthew 5:17). 

What’s “new” is this:

  • Jesus gives this Commandment not on the basis of appealing to the Law, the Torah, but by his own authority: “I give you a new commandment.”
  • To establish a Commandment and/or “fulfill” the Law belongs to “one greater than Moses” (Hebrews 3:1-6) whose authority is “from God” (John 7:16-17), indeed, equal to God, as last Sunday’s Gospel noted (“the Father and I are one”).
  • When Jesus speaks of the two “greatest commandments,” he speaks of loving neighbor as one’s self. Today, Jesus changes the measure of that neighborly love: love the other “as I have loved you.” Since Jesus is God, loving absolutely, the stakes of how one should love one’s neighbor have just gotten higher for those who seek to be known as his disciples (John 13:35).

It’s just like when Jesus raised the stakes in the Sermon on the Mount to “be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Will we ever be that loving or that perfect? No. But God does not demand success as much as effort, and while we may not love or be perfect, we can always be more loving and more perfect than we are and do. 

That’s true of even human love: would we ever say to one we love, “I think I love you enough? Why do you want more?”

Why this is an Easter Gospel is because, in the light of the grace and redemption given to us by the Risen Christ, we can always be more loving (and more perfect) than we are. We can always reach for the “new” commandment Jesus gave us, because he also gives us the new means to reach.

As noted last week, when we reach this part of Eastertide where the focus of the Gospels shifts from concrete events to Jesus’ teaching, finding appropriate artwork to illustrate that Gospel is a greater challenge. To illustrate today’s Gospel, I’ve chosen British artist Ford Madox Brown’s oil painting from ca. 1855, “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet.” It belongs to the Tate Gallery in Britain, although it’s not currently on display. 

Why this work? Jesus himself showcases it as the illustration of his loving service and if “I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:14-15). As in the case of the “new” commandment, the index for measuring action is Jesus’s deed and love itself.

Brown’s painting is part of the pre-Raphaelite movement in art, which we met earlier this year in Edward Burne-Jones’ tapestry, “The Adoration of the Magi,” featured for the Epiphany. As I wrote back then, “the Pre-Raphaelites, founded in 1848, sought to recover some of the features of 14th century (Quattrocento) Italian art, which they believed had been harmed by the classicism and mannerism of Raphael (hence, the name). Given its fascination with the 14th century, the pre-Raphaelite movement had strong medieval and religious influences,” although it was also affected by 19th-century influences, including Romanticism and interest in nature. Although, as the Tate commentary notes, Brown never joined the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he was strongly associated with and influenced by the movement.

Jesus and Peter are the two central figures, set in the foreground. At least eight or nine other Apostles lurk higher up, in the shadows, some looking at what Jesus is doing, at least one shielding his face with his hands. That they hardly raise their heads over the table top (and are hemmed in by the top of the frame is, as commentator René Dewil notes, an unusual perspective. The first Apostle on the left is fixing his sandals. Is he about to be washed or just washed? Notice the moneybag on the table near him. Is that Judas?

Peter clearly is unhappy with what’s going on, as John’s Gospel tells us, while other Apostles also look similarly scandalized. Their expressions of shock contrast to the noble, romantic, yet humble figure of Jesus, his head lowered, his gaze on Peter’s foot. Dewil also suggests that some of the key pre-Raphaelites serve as models for the Apostles, including William Holman Hunt for Peter. Holman’s painting “The Light of the World,” (“I Stand at the Door and Knock”) is probably best known to Catholics.

Forms and color palette common to the pre-Raphaelites also dominate Brown’s work but, as noted, Brown never formally joined the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. (Reddish-brown hair is a frequent pre-Raphaelite giveaway.) One commentary attributes to this to Brown being somewhat older than the main pre-Raphaelites, having arrived at key elements of their vision independently of them. Brown had a different training, in places like Bruges and Ghent in today’s Belgium, where Raphael’s influences were more limited. He’s also said to have traveled to Italy ca. 1845, where he saw firsthand the work of painters who achieved their success before Raphael, e.g., Giotto and Fra Angelico. And while the pre-Raphaelites often delved into mythology and idealized visions of the past, in his non-religious work Brown very much applied his unique take on pre-Raphaelitism to the contemporary realities of 19th-century Victorian England, as his great mural in neo-Gothic Manchester’s City Hall attests. 

Look at Jesus’ cace. Can’t you imagine that cace, with that curvature of head position, on a late Gothic fresco? Look at the clear lines that separate Jesus and Peter (evident even in the lines that delineate the folded fingers of Peter’s hand). They are really evident on Brown’s sketch for this painting, attached above. That kind of clarity is blurred in Renaissance painting, especially at the hands of Raphael. 

One curiosity about the painting: Jesus’ clothes. In Brown’s original sketch Jesus is barechested, in keeping with John’s own account of how he “took off his outer clothing and wrapped a towel around his waist” that also served to dry the Apostles’ feet (John 13:4-5). Depicting Jesus that way did not go over in Victorian England, and the painting was unsold until Brown painted more substantial robes for Christ.

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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