Near the end of the German film “Downfall,” as Soviet troops close in on Berlin, the focus shifts from the battlefield to the Führer’s secret underground office. In a scene that helped earn the film an Oscar nomination, the actor Bruno Ganz delivers an epic tantrum that blames Germany’s defeat on its military commanders, the SS, rank-and-file German soldiers and finally the German people themselves. Mr. Ganz does such a fine job channeling the rage of a defeated madman that it is easy to forget how little historical documentation remains from that event. Few of the people who witnessed the tirade survived the war, and only one wrote a firsthand account—of questionable accuracy. Mr. Ganz’s riveting performance is believable not because it is historically well grounded but because it is the way most people expect a defeated man to behave. Recriminations, blame, rage and a sense of unimpeachability are all too common in leaders at every level.
‘I give you a new commandment: Love one another.’ (Jn 13:34)
What new thing has Jesus’ love taught you?
How has your faith taught you to subvert
The context of this Sunday’s Gospel reading might have suggested a “Downfall”-style rant at this point in the John’s narrative. After repeated controversies with authorities in Jerusalem, Jesus has gone into hiding (Jn 11:54). Now, having gathered covertly with his disciples, he announces his imminent betrayal and identifies his betrayer as one of the Twelve (Jn 13:27). Not much further into the narrative, he will reveal Peter’s coming denials (Jn 13:36-38). The passage that the church reads this Sunday is the interlude between these revelations. One might have expected a statement of disappointment or regret, or a lashing out at the disciples for their disloyalty and cowardice. One might also imagine a leader who rallies his followers with calls for vengeance.
Instead, Jesus speaks to them of love. John goes to great pains to show how Jesus acted in love even as he faced death. In the lengthy discourse that starts in Jn 13:31 and continues to Jn 17:26, Jesus speaks of the love he and the Father share, of the love he has for his disciples and of the love they must have for one another. Jesus acknowledges the world’s hatred (Jn 15:18-25) not to get a reaction from his disciples, but rather as a contrast to the gift that the Father offers. The hostility of the world is not a cause for concern as long as they trust in the coming Advocate and love one another.
“I make all things new.” Now, at the moment of his own apparent downfall, Jesus does not behave as one might expect. There are no tantrums or demands for vengeance, but only commands for his disciples to love. This is the new thing that will remake creation.
In the face of deadly opposition, Jesus never swerved from his commitment to love. He remained loyal to the Father and humble among his friends. He opened a new path of human existence, freed from self-destruction and alienation.
Love is the key to discipleship. Without the love Jesus revealed, Christianity is a jumble of practices and rules, traditions and teachings that neither cohere nor inspire. With love, the teachings of Christ draw disciples ever closer to God and neighbor. For those who live as Christ did, death is no downfall. It is an invitation to a new life of eternal glory.