On the table by my bed there is a little tarnished picture frame, maybe 4 inches by 6 inches, and inside the frame, arranged in a pentagon shape on a piece of blue felt are six United States coins—a John F. Kennedy half-dollar, three quarters, and a couple of dimes. They all bear the date 1965, the year that I was born, and at the bottom of the frame, between the matte and the glass, there is a little slip of paper with a typewritten inscription that says, “Daniel’s Natal Coins.” The coins, in themselves, are not worth any more than their face value. And the whole package does not make a very attractive item—my wife is always trying to get me to put it away in a box or a drawer. But I like to have it out where I can see it, because it reminds me of the man who made it—my Grandpa Ray. And I like to remember Grandpa Ray because I know that he loved me.
Of course my parents love me, and my other grandparents loved me, but, maybe because I was his first grandchild, Grandpa Ray loved me unreservedly and I knew it. He was generous to everyone, and every birthday and Christmas and Easter my brothers and I knew that we could count on something special from Ray and my Grandma Lenore. But I was the only one who ever got anything quite like Daniel’s Natal Coins, something he made with his own hands.
The upper edge of the white paper matte in Daniel’s Natal Coins is slightly bent and crumpled. The blue felt lining is curled down away from that edge, revealing a narrow slice of the cardboard backing of the frame. The half dollar has been pushed down toward the quarters in the middle, making further wrinkles in the lining. These imperfections are visible evidence of a boring afternoon when I was 7 or 8 years old when my desire to hold those coins in my hand, to feel their weight and see the reverse of them got the better of me. I tried to slide the backing out of the frame at the bottom, but I only succeeded in doing the damage I just described. When I saw what was happening, I stopped at once, and felt ashamed.
I never told Grandpa Ray about what I’d done with my Natal Coins, and it wasn’t long after that that his habit of smoking a couple of packs a day started to catch up with him. But I know that he’d forgive me, because he loved me. And that love is his real legacy to me. My biological grandfather wasn’t much of a dad. I never met him, but from what I hear he was a distant, self-hating alcoholic, with a savage wit and a jaundiced view of the world. He and Grandma Lenore divorced when my dad was still young, and it wasn’t until she met and married Ray that he started to experience what a loving father is. He himself was not always an ideal dad, but he did pretty well, all things considered. I don’t have any doubt that he loves me and is proud of me, and I think a lot of the credit for that goes to Grandpa Ray.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus leaves his disciples a parting gift, a token of his love. It has various names—Peace, the Holy Spirit, a New Commandment—but these are different ways of talking about the same gift. It is the gift his life, which lives on in the community of those who follow him, and his love, which is the nourishment that sustains them, and the light that guides them, and the power that glorifies them. Jesus’ disciples, and we who are their heirs, haven’t always done justice to that gift. Like children trying to pry it open to grasp the treasures it holds, the church is forever trying to take the grace of Jesus Christ apart and turn it into something we control. We prefer our doctrines about how the gift works to the gift itself, which is just a way of refusing to let it really change the way we live.
But the message of Easter is that betrayal is no obstacle to the giver of the gift. Today’s gospel lesson begins right at that moment when Judas leaves the supper table to set in motion Jesus’ Crucifixion. The great world-saving mission of the Word made Flesh that John announced at the beginning of his gospel is now completing its descent into the human realm. It is coming to meet us at the point where we seem least like God, where we are letting each other down, stabbing each other in the back, breaking faith and selling out. But Jesus doesn’t get hung up on the fact that his friend has done him wrong. He doesn’t let the pain of betrayal turn his heart cold and hard.
And in that moment, says the Gospel, he is glorified. He can’t control what is about to happen to him, but in spite of that, Jesus is still free. The freedom to choose love, even in the face of betrayal and violation, is the true glory of a human being. Anyone can love people when they are loving to us, and treat us the way we want to be treated. But that kind of love is really just imitation. I look like I love you because I’m doing the same kind, patient, generous and affectionate things to you that you do to me. But let you do something that hurts me, and just like that, I’ll be looking for a way to hurt you back.
The love that Jesus has for people is also based on imitation, but it is not the imitation of other people. It is the imitation of God. That is why the gospel says that he has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. His love for Judas doesn’t depend on being reciprocated, so it can’t be broken by betrayal. It’s free, like the love of God. It’s a gift, like life itself. Like our bodies, and minds, and this big, wide, beautiful world to live in are gifts. They are gifts that cannot be repaid. But the giver can be imitated. The gift can be passed along to others. And that’s what Jesus commands us to do—to give the love that doesn’t expect to be reciprocated, to love, not in the hope of repayment, but in the hope of living in the glory of God.
The New Testament says that the free gift of God’s love doesn’t oblige us to do anything, but it will live in us, and grow in us, when we pass it on to others. If others treat us with violence, dishonor, or treachery, we repay them with the love that God has for all her children, the love with which Jesus loved us. It’s hard to believe that such a simple principle could be the lever to turn the whole sad and disastrous course of human affairs completely around. So we don’t believe it. We try to take it apart and grasp it in our hands. We set up terms and conditions and contingencies on what came to us for free. We say God’s love is for everyone, provided they meet certain basic requirements. We say the mercy of God is on all his works, except for such and such categories of people and places; we say that God is slow to anger and quick to forgive, except in the case of certain crimes.
Now I’m not saying it’s easy to put in to practice. Love often means speaking the difficult truth, and defying the conventional wisdom. I’m not saying it’s always clear how to love somebody, especially somebody who’s out of control, who’s blowing people up or defrauding the poor or abusing children. I’m just saying that it’s what Jesus commanded us to do. It really is that simple: Love one another as I have loved you. Nobody really knows how it works. But the Easter gospel says that God rewarded Jesus for it. He raised him from the dead, and exalted him to heaven, and set him at his right hand to reign in glory for ever and ever. Not because he had to, or because he owed it to him, but because he loved him. And he trusted him with the gift of eternal life, because he knew he would pass it on, for free, to anyone who walks in his footsteps.