"Kangaroo Care" – John 13:31-35
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
I read a devotion by Peter Marty about something called “Kangaroo Care,” this week. I’d actually heard of it before…knew it was a thing…but just never knew it had a name. “Kangaroo Care” is the practice of laying a naked newborn baby onto the bare chest of its mother. And I knew it was a meaningful, successful way of establishing a connection…of promoting a very real physical, emotional bond between a mother and her child. I even knew it was something done by fathers and adoptive parents, to establish a kind of physical bond and connection for parents who aren’t the birth mother. That it is something God has facilitated through the natural way of things for eons, seems obvious.
But I read this week that it’s been noticed by doctors and nurses and the medical community as a viable medical practice and treatment, even, on occasions when medicine and doctors and therapy and other modern conventions don’t cut the mustard. The story I read came from an occupational therapist who worked in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit who talked about putting Kangaroo Care to use very deliberately when a baby’s heartbeat is irregular, out of whack, slightly off rhythm.
When drugs don’t work, and because electrically shocking a newborn’s heart is too risky, the simple, holy prescription to re-synchronize the little baby’s heartbeat is to lay the naked child, onto the naked chest of the mother. The baby’s head is deliberately turned so that the child’s ear is just above the heart of the mother, and when it works, the fix…the cure…is nothing short of miraculous, if you ask me: the less powerful beating of the child’s heart begins to pump in time with the more powerful rhythm of the mother’s heart. Their hearts begin to beat in time, together. Apparently, even outside of that, NICU nurses and therapists have found that everything from sleep and weight gain to respiration and more can be helped by this kind of skin-to-skin “Kangaroo Care."
Of course, they call it – “Kangaroo Care” – because of the way kangaroo mothers carry their kangaroo babies so close to their bodies for so long after they’re born. But it made me think about Jesus…and this new commandment to love one another…and the practice of Holy Communion, which we’ll celebrate today with a handful of our youngest ones.
But first, we can’t just read or hear these words from today’s Gospel and pretend to find any meaning in them, without first being reminded of their context. And that’s a little strange for us, on the 5th Sunday after Easter, because these are the words Jesus said to his disciples on the evening of the Last Supper – before Easter – just before he was betrayed and denied and crucified and killed. Not only was it the Last Supper, but these were some of Jesus’ last words to his friends and his family, before life and death – as they knew it, anyway – would be changed forever.
So, the short version of this already short little snippet of a Gospel reading, is that Jesus was preparing to leave, to say goodbye, to head for the hill of Calvary, to his own execution, death, and burial. And he wanted to give his disciples some final instructions, some last words, this “new commandment,” before leaving. When you see it after the fact – when you read these words as “parting words” like I do, anyway – it makes you wonder if Jesus might have had some doubts about that whole resurrection thing working out.
But these parting words… these final instructions… this “new commandment” is no less profound or meaningful, even after the resurrection, as we anticipate Jesus’ departure once again.
Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
But this is hard work, loving one another, don’t you think? When I hear Jesus say, “just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another” I think, “Yeah…we’re gonna need you around a little more often. We’re gonna need to keep seeing and experiencing that kind of reminder, that kind of presence, those kinds of examples: the foot-washing, the preaching, the teaching, the healing, the forgiving, the feeding hungry people, the comforting of the lonely, the loving the outcast. All of that is gonna need to keep happening if you’re going to expect me…if you’re going to expect us…if you’re going to expect them to keep loving one another the way you’d like.”
Because when we get too far away from the source of our faith… when we step beyond the reach of our inspiration and encouragement for loving one another… when we move beyond our ability to hear the command and encouragement of Jesus to love the other… we drop the ball, don’t we? We lose our way. We fall behind. The heartbeat of our faithfulness slows to a rate that can be imperceptible from its source, or even from our best intentions.
Which is why Jesus gave this command to love one another, just after washing the feet of his disciples and just before heading to the cross where he would lay it all down for the love of them, and for the love of the world. It’s why Jesus gave this command to love one another around the table with bread and wine. It’s why he transformed the earthly bread and wine of that meal into the heavenly body and blood of the sacrament – so that we would be nourished with it, comforted in it, encouraged by it, loved through it.
So that our sinfulness, laid bare-naked in the presence of the body and blood of our creator – like a sick child, laid upon the breast of her mother – could be transformed by forgiveness and changed into new life and deep, grateful love for the sake of the world.
Holy Communion is like God’s “Kangaroo Care” for those of us whose hearts have missed a beat. It is our tangible connection to God’s love for us. It is our tactile reminder of God’s grace in our midst. Communion is our connection to the divine love of God that means to re-calibrate the beat of our hearts as disciples and the beat of our collective heart as the church in the world, so that ours – and so that OURS, together – will beat in time with grace and gratitude, with generosity and service, with hope and love, in the name of Jesus Christ, who loved us first, who loves us still, and who calls us to nothing more and nothing less than, to love one another.