This Sunday the gospel reading was Jesus giving the disciples the new commandment of love. Here is what I said.
Every Saturday night, as I cook our Saturday Supper, I close the kitchen door and put on some good, loud music to cook by. And you can’t help but notice just how many of the great songs released over the past fifty years or so have something to do with love.
There seem to have been more songs written about love – whether requited or unrequited love – than about anything else. There are thousands of them – and many of them instantly forgettable, though some of them have stood the test of time. “All you need is love”, sang the Beatles, tuning in to the mood of the Sixties but rather missing the point that life is not quite that simple. And, I suspect, thinking of love as warm feelings, feelings of kindness, a desire to do good to others, even, perhaps, as desire for others, but without any of the sense of deep commitment that Jesus calls his disciples to in today’s Gospel reading. Perhaps Michael Ball was closer to the Christian concept of love when he sang the words of Andrew Lloyd Webber: “Love, love changes everything, how I live, and how I die”.
Abba sang about love a lot. I should know. I listen to Abba a lot. Take their song “People need love” which I listened to again last night while preparing our Jambalaya.
People need hope, people need loving
People need trust from a fellow man
People need love to make a good living
People need faith and a helping hand
That doesn’t sound too bad. But unfortunately it gets worse:
Man has always wanted a woman by his side to keep him company
Women always knew that it takes a man to get matrimonial harmony
Everybody knows that a man who’s feeling down wants some female sympathy
Gotta have love to carry on living
Gotta have love ’till eternity
I don’t think that’s the kind of love – and the kind of eternal love – that Jesus had in mind. “I give you a new commandment,” said Jesus to his disciples, “that you love one another.” And then, to make sure that they understood that this love was more than just being nice to one another, or doing one another a good turn every once in a while, he went on, “Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another”.
To fully understand the importance of this reading – this call to love as Jesus loved – we need to place it within the context of the whole of chapter 13 of John’s Gospel. The chapter begins with a demonstration of love that is misunderstood by Peter – the washing of the feet of the disciples by Jesus. And it closes with a commandment to love in the light of the approaching passion of Jesus, which is also misunderstood by Peter. Jesus has to remind Peter, when Peter protests that his love is so great that he will follow Jesus to death, that he will deny him three times. In between the chapter focuses on the possibility of community grounded in love and service, and the reality of betrayal by one within the community, Judas.
The new commandment builds on the words of Jesus to his disciples after the footwashing. They have been told to serve one another – to wash one another’s feet following the example that Jesus has just set them. And now they are to love as he has loved. The writer of the Gospel makes it very clear that there is nothing easy about the commandment to love one another. It has often been suggested that this commandment of Jesus is somehow easier than the demand to love one’s neighbour as oneself, or to love one’s enemies – because it’s easy to love your friends. And yet in John’s Gospel this is the only commandment that Jesus explicitly identifies for his disciples and insists that they keep.
The teachings of Jesus about love and discipleship are unrelentingly placed within the context of his betrayal and death in this chapter of John’s Gospel. The example to which the love commandment points is the love of Jesus for his disciples. This love is a love that will receive its fullest and final expression in his death. The message is, therefore, that the followers of Jesus, are called to love one another as fully as Jesus loves them, a love that may find its ultimate expression in the laying down of one’s life. If we model our love on that of Jesus, a love whose ultimate expression is the gift of his life to pay the price for sin, we are modelling our love on a love that has no limits – a love that knows no boundaries and restrictions. To see the death of Jesus as the ultimate act of love allows us to see that the love to which Jesus summons the Christian community is not the giving up of one’s life, but the giving away of one’s life. The distinction is important. The love that Jesus embodies is grace, not meaningless sacrifice. Jesus gave his life to his disciples as an expression of the fullness of his relationship with God and as an expression of God’s love for the world.
There are numerous examples of people throughout the history of the Church and in the present century whose lives have followed fully the model Jesus gave us of limitless love. One modern example is Martin Luther King. His death came not because he made a personal decision to give up his life for others. It came because he chose to live the love of Jesus fully. In sermons from near the end of his life, it is apparent that he knew full well the jeopardy into which his ministry put his life, but to live out the love of Jesus carried with it the threat of death from which he did not shy away. Like Jesus, he put no limits on his love. Bishop Oscar Romero, too, did not choose to give up his life, but he chose to love his “sheep” fully, which ultimately meant laying down his life for them, assassinated as he celebrated communion.
We too, are called to love one another as Jesus loves us. But that does not automatically mean that we must be prepared to face death, or that we must deny ourselves for others. Jesus did not deny himself; he lived his identity and vocation fully. To love one another as Jesus loves us is to live a life thoroughly shaped by a love that knows no limits, to live a life shaped by a love whose expression brings us closer into relationship with God, with Jesus, and with one another. It is to live a love that carries with it a whole new concept of the possibilities of living in community.
The fact that the love commandment is directed inwards and not outwards – that it is directed to members of the community – does not make it easier to keep. It is no easy task for Christians to love one another. And yet the wisdom of this commandment, which is the sole explicit commandment of Jesus in the Gospel is abundantly obvious when we look at the history of the Church. The Church’s witness in the world is always hurt and diminished by the hatred and lack of love that has so often marked Christians’ dealings with one another. In many ways it is easier to love those outside the Church, even to love one’s enemies, because we do not have to deal with them day by day. And yet Jesus promised that the community’s love for one another would be a signal to people: “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”.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
The impact of that sentence is perhaps not completely clear. In our translation the sentence is really backwards – the original Greek is translated much better in the Good News Bible (Today’s English Version) which puts the two clauses in reverse order and conveys much better the meaning: If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples. And this is absolute – it’s not if you have love for one another then people might have a better chance of noticing that you are my disciples but everyone will know that you are my disciples and if they don’t then you don’t have love.
And Jesus leaves us with this challenge. Do people know that we are his disciples? And if not, how can we show them that we love one another as Jesus loved us?