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”.
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 somewhat one-sided view of love is the kind of love that Jesus had in mind.
“I give you a new commandment,” said Jesus to his disciples,
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 are told to serve one another – to wash one another’s feet following the example that Jesus has just set them. They – and we – are told to get down on their hands and knees in front of each other in an act of humble service. And now they – and we – are told to love as he has loved.
The writer of the fourth 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 followers and insists that they keep.
And 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 away for all 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 of San Salvador, 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 mass.
We too, are called to love one another as Jesus loves us. And 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. For in this context Jesus is directly addressing the importance of how the those in the Christian community love each other. Of course we are called to love all people, but in chapter thirteen of John’s Gospel Jesus specifically address the need for those within the Christian community to serve one another and love one another as much as he loves them. And by showing that deep love, to show others how much Jesus means to them.
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 but this commandment cannot under any circumstances be ignored. And we have to face up to those times when we fail to keep it. It makes me sad to have to say this, but week in, week out, I hear people in this congregation speak about one another with a distinct lack of love! And it grieves me!
We really have to stop, and ask ourselves what Jesus would think about the way we sometimes speak about and treat each other! Are we keeping his commandment of love? Why do Christians find it so difficult?
Love one another as I have loved you.
And the wisdom of this commandment, which is the sole explicit commandment of Jesus in John’s 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”. Do we have love one for 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 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.
It’s conditional. People will only know you are my disciples if you have love for each other. The church grows when Christians show to each other the deep and sacrificial love that Jesus shows us. And doesn’t grow when that love is not obvious.
And so Jesus leaves us with this challenge. Do people know that we are his disciples? And if not, how can we start to show them that we truly love one another as Jesus loved us?
We can start today when we share the peace. Don’t share the peace with someone just because they are next to you in the pew. Go and seek out someone that you really need to make your peace with! Find someone who has upset you – or just as importantly someone you have upset – and make your peace with them before you receive Jesus in the bread and the wine. The Early Church introduced the sharing of the peace not so that people could have a chat with their friends halfway through the service, but so that they could make their peace with each other, and especially with those that they had had some kind of disagreement with, before they received the body and blood of Jesus in the bread and wine of the eucharist. Don’t worry if those that you need to share the peace with are across the other side of the church. We can let the sharing of the peace go on a little longer today.
Let us show our love for one another! Starting today.