‘this is how they
(and we) will know…’
May 19, 2019
Scripture: 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.”
Today’s reading from John is a familiar one to most of us. It is found within the story of Jesus’ final hours before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. And the commandment he gave to his disciples to, ‘Love one another’, is a central phrase or teaching that we all learned to recite from early on. However, I think it may gain deeper meaning for us if we take the time to place it within the context of the rest of the 13th chapter.
For you see, Jesus gave this command within the gathering of the closest disciples…he was instructing those there with him to love each other, to support one another, and to encourage and be there for one another in the hours and days ahead. Remember, only Jesus knew the full horror of what was going to take place in just a few short hours. So, ‘Love one another, as I have loved you’ he tells them…love in the same way, with the same commitment, and without any conditions, just as he himself did.
In speaking this way to them, Jesus was trying to drive home the critical importance of the call to love one another first within the called and gathered fellowship…to cherish and to look out for one another…to learn to love here first, in order to then be strong enough and well enough supported to extend that degree of love outward to others from there.
I think there are probably some who feel that this call to love one another, within the gathering of those closest to us, within the company of fellow faithful, is somehow easier to do than Jesus’ other call which we find in Matthew Chapter 5 and verse 44, where Jesus instructs his followers to, ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’, another phrase that has likely been etched into our faith consciousness from early on. But is it really? Is it easier to truly love each other than to reach out and love a stranger? Which one of these ‘calls to love’ requires more investment from us? Which command is the more difficult?
Our reading is set towards the very end of Jesus’ time together with his disciples…he gave them this command just after Judas’ departure, and while they were sharing their last supper together. He shared this there in the upper room, after demonstrating the depth of his love for them by washing their feet, and after telling them all that one of their own was about to betray him. This was also just prior to his forecasting of Peter’s three-times denial of him in the verses immediately following.
This most critical instruction, shared in the gathering of those closest to him, there amongst the group he had spent the most time with…was first to find a way to love each other as a family. It is a call to love one another in the midst of, and in spite of any difficulties that might arise within the sort of deep relationship and close fellowship which we all share together.
For in truth, and as we all know, it is sometimes hardest to love, and hardest to forgive and uphold those who are most dear to us. And I think that is because often with those we love, we have allowed ourselves to become more open, more vulnerable. When we know and love someone…and when they know us…when it is someone with whom we are already in close relationship…and with whom we share this call to love through our shared faith…then it is sometimes difficult to practice self-giving and self-sacrificial love as did our Lord.
It can be hard to put our own wants and needs to the side when asked to love someone within our faith family. And yet, that is precisely what Jesus was asking of his disciples that night…those who had already amply demonstrated that they each had their own agenda and their own individualized ego. Loving another when it will most likely cost you, when you are in a place of having allowed yourself to become vulnerable, can be hard. But it is critical if we are to live into Jesus’ hope that others would come to know him, and to know that we are his disciples by the examples we all set of what Christian love is supposed to look like.
It is also interesting to note that Jesus said to them, “A new command I give to you”. This begs the question, why did he choose to call it ‘new’? It is not that the call to love is new, for there are other examples in the Old Testament calling for the same thing. Rather I think, it is that this command is a call to love in a radically new way. Jesus is trying to impress upon his disciples that he wants them to learn how to continue on in the loving fellowship they have been together, in the ‘family’ that they have with each other, and in full communion with Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit.
Jesus, by asking his disciples to love one another just as he has done, is asking them to look closely at him, to reflect back on all of their time together over the past three years in order to see that Jesus’ love for his father was shown to them in his actions…that Jesus love for his father was demonstrated for them by what he said and did…both through his words and his works. Jesus was desperately seeking to impress upon his disciples who were soon to be without him, that they needed to continue to live and love together as they had done so with him over the past three years. Jesus was concerned that the fellowship of the movement which he started be preserved, continued, and strengthened through the disciple’s willingness to carry on the call to show all the world that in fact, a new thing had happened, that a new understanding of God’s amazing love for all had been birthed right there in the midst of them.
So, in calling them to follow a new commandment, Jesus is asking them (and us) to love one another in a particular way…to love one another in a manner that reflects the love he has for his Father, and in the same manner that he has shown to them through his example. For, similar to the act of washing their feet, Jesus is still trying to impress upon them the importance of entering into and dwelling within the embrace of the servant-love relationship of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.
Jesus, as God with us…as God in human form…as the Incarnate One, is saying to his followers… “Come, enter into this family fellowship of love by sharing and showing the same love I have taught you…Come, you that are my own, and love one another in the same way you have been shown, in order that your ongoing witness…your ongoing living out of Divine love will be a visible sign of God’s saving love for all else to see. Love one another, he says, just as I have loved you…
…for if you do…if you truly show the character and nature of a loving relationship with the God of Love in the way you care for…in the way you support…in the way you lift up and cherish one another…
…if you all, as followers of mine can receive that gift of love as it is given to you to share…then those who see you doing that, will be moved to wonder just who your God of Love really is…they will be moved to wonder and to seek out a God whose followers can love so deeply, so truly…and so unconditionally.”
Jesus calls them to love one another just as he does on this night…at this point in his ministry…just a few hours before he was to be arrested, put on trial and sentenced to death. And the disciples remembered…and they pondered the meaning of all he told them deeply. It is good for us to remember that Jesus chose to share this call within the framework of preparing to give his life for his disciples…to remember that Jesus knew he was going to be betrayed. Jesus shared this call within the context of a demonstration of total and infinite love…within the framework of active and unconditional love…within the framework of a love so deep that he was willing to give his life that they too, by their own actions might enter into eternal, saving love. Love one another as I have loved you, he asks of us…even if at times loving one another unconditionally may be very, very hard to do.
Loving one another as Jesus loved, dwelling within the loving embrace of a relationship with God has the potential to make a profound impact upon our local community. Truthfully if not sadly, it is not often that we are able to witness Christians actually living out this call from Jesus. For so often we get side-tracked into petty divisions and disputes causing us to present instead a picture of a fractured faith to the world, rather than a fellowship of love. But can you imagine what it would be like if only a few Christians really decided to try and live out Jesus’ call to love just as he loved us?
Jesus’ disciple John lived for a long time…he was well loved and revered for his understanding of Jesus’ call and for his great faith. There is a story about him recounted by Jerome, one of the early church fathers in his commentary on Galatians. (Jerome) describes how John the evangelist, author of the gospel and of the book of Revelation, preached at the church in Ephesus well into his nineties. Christian tradition holds that he died in or about the year 100 AD. Jerome writes: At that age, John was so feeble that he had to be carried into the church at Ephesus on a stretcher. Then, when he could no longer preach a normal sermon, he would lean up on one elbow. The only thing he said was, “Little children, love one another.” People would then carry him back out of the church.
This continued for weeks, says Jerome. And every week he repeated his one-sentence sermon: “Little children, love one another.”
Weary of the repetition, the congregation finally asked, “Master, why do you always say this?” “Because,” John replied, “it is the Lord’s command, and if this only is done…it is enough.”
And so, I guess the real question is…are we willing to begin the hard work of loving one another without conditions…without limits…and without the crippling effect of preconceived and often unrealistic expectations? Are we all willing to see one another…here within this fellowship of the body of God…as fellow participants in a loving and caring relationship that will demonstrate for all others outside, the love, grace, forgiveness, and mercy of our loving Lord Jesus? Are we willing to cherish each and every one who has been called to this gathering…to accept the unique contribution that is each individual…to allow them to share and to participate in this call and in doing so to give a witness of our God of love to the community in which we live?
That is the “new” call that Jesus shared that night with his friends…this new call to a profound unity that would without question set them apart as followers of his…as those he had called out, as those who heard and answered his call to stand apart in their love for each other in order that Jesus might be seen within and through their love… it is not easy…but it is what he asks of us.
Wendell Berry captures the essence of this call in a book of poems he wrote in 2012 entitled, Leavings. Berry writes… “I know that I have life only insofar as I have love. I have no love except it come from Thee. Help me, please, to carry this candle against the wind.”
Help us Lord indeed…to carry this candle against the wind.