“Love one another as I have loved you.” Starting to sound familiar? It should! We’ve been swirling around this teaching of Jesus for over a month now. We started hearing it on Maundy Thursday, at the Last Supper. We talked about it again the next day, on Good Friday. We had it two weeks ago, in the story of the Good Shepherd. We had it again last Sunday with the image of the vine. It should be starting to sound familiar.
And that’s good. There’s a reason we keep coming back to it, and that’s because these words of Jesus, this new commandment, is the very core of our Christian faith. If someone ever asks you what Christianity is all about, start here: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Then begin unpacking.
Of course, we could spend a lifetime unpacking these words. In fact, we are meant to spend our lives unpacking these words, leaning into this teaching, living out this commandment. So let’s do some of that this morning.
Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Let’s start unpacking. And let’s begin with what these words are not. They are not meant to be a nice warm sentiment. This is not a feel-good cliché. Don’t put these words on a Hallmark greeting card. They are wonderful words, no doubt about that, but they have a hard edge, a strength and a power to them. Maybe that’s why Jesus waits until the night that he’s about to die to give this teaching to his disciples, to make sure that they don’t try to trivialize it the way we so often do.
When Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you,” he’s not just holding himself up as a great human example of love, though he is certainly that. He’s also saying something theological, something about God. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” More than an example, Jesus’ love for those he encounters is intended to be a revealing, a revelation of God’s love for us. As John the evangelist puts it in the opening to his gospel, no one has ever seen God – it is God the only Son, the Word become flesh, Jesus, who makes God known. Through Jesus, God’s essence and God’s love for us are made known. “As the Father has loved me, I have loved you. Love one another as I have loved you.” Every act of Jesus’ life is a revealing of God’s love for us. When he heals someone who is ill, God’s love is revealed. When he reaches out to those who are marginalized, God’s love is revealed. When he eats with those who have been excluded, God’s love is revealed. In the incarnation, the very act of God becoming flesh and being present with us in all the messiness of human life, God’s love is revealed. So much so, that a generation later, when John’s community reflects on the nature of God that Jesus has shown us, the best summation they can give is this: “God is love.”
But, you might ask, what’s new about all of this? On the night that he is about to die, Jesus says “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” What is it about what Jesus is saying that’s new? After all, people have been talking about love for a long time. I think that Jesus gets at the new element in our gospel reading today when he tells his disciples that “no one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” There is a self-giving, a sacrificial nature to Jesus’ love for us that goes beyond what anyone could ever have anticipated or imagined. It’s there in the image of the Good Shepherd who will risk his life to defend the sheep. It’s there in Jesus’ repeated healings in defiance of religious authorities and Sabbath laws, a defiance which gets him into conflict and puts his life at risk. It’s there when the police and soldiers come to Gethsemane to arrest him, and he steps forward and protects his friends by saying “I’m the one you’re looking for – let these others go”. All this is meant to reveal and flesh out the Father’s love for us – a love which is sacrificial and self-giving, a laying down of one’s life for the sake of one’s friends. And there is one place where this love is revealed most fully and most powerfully, and that is Jesus’ death on the cross.
The meaning of the cross is that it is here that God’s love for us is revealed most fully. The cross is the gold standard for sacrificial, self-giving love. That’s a bit scary for me, in two ways.
The first is that when Jesus came in to this world as the living embodiment of God’s love, and when he persisted in revealing that love, it was disruptive, it was so disruptive to our normal human ways of doing things that it put Jesus in conflict with the powers that be and he was rejected and executed. And I wonder what would happen if Jesus was to return today.
The second way that the cross scares me is that if it’s the gold standard for the love that Jesus is talking about, then when he says to us “Love one another as I have loved you,” I know that I will never meet that standard. I mean, Jesus persisted in his mission of revealing God’s love even when that meant the sacrifice of his life, but me, if someone simply says something I don’t like, I have a hard time refraining from saying something nasty in return. Laying down one’s life for the sake of others, whether we take that literally or figuratively, is really hard.
But that takes us to another layer of revealing, a further unpacking. Because when we do fall short, and we will, when we fail to love each other as Jesus loves us, here we encounter the beauty of God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness, and the redemption and reconciliation that follow. Even for his executioners, Jesus prays “Father, forgive them.” We too are forgiven our shortcomings. This is integral to the way God loves us. We, in turn, pray “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” No one is beyond God’s mercy. Even the executioner who crucified Jesus is redeemed. The Roman Centurion who was in charge of the crucifixion is the first to exclaim, “Truly this was God’s Son.”
The night before, Jesus had done his best to unpack for his disciples what it means to love one another the way he loves them, and he did it by breaking down their assumptions of hierarchy and of distance in the love of God for us. Jesus was their rabbi, their teacher, the one they called Master. But on Maundy Thursday, Jesus takes on the role of a servant and washes their feet. It’s a role reversal meant to break down roles. To love is to serve, and to draw close, and to be intimate. In today’s gospel, Jesus says “I don’t call you servants any longer. You are my friends.” There is a mutuality here, a willingness to know and be known that is integral to the love that is being taught and modeled. Love one another as I have loved you.
Now I know that if I had been there, if I had been one of the twenty or so disciples, friends now, that had gathered in that upper room and watched and listened and learned as Jesus spoke to them that one last time and gave them his new commandment, I think that as I tried to grasp the intimacy and the mutuality and the self-giving, sacrificial nature of the love that Jesus was revealing, I think I would have assumed that this was intended just for us. For this small, intimate group of Jesus’ friends. Maybe I would have thought that we could exp
mazing way of loving could one day be shared among all the Jewish people.
But I would never in a million years have anticipated the way God’s Spirit would blow all of this wide open. That’s the story told in the book of Acts. Last week we heard the amazing account of Philip hopping into the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch. This week we get the tail end of the story of Peter’s realization that God’s good news, that the commandment to love one another was also meant to encompass foreigners like Cornelius, the Roman soldier. And if that meant blowing past other commandments like food laws and purity laws and circumcision, so be it.
Maybe that’s enough unpacking for this morning. But let me finish with this:
Over the years, I’ve noticed that sometimes we make it complicated. We get tripped up by complexities in the doctrines of our faith. Sometimes we get preoccupied with sin and judgment, with who’s in and who’s out. Sometimes we don’t know how to talk with others about our faith.
Here’s my suggestion. The next time someone asks you about your faith, or what Christianity’s all about it, start here:
“Love one another the way I have loved you.”
And then just start unpacking. It’s all here.
Homily: Yr B Easter 6, May 6 2018, St. Albans
Readings: Acts 10.44-48; Ps 98; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17