John 13: 31-35
It isn’t odd that Jesus would have to command his followers to love one another. “I give you a new commandment.” Commandment is a pretty strong word. It carries with it urgency, leaving no room whatsoever for debate. “You will do this,” like when a parent requires a child to take medicine. That may be just the way Jesus’ disciples took it — as if it were a bad-tasting medication.
In the Latin, the word for commandment is mandatum, from which we get our English word “mandate.” “You will love one another. I command it!” In fact, such a statement requires an exclamation point at the end.
Jesus doesn’t say they have to like one another. Which is good because, as we all know, some people are more likeable than others. It’s true here in this church, that’s the way it is in our families, and it was certainly so in the ranks of Jesus’ disciples. It’s probably a good thing Jesus didn’t tell us we have to like one another, or we might be in real trouble.
Our Gospel reading starts with the words, “When he had gone out….” When who had gone out? Who had just left the room? The person who had gone out was Judas. Jesus had just told the disciples that one of them would betray him, and the scripture tells us that he was troubled (v. 21). Troubled by Judas’ treachery? Absolutely. But Jesus was troubled about other things too? He was understandably troubled about the prospect of dying on a cross! He was likely troubled most by leaving this little band of disciples who did not have a clue about what was ahead of them!
So after Judas departed, Jesus spoke to the disciples about his coming glorification. You would think that glorification would mean thrones and crowns and scepters and kneeling subjects. At some point, it would mean all those things for Jesus. H would return to the heavenly kingdom from whence he had come. At some point, at the name of Jesus, every knee would bend and every tongue would confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10-11). But not yet.
First would have to come the cross. And death. And burial. And grief and disillusionment for the disciples. When Jesus spoke of glorification, he meant all those things – the whole journey from his cross to his throne. And he was troubled! He was getting ready to leave the disciples, and they weren’t ready. What could he say? How could he make it better?
It is as if Jesus were a parent on their deathbed trying to prepare the children for what is about to happen. How could they be told? “Jim, you’re the oldest. Take care of the rest of the kids. You kids do what Jim tells you. And Jim, be sure they all go to church every Sunday. Help them with their homework. Do what you can to keep the family together. I love you all.” A mother or father in such circumstances would try to make every word count. They would be troubled, caught between worry and trust.
Jesus was troubled! He had spoken many words to these disciples over three years, and they still didn’t understand. This was the moment for a few well-chosen words to prepare them for the future. Just a few words, so they could remember each one!
Listen carefully, because these are Jesus’ deathbed words to those disciples. They are as true for today’s disciples as much as the disciples then. They are Jesus’ deathbed words for Peter and John and the rest, but they are also Jesus’ deathbed words for all of us. Jesus said,
“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” (vv. 34-35).
This is a commandment for Christians to love Christians. That troubles some people. We should love everyone, they say, not just other Christians. That’s true. There are other scriptures, such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan, that instruct us to love people outside the church. However, in these are the deathbed words that Jesus speaks especially for loving other Christians. We can be sure that this was important to Jesus, because it is his deathbed wish. We can be sure that Jesus did not get to this point in his ministry without having considered carefully what he would say to the disciples at the end.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
And then he told them why this new commandment was so important.
He said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Returning to that parent’s deathbed, it is as if he or she were saying, “Go to church. Do your homework. Stay out of trouble. Do what’s right. Remember, I’ll be watching. Make me proud of you.” These are more than casual instructions.
Here’s how. Jesus told his disciples – and us – that everything depends on our loving one another. The world will be watching you. If we love one another, the world will be drawn to us – and our witness to Christ. If we do not love one another, the world will reject us – and our witness to Christ. We will be just another club. So this is more than casual instruction. It is a matter of life and death.
Sometimes the most difficult people to love are those with whom we are closest. People we see only occasionally have less opportunity to annoy us. People with whom we live daily have plenty of opportunity to annoy us. People like brothers and sisters. People like fathers and mothers. People like husbands and wives.
– It is easier to love the whole world than to love someone disagreeable on a church committee.
– It is easier to be concerned for the people of another continent than to be concerned for your sister who just lost her job – much easier. Especially if you don’t like her.
– It is easier to forgive the sins of a person in a faraway city than to forgive the person who sits next to you in the pew – much easier.
And yet, in his deathbed words, Jesus tells us that nothing is more important than loving each other – loving our Christian brothers and sisters. The world is watching, he says.
But how can we do that? How can we love the difficult ones in our families and in our churches? Not that everyone is that way, but every family has a “clinker” and so does every congregation. That is the real challenge of Jesus’ commandment.
It is no problem to love those who love us – who smile when we come into the room – who greet us warmly – who hug us – who take care of us when we are sick – who tell us how clever we are. The problem is for liberals to love conservatives – and vice versa. The problem is for the penny-pincher to love big spender. The problem is to love the guy who loves to tell us where we went wrong or the woman who votes against our favorite project. The problem is for members who want changes in the church to be able to have a fruitful conversation with the traditionalists, especially if that congregation seeks a direction while looking for a new pastor.
Maybe the only way to love them is to do the best we can – with the hope that God will make it possible! But the first thing is to start!
It is like buying a pair of running shoes. The first day out is terrible. Our legs feet hurt. Our legs ache. We gasp for air. We didn’t run far, accomplishing nothing in our estimation. Our goal seemed unattainable. We believe that we have failed.
What really counts is what happens next. Do we let the shoes mildew in the closet, or do we go out again the next day? The next day is what will make the difference. If we can persuade ourselves put on the running shoes and try it again the next day, we have a chance. It is the “next day” runners who will find running easier and more pleasant.
And so it is with loving one another. Jesus says that we should pray for our enemies. Why shouldn’t we pray for the church member who rubs us the wrong way? Why shouldn’t we smile and say hello? Offer him a cup of coffee and get acquainted as a first step in putting aside personal differences? When we try it, we should not expect things to change immediately. We may be rebuffed. We may fail. We may get discouraged, even angry. But what counts is what we did on the next day. It is the next day that makes the difference.
If we can persuade ourselves to try again and to pray again – the next day, we will achieve Jesus Christ’s goal for our lives. So love each other, He said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” That should be good enough reason in itself.