“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.” (John 13:34-35)
On a sunny spring Sunday in May, sitting on a comfortably padded pew, surrounded by people you know in a brightly lit church with the smell of coffee waiting to be shared, these words can sound like some real warm fuzzies. A blissful paradise of community in which everyone gets along, everyone shares, everyone, well, loves. It feels good to hear it.
But Jesus says these words to the disciples on their last night together before his arrest. This little piece of the story begins back at John 13:1 with “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” It includes supper with the disciples, a diverse group that probably didn’t always get along and who, now at least, seem pretty confused and upset about what’s happening. It includes dinner with Judas, who, the story says, betrayed him, and Peter, the one who promises to follow, but who will deny him. As night falls, the threat of arrest looms and the violence of the cross is coming.
That’s the context of Jesus’ words. I don’t think they were meant to be words of comfort and reassurance, but a call to action, a challenge to live “just as I have loved you.” The command to love wasn’t new, those words had been round for awhile. What made it new was the example Jesus gives in living it. Jesus didn’t love when convenient, nor was he selective about who should be loved or how they should be loved. He didn’t judge worthiness but loved all, especially the broken, the sick, the outcasts and the enemies. In Jesus, love becomes the all encompassing manner in which we engage the world to create positive, living, life-giving relationships. Right now.
It sounds great to say “love one another” but let’s just acknowledge right here that it’s hard. We fail often, sometimes spectacularly. History’s full of evidence to suggest that, often as not, people should know that we are disciples of Jesus - Christians - by our hypocrisy, our insularity, our selfishness, our judging of others and our own sense of self-righteousness. But that’s not who we are if we are disciples of Jesus. What would it take to change that perception? That people might know we are Christians by our sincerity, our care and respect for others just as they are, our kindness, our grace, our humble recognition of mistakes that have been made, our repentance - real repentance - for less-than-loving behaviour. What would it take? It would take love.
Yes, it would take love when it’s easiest, with people who look, sound, think and believe like us, when there’s no temptation to be selfish or vengeful or see anything but equality or when our love is welcomed and love is returned. Of course it would. And it would take love when it’s hardest, when we’re afraid of difference and change, when we’re afraid of hurt, when we’re tempted to be selfish and unforgiving, when it’s easier to withhold ourselves and refuse to engage others. It would take love in moments when hate is easier, separation is more appealing and aggression and power seems to make us feel strong. It would take love when we’re most vulnerable and when we’re feeling most powerful. It would take love.