As I was preparing for this week’s sermon, I did a Google image search of the phrase “love one another” which appears three times in our gospel lesson and five times in the gospel of John. What I found reveals a great deal about how the general public envisions what this commandment from Christ looks like. I saw lots of pretty fonts and soothing backgrounds; rainbows, pastel colors and lots of hearts. There were tranquil nature scenes, puppies and kittens lying down together, and children giving each other great big hugs.
Now this is not a scientific study by any stretch of the imagination, but I found it quite interesting. “Love one another” is perceived as something pretty. It evokes warm, fuzzy feelings and the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven. “Love one another” is our grandmother’s voice singing sweetly in our ears. It’s the sight of beautiful wildflowers blowing gently in the wind.
But is this what “love one another” is really all about? Is this what Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples, “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. And you’re to love one another the way I have loved you. This is how all will know that you’re my disciples: that you truly love one another.” [NLT]
Let me ask those who have been married for at least 10 years or more: is this what “love one another” looks like in your relationship with your beloved? Is it all rainbows and warm, fuzzy feelings? Hardly! Loving one another in the context of marriage is hard work.
It takes lots of patience, lots of listening, and lots of forgiveness. It takes learning to live with things our spouses do that drive us absolutely crazy; and recognizing that we are also guilty of doing things to drive our spouses absolutely crazy. It involves sacrifice and frequently putting the needs of our beloved before our own. Love one another is not happily skipping through a meadow of wildflowers. It’s slowly trudging through a field of landmines with the awareness that we can navigate it successfully if we do it together!
Let me ask those who have or are raising children: Is this what “love one another” looks like in your relationships with your kids? Is it all hearts and hugs and cuddly kittens? Hardly! Loving one another in the context of parenting is hard work.
Like marriage, it takes lots of patience, lots of listening, and lots of forgiveness. It takes time outs and difficult conversations. It is setting boundaries and keeping our kids safe. It takes learning to live with things our children do that drive us absolutely crazy; and recognizing that we are also guilty of doing things to drive our children absolutely crazy. This loving of one another does not stop when they strike out on their own and live under their own roof. We continue to worry, guide and encourage our children even after they become parents themselves.
Make no mistake about it, following Christ’s command to love one another as he loved us is sometimes a hard and hideous journey. It’s not always an easy thing to do. It will take lots of sweat and tears if we’re going to do it right. So forget the pretty fonts and soothing backgrounds. Set aside tranquil nature scenes and puppies and kitten sleeping next to each other. This is NOT what it means to love one another. It’s definitely NOT what Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. and you’re to love one another the way I have loved you.”
The reason why I know this is true is because of the context of the verses of our gospel lesson. Jesus spoke these words on the last night he spent with his disciples. They were celebrating the Jewish feast of Passover. Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, wiping them with the towel that was tied around him. Peter protested this act of service because he thought it was beneath Jesus to do such a humble job. But eventually he consented.
When Jesus had finished, he told his disciples they should follow his example, and wash one other’s feet. We know he was talking about more than hygiene. He was taking about humble service. This is what “love one another” really looks like.
So when we hear Jesus’ command to love one another, we know it involves more than warm, fuzzy feelings, it involves rolling up our sleeves and getting to work. Loving one another means committing ourselves to a life of godly service where we, in the words of Matthew 25, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned. This holy calling has very little to do with rainbows, pastel colors and hearts.
If Jesus’ first disciples failed to understand his object lesson of service, he restated his intention a little later that evening: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Can there be any doubt as to what “love one another” looks like?
But there’s more! After Jesus washed their feet he predicted that one of them would betray him. Then he made it quite clear that Judas was the one to do the dirty deed. After Judas departed, Jesus told them the words of our gospel lesson, “I give you a new commandment; love one another.” I’m certain those first disciples were thinking to themselves “Well, Jesus, how are we going to do that? You just made out clear that Judas is going to betray you. How in the world can we love him?”
But, Jesus wasn’t finished, because no sooner than he uttered the words of our gospel lesson, he dropped another bombshell: in a little while, Peter was going to deny even knowing Jesus, not only once, but three times!” Again, I’m sure those first disciples were thinking to themselves “Love one another? You’ve got to be kidding, Jesus. Love the betrayer? Love the denier?” To which I’m sure Jesus responded “yes. Exactly what part of love one another did you fail to understand?”
This is the part of the story that challenges us the most. Loving one another means loving those who do not always love us in return. Loving one another means loving those who never showed us love in the first place. Loving one another means loving those whom we have labeled as our enemies and persecutors.
It is this aspect of loving one another where the Church of Jesus Christ tends to fail epically. Our witness to the world these days is greatly compromised because of our inability to love one another as Christ has loved us. Instead of trying to build bridges between those who religious viewpoints are different from our own, we build walls and demonize our opponents. We pass “religious liberty laws” and “bathroom bills” which are simply hatred and intolerance wrapped in a pretty package. We, like some of the Pharisees of old, put limits on who is worthy of receiving Christ’s love and mercy. Consequently, they receive neither love nor mercy from us.
Every one of us is guilty of this crime in one form or another. Every one of us puts some kind of limitations on Christ’s command to love one another. Yet the context of Jesus’ command is very clear. We are even called to love those who betray us, who deny us, who break the bonds of fellowship with us and break our hearts as well.
If we think we can wiggle our way out of the difficult parts of this command to love one another, 1 John 4:19-21 convicts us all: “We love because Christ first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
Friends in Christ, I could go on, but I think you get the point. Christ’s command to love one another is the most difficult calling we will ever undertake in this life. It is hard, backbreaking and heartbreaking work. Yet, it is also the most powerful work we can do as we sow seeds of transformation and resurrection in the lives of those around us. AMEN.
Copyright ©2016 by David Eck