Sermon – Easter 5 – John 13:31-35
May I speak in the name of +the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“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.”
What does ‘love’ look like for you?
How do you, how do we, love?
Now take a moment to think about what Jesus’ love looks like for you?
Is it different?
The short passage we’ve just heard from John’s gospel has a heading in the New Revised Standard Version of our Bible. That heading is “The New Commandment”.
What is ‘new’ about it you may ask? After all we know how Jesus had previously stressed the importance of loving our neighbour, a commandment we can find as far back in the Bible as Leviticus19.
What’s new about this commandment? The disciples knew by now, didn’t they, the importance of Love? The commandments to love God and neighbour were already known – such were signs of the highest devotion to God.
But Jesus isn’t just emphasising the priority of love in this discussion with them . He isn’t just telling his disciples to love each other. He is telling them to love as He has loved them.
This is a commandment new, as one writer puts it, in both scope and motivation, springing out of the love Jesus has for them. And we know how that ends don’t we? With the ultimate sacrifice, for them and for all of us.
Jesus tells his disciples that by loving as He has loved they will immediately be recognisable as His disciples. They are to be a living example of His love and are to be identified by the love they show for one another.
When asked what Christian love looks like the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13 often springs to mind. Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy……..etc. But what did Jesus’ love actually look like in practice?
How did He love his disciples and others?
Context, of course, is all important. We need to look at where this “new commandment” features in the context of John’s gospel. Earlier in chapter 13 we have the account of the footwashing where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and meets with some resistance from Peter who lacks understanding. Then, immediately before the passage read today, Jesus foretells his betrayal, identifying Judas to Peter as he dips his piece of bread and tells Judas to do what he needs to do.
In the footwashing, where Jesus challenges his disciples to wash one another’s feet, Jesus offers them an example of humble service and humility. Humility was despised in the ancient world as a sign of weakness but Jesus regarded lowly service to others as an honourable act. In our contemporary world of self-promotion we Christians do well to remember that.
When Judas, the traitor, departs Jesus speaks affectionately to his disciples as children (sages would often refer to their disciples in that way) and speaks freely of his love and coming glorification. But when he utters those words “Just as I have loved you” we know that Judas is included too. Jesus knew his disciples’ frailties. He knew of Peter’s weakness and of Judas’ imminent treachery, but he still washed their feet and loved them nonetheless. He didn’t stop loving them because they acted in ways which must have distressed and disappointed him. Jesus is realistic. He knows they are not perfect. He knows we are not perfect.
Aware that we can be weak, that we can make terrible mistakes, that we can lack understanding He knows we are fallible yet loves us in our weakness.
In saying that He expects his followers to love as He has loved he is making clear that He expects us to love others in their weakness too.
To love as Jesus loved is revolutionary.
Whilst on earth His love was evidenced in his behaviour towards not just his disciples but towards his oppressors and strangers.
It was marked by humble service, humility, compassion, kindness, forgiveness and devotion. It was revealed in his teaching, his correction, his refusal to respond to violence with violence, his absorbing of hurts without responding in kind, his lack of bitterness, his association with the rejected and the outcast, his friendships with women, tax collectors and prostitutes, his promises to the criminals who died beside him and his attitude towards those of other races and faiths.
From that love sprang warnings against obsessions with minutiae, warnings against neglect of justice and the oppression of the poor. His love didn’t just break boundaries. It transcended them.
It was a transformative love which proved to be contagious, so much so that the weak Peter, who denied him three times, would eventually follow him to the cross for his faith. It’s a love which is given to us by God. We only know love because of Him.
We are all called to be a community from which that love of God shines out. We are to give or reflect back what we receive from Him. When Jesus tells his disciples to love as He loved he is telling them that their mutual love for one another is to function as an important witness to the world around.
It’s not an easy kind of love. This kind of loving is hard. Jesus loved people who were radically different from Him. People whose company most people would avoid. Can we say the same?
As Christians we are the continuing presence of Jesus in the world and as such must fully reflect His way of being. But how do we, in practice, react to ‘outsiders’ and to those who are very different from us? How do we respond to those of other faiths? How do we treat the irreligious or the immoral? What words do we reserve for our oppressors, or for bullies and thieves? Do our churches house congregations made up of the kind of people Jesus associated with or do we populate them with particular types? Do we cleave to those who are most similar to us?
I wonder, what does the outsider see looking in? Do people recognise us as followers of Christ by our love for one another and how we treat one another? Are we truly distinguishable from others?
Do we embrace difference? Or do we fear it?
Do we show humility? Or do we bicker with and judge each other?
It’s hardly surprising, is it, that those churches perceived by the wider world as being riddled with divisions and disagreements seem to fail to grow.
Stories of Christian families forgiving heinous acts by murderers and rapists make the headlines. Is that because, the love they demonstrate, rather than being the norm for our Christian communities, is a type of love only few can aspire to?
How are we to love others as Jesus loved us? How are we to model that self-giving sacrificial love in current times?
Is it, as one writer puts it, by helping when it’s not convenient?
By devoting our time and energy to the welfare of others and not complaining too much when the going gets tough?
Is it by seeing Christ in those who are very different from us?
And by giving when it hurts?
Or by swallowing feelings of our own intellectual or moral superiority and recognising that we are all children made equal in the eyes of God?
Surely it’s all of these things, and more?
I’m going to end with a short poem by an unknown poet.
Gift Of Heaven
Oh never mind the months and days;
The things that people wear
Are all outside; there's something else
That's ever young and fair.
'Tis love that makes the joy of life,
Love - the best gift of Heaven.
Let us use that gift as Jesus intended us to.
Richard Young (Rector)