Homily: On Loving-and Not Loving-One Another
Sometimes the most familiar passages in the Gospels are the most challenging. This Sunday’s gospel reading is a great example. Containing Jesus’ famous ‘love command’, it’s one of the better known passages in the Bible and for that very reason is a challenge. The passage is so familiar that most people assume they know it before they hear it. After all, what can you really add to “love one another” – words that are simultaneously ridiculously easy to understand and ridiculously hard to do? I think we need to find a new angle into the text so that it might be possible to experience this familiar passage anew. Here are two suggestions to help you do just that.
First, make sure you identify the context Jesus was speaking in. Because we’re hopscotching our way through John’s Gospel this Easter season, it will be helpful to take a few moments to remind ourselves where we are. In terms of the larger structure of the Gospel, we are early into the section of John’s Gospel that begins with the account of the Last Supper and the moving words that summarize the whole: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” As this particular passage begins, Jesus has already washed the feet of his disciples, Judas has just departed to betray him, and the rest of the disciples are in a state of confusion. At just this moment of drama and tension, Jesus’ offers these words, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. As I have loved you, you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Which tells us, I think, a great deal about the kind of love Jesus is talking about. This surely isn’t romantic love, nor is it simply being nice, nor is it only loving those who love you back. Think about it: when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, Judas was there. And it is in this context that, he will now demonstrate just how much God loves the world – by dying for those who manifestly do not love him. Love is hard because it is self-sacrificing. It means putting the good of the other first, even when it hurts.
I find it striking that these are the words Jesus’ leaves with his disciples. I mean, he could have said, “Go out and die with me.” Or, “keep the faith.” Or, “when I am gone go out and teach and preach to all the world.” Or, well, any number of things. But instead he offered this simple and challenging word, “love one another.” Why? Because this kind of love is the hallmark not just of God and Jesus but also of the Christian church. As in the old camp song, Jesus agrees that the whole world will know we are Christians not by our sermons or our sacraments or our festivals or our buildings or our crucifixes or by our family values … but by our love. It’s just that important.
Second, having set the scene so that we can hear again and anew the importance of these words, we need to remind ourselves that we actually ‘can’ and often ‘do’ love one another. Sometimes the love command seems so challenging we assume it’s an ideal, a lofty goal that none of us will ever reach. But while we may not love perfectly, we do love, and sometimes one of the most powerful things you can hear in relation to a command is the affirmation of your ability to keep it.
So I invite you to recall a time this past week when you chose love. Perhaps it was looking out for the interests of a colleague, or overlooking the slight of a friend, or putting aside one’s own goals to help someone else achieve theirs. Maybe it was a large act of love, or maybe it was much smaller. But each of us, I’d bet, did in fact “love one another” this past week and it would be good to call that to mind.
Now, think about a situation over the last week or two where you found it difficult to love one another. Maybe it’s been incredibly hard to forgive someone who has hurt you, or difficult to move beyond the disappointment caused by a family member or friend. Or maybe it came up in relation to some horrendous event or other in the national or world news.
Remember both occasions simply because the truth of the matter is, we do love, regularly, and we do fail, regularly. And I think church should be a place where we can give thanks for the former and pray about the latter.
But just one more thing. Let’s go back to the setting of this scene one more time and remind ourselves that above and beyond Jesus’ command to love is his actual ‘act’ of love. Jesus goes to the cross to demonstrate that, in fact, “God so loved the world.” Jesus did not go to the cross to make God loving, or to satisfy God’s justice, or to take on our punishment. Jesus went to the cross to show in word and deed that God is love and that we, as God’s children, are loved. So whether we succeed or fail in our attempts to love one another this week, yet God in Jesus loves us more than we can possible imagine. And hearing of this love we are set free and sent forth, once again, to love another.
As I said at the beginning, sometimes familiar passages are the most difficult to preach. And sometimes they’re the most important as well. Because these words – about the command to love that is anchored in Jesus’ love – needs to be preached again and again Because when they are spoken, heard, and lived, we find ourselves in that foreign land and strange country of mercy and grace we call the kingdom of God. Thank you, for your part in the speaking, hearing, and living of these words. What you do matters. And I am grateful for it. David Lose