“I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says, “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." These are the final words Jesus says to his disciples in our passage. He’s giving them a new command, a new commandment. Something they are supposed to follow and measure their lives by. That they should “love one another” in the same way that Jesus has loved them. “Love one another,” Jesus says. This is one of those things you are supposed to do above all other things. It’s a commandment.
But what does it mean to love one another in the same way Jesus loved his disciples? The way we understand the act of loving each other just seems so… straightforward. So easy.
There’s a popular poster, one called “the Golden Rule.” On it are various versions of the “treat others in the way you would like to be treated.” I think there are a few versions out there, and I think various versions of them probably graces many United Churches. But it’s a poster with all of the religious traditions on it and their version of the saying. The Namaste symbol in Sanskrit for Hindus, star of David for Jews, crescent for Islam, cross for Christianity etc. etc. And one version I saw included this saying by Jesus. “Love one another,” alongside a quotation for the Good News According to Matthew about treating others the way we would like to be treated.
This poster is helpful in a way, because it does point out that the command to love, the just, kind and good treatment of others transcends our individual traditions and party lines. Certainly, if most people took this seriously the world would be a better place. There’s this sense that the call to “love one another” is universal. It spans all the traditions and wisdom of the world. It’s straightforward. It’s common sense.
So the poster is helpful in that way. It’s helpful in understanding an impulse to love and care for one another as human beings across the board. But I wonder if it’s also unhelpful in a way. That we miss, or at least misunderstand the meaning of love as Jesus defines it.
For us modern people, love is generally a feeling. A feeling of affection, maybe. I love my kids, my wife. I love my dog. I love Star Trek, I love peanut M&M’s. But let’s place Jesus’ words back in to the context of the story for this evening. After the raising of his friend Lazarus, the local religious authorities and the Roman authorities have decided to take care of Jesus for good. These last moments, this last supper is the final time that Jesus will be with his friends. Because he’s a fugitive. He’s preparing to die, on account of who he is, his ministry, his teaching, his healing. This is when and where Jesus tells them to “love one another as I have loved you.” The cops are coming in the morning so let me tell you this before it’s too late.
It’s easy to say we love others, we feel sympathy or even feel empathy for others. In the United Church and other mainline churches especially, we talk a lot about social justice and solidarity with those on the margins. And yet our lives can be lived completely apart from the people who we are in solidarity with. We truly love the idea of community, have a tough enough time getting fully invested in each other’s lives out of inconvenience or annoyance, let alone those who face the true terrors of our world. The kind of love we prefer is the feeling kind. The safe, at a distance love.
But when Jesus reaches out, he physically touches people. He joins them in friendship, he takes on the burden of their brokenness and pain. It’s kneeling on the ground, foot-washing love. Intimate, vulnerable. When Jesus commands his disciples on the night before his betrayal, when Jesus commands us on this night to “love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus is talking about the kind of love he showed. The love that Jesus showed was dangerous. It’s love to the point of total abandon and self-sacrifice for the sake of others. It’s the one-on-one love and care for those who are suffering. Those who are in pain. Those who themselves are loveless, crude, and sometimes dangerous. Those who are persecuted, those who are imprisoned.
The kind of love that Jesus models, Jesus incarnates, the love of God, is more than a saying. More than a universal teaching. It’s more than a feeling. The love that Jesus commands from us is the same love he’s shown. It’s risky love. It’s dangerous love. It’s the costliest kind of love.
It’s the hardest kind of love for us to show. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the safe, feeling kind of love over the risky Jesus kind of love any day. But as impossible as this kind of loving may seem, because of Jesus we know it is possible.
Tonight we are remembering and re-enacting the same moment together. In doing so, we also remember that even though Jesus’ disciples heard these words, when it came time they fell as short as we do. One betrayed Jesus and most of the others fled. Except for a few women who stood vigil at the foot of the cross, for most of them the love they felt for Jesus was overwhelmed by the terrible prospect of joining him in his suffering. So you can see, even those who encountered Jesus face-to-face and heard his words first-hand fell far short as we do. They didn’t really “get” Jesus at first either. But later on, they understood their last supper from the vantage of Jesus’ resurrection. That moment of terror and failure for them became a moment of triumph. Where their souls were nourished by the Spirit. And they found themselves empowered to love in ways they never thought possible.
So, friends, even though tonight we gather under the same cover of darkness as Jesus’ disciples. Even though our lives are filled with uncertainty and uneasiness. So we may live with a sense of failure and falling short, the impossibility of loving the way that Jesus has loved us. It’s because we have been loved so fully and dangerously by God in Christ, that even now, we are being given the hope and the strength to love beyond our own capacities.
“Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said to his disciples. And Jesus says the same to us tonight. “By this the world shall know you as my disciples.” Love is more than a word, more than a principle. More than a feeling. In Christ, love is love to the loveless shown, that we—and the world—might more lovely be. Let the table of his passion be our own. And his victory even more so.