The Text: John 13:31-35
What’s new about the ‘new’ commandment?
Let me read to you from the Old Testament, Leviticus 19:18; ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. This is the Old Testament, and there we have the command to love. So what’s new about the ‘new’ commandment? The newness has to do with the person who gives the commandment, our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who ‘makes all things new’ (Rev 21:5). Jesus has loved, and does love us, and so he transforms our love for each other.
As we meditate on this new commandment to love, let’s consider four features of it today: (They each start with the letter ‘s,’ so we can more easily remember them):
- Love is given a new shape,
- Love happens in a new space,
- Love becomes a new sign,
- Love arises from a new source.
Shape, space, sign and source.
So first is that in this new commandment, love is given a new shape. What does that mean? Love is given a new shape in the sense of taking on a particular focus, and being characterised, in a particular way: namely the ‘shape’ of sacrifice.
Jesus says, ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’ If we then ask ‘How did Jesus love us?’ the context of this passage tells us a lot. Jesus is speaking these words on the night before he died. Judas has just left room to begin the chain of the events that would lead to Jesus’ death. Jesus talks about loving as he loved in the context of his sacrificial death. He strengthens this connection as he repeats this command a little later where he says: ‘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.’ (15:13)’.
This emphasis becomes like an echo throughout the New Testament, where again and again love is talked about in connection with the theme of sacrifice. To mention just one more example, in Ephesians 5:1 Paul writes, ‘…live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’. The love Jesus calls for is characterised by sacrifice. That means: total and utter self-giving love for another.
Let’s just think for a moment about how radical this love is. Think of membership at a football club. Actually in a place like a football club there can be some strong forms of love – strong comradery and this sort of thing. Around Anzac day, football coaches might try to inspire the players by talking of the Anzac spirit and so on. But then think about this: when finals time arrives and there are two players were left competing for the final spot in the A grade team, could you ever imagine one player saying, ‘I’ll give up my spot in the team for him’. It’s virtually inconceivable. Not only would it not happen, it would probably be looked on as weakness.
In contrast, this is the very sort of love that is to be cultivated in Christian community. We love by sacrificing our time, sacrificing our money, sacrificing our own desires and pleasures, sacrificing different parts of our life, for others.
So the first thing Jesus does is that love is given a new shape, that of sacrificial love.
The next point is that in Jesus’ new command, love happens in a new space.
Jesus says love ‘one another’. What does that mean? Who is the ‘one another’? Where, and with whom does Jesus want this new commandment of love to happen? The simple answer is that he seems to be referring to the Christian community – to love specifically within the church. Only his disciples are in this room, and he says, love ‘one another’. A parallel passage might be Galatians 6:10, ‘So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.’
Now this can strike some people as a bit confusing. We hear Jesus teach about loving one’s neighbour, as the Old Testament does, which seems fairly general. We even hear about Jesus radical call to love one’s enemies. So then it almost feels to some people like we’re going backwards here, retreating into a “holy huddle” or something. So it’s worth asking, why this particular command to love one’s brothers and sisters within the Christian family?
Here’s one way to think about it. Isn’t it true, that it can often be hardest for Christians, to love other Christians? Think of the sad history of conflict and division within Christian congregations. Think of the various debates we’ve had in our own LCA in recent times, and how quickly our lack of love for one another can rear its ugly head. Now St Paul does always remind us that love ‘rejoices in the truth’ (1 Cor 13:6), so we do need to have robust discussions in the life of the church. But he also calls us to ‘speak the truth in love’ (Eph 4:15). Think, too, of the way we have sometimes acted towards Christians of other denominations and traditions. Maybe Jesus is onto something more important than we at first realise, when he points us to the Christian community as the space for love.
It’s worth noting too, that this new commandment of Jesus is framed in John 13 by two spectacular failings within this first Christian community. Firstly, Judas betrays Jesus, and secondly, Peter denies Jesus! This, too, can help us understand why Jesus focuses on love within the Christian community.
We find a parallel in human family. Most people would say the people they love most in the world are their family. But if we’re really honest, isn’t it also true that our families are the hardest people to love? After all, we’re stuck with them! We live in close proximity to them. We know their flaws and they know ours. We can’t hide things from each other. We expect more from each other.
There’s a specific focus here in Jesus’ new commandment on living in love within the Christian community. Love is given a new space.
Then Jesus gives another reason why this focus on the Christian community, and this is our next point, that love becomes a new sign. ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’. How interesting and mysterious and even seemingly paradoxical, that if we want to reach out to the world with the love of Christ, the first step is that this love is lived within the Church, with each other. Jesus says in effect, ‘people will notice this, and love will be a sign to the world.’
This has been true throughout Church history. The early church father Tertullian reported that one of the things outsiders said about the early Christian church was, ‘See how they love each other.’ One of the Roman leaders said about the early Christians in one of his letters, ‘They love each other almost before they even meet.’ Love truly has been and will be a sign to the world.
Sadly, we know this today also in a negative sense don’t we? When we fail to love, it will likewise be noticed by the world. We know that it can be incredible damaging to the Church’s witness.
Now Jesus presumably teaches us this because it’s always going to be true. But maybe this is true and even more relevant for us in 21st century Australia than at other times and places. Because one thing we are seeing in our culture today is that people, especially young people, are searching for and craving community in which they can experience true love. This is perhaps because so many of our traditional communal structures have broken down.
So love is given a new shape. Love happens in a new space. Love becomes a new sign. Finally, love arises from a new source. All this teaching we covered so far is good stuff, the only problem with it, is that it’s really, really hard! It’s an incredible, if not impossible task to live a life of sacrificial love within the Christian community, and to become such a sign to the world! When we truthfully examine our hearts, do we find much of that sort of sacrificial love within? It’s interesting how central the issue of love is in one of our prayers of confession of sins: ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves.’ That’s the truth of the matter!
But the good news is, is that in Jesus we find not only a new shape for love, but a new source of love. We find not only a new pattern for love, but a new power for love. Jesus’ sacrificial death on the Cross is not only our example of love, it is his love acted out for us. Jesus is pointing to this when he says, ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’. The ‘as I have loved you’ is not only saying: ‘Look and follow my example’, but it’s also saying, ‘By going to the Cross for you, I am actually enabling and empowering you to love. That’s what makes it possible for you to even begin to live these lives of self-sacrificial love.’
Because it’s as Jesus gives his life for us on the Cross, that there is forgiveness of sins for us, and that he defeats the powers of evil for us. So he frees us all from this life turned in on ourselves. He rescues us from the path of love-less-ness. Jesus has loved us and continues to love us, so that we can love one another. Jesus himself is a deep well of love from which we draw. In 1 John 3:16 it is said like this: ‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’.
And as we think about how we actually receive his love, it’s worth considering an interesting, or rather vital, connection here. The same night Jesus gives us this new commandment, is the night he also institutes a new meal saying this is the ‘new covenant’ in my blood. There is a connection between the new command of love and the new covenant meal of love. It’s through this Sacrament that all the benefits of what Jesus accomplished on the Cross are given to us, so that we continually receive the love of Christ as we attend this meal. Jesus has left us his meal of love, and he has sent us his Holy Spirit. We remember that the first fruit of the Spirit is… love.
St Paul say in Romans 5 that ‘…God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’ This means that this is something anyone can pray for with great confidence when love seems to be lacking. Are you struggling to love your spouse? Your family? Someone in your congregation? Come to Holy Communion. Receive the love of Christ anew. Pray to God, and ask for the Holy Spirit to work in you his fruit of love. In Jesus there is a new source of love. You’ll be amazed at how receptive people can be in reconciling differences after sharing in this holy and love-filled meal!
So, love is given a new shape – that of sacrificial love. Love happens in a new space – the Christian community. Love becomes a new sign – of where Jesus’ disciples can be found in the world. And love arises from a new source – from Jesus himself, for he has loved us all to the end. ‘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.’ Amen.