“They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, they will know we are Christians by our love.”
So goes a hymn by Peter Scholtes which has been covered by various Christian artists, and sung by many in a pew or around a campfire. It conveys the sentiment expressed in our gospel, in Jesus’ words: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
We heard this pericope included in a longer reading from John on Maundy Thursday. We enter the gospel of John at the last supper, right after Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. Judas left the party, to go meet the religious authorities and police and bring them to arrest Jesus. Then Jesus sat back, and began some final teaching.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”
Love one another. Love is such a tricky word, overused and misunderstood. My family studies professor always reminded us that love is a verb. So often in our culture we make it a noun- something to be possessed, a feeling to fall in and out of. Love is a verb, a deliberate action.
Sometimes, when we apply this commandment to ourselves, a congregation of disciples, we can fall into the danger of envisioning this love as a general warm feeling. We reduce this commandment into getting along, or maybe ducking out of the room when we see someone who annoys us coming near!
Jesus doesn’t want us to just feel comfortable when we’re around one another, Jesus wants us to act! We do love when we act with the other’s well-being in mind. We do love when we seek to help the other live in joy and dignity.
In the words of the text lay one of the greatest dangers: love one another. Reciprocal loving relationships are what we expect both in and out of the church. We love those who love us. We love those who do good things for us, we love those who help us feel good about ourselves, we love those who are most like us, we love those who live like we think they should. We love those who earn and deserve our love. We love those in our close circle of relationships.
Jesus breaks open that circle of reciprocity. He clarifies,
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Jesus has loved recklessly and abundantly. He has stepped down from his position of esteem to stoop at the feet of the disciples and wash them as a servant would. His love is leading him to die on the cross.
Jesus loves, knowing that his love will not be returned. Those he loves will hurt him, betray him, and abandon him. This teaching on love is preceded by Jesus’ act of love, washing feet, for all the disciples, even Judas, who is about to betray him to death. In the paragraph following our reading, Jesus turns to the disciple Peter, describing how Peter will deny ever knowing Jesus. Still, Jesus loves.
As a community, we are called to love recklessly and abundantly. We are called to enter loving relationships even with people who will never live as we might want, who won’t be able to turn their lives around, or who will not love us back. We are called to love the people others might whisper about, or push away.
I was in a church once, where they were struggling with being a loving community, specifically about who it was they were called to love, who was to be included in their community. They were struggling in a way that reminds me of the worst perversion of the Jewish life we see portrayed in Acts. In Acts, Peter’s refusing to eat is based in Jewish law: law from God. God set up laws and customs that would remind the Jewish people that they were different from their neighbors, that they were the chosen people of the covenant. Standards of purity and being separated from the wider culture were part of what reminded them to stay faithful to God.
My church was concerned with purity. One woman worried that she would be sinning by association, if the “wrong” people were welcomed into our church. When I think about it, many church communities I’ve been a part of have had their own “wrong” people, people who are labeled unwelcome, unloveable, a danger and bad influence in the community.
God’s revelation to Peter continues to show what it means to love as Jesus loves. Jesus’ love is not only for a select group of people, but is for the whole world. It is not only for those who have kept themselves separated, or who have been born into the right group. It is for the outcast, the sinner, the foreigner, the one who promises to be better tomorrow. It is for the broken, the different, the labeled. Jesus’ love is for you, each of you, with whatever baggage you carry. And it is for the one you’ve always avoided. Jesus love you each, and wants you to love each other.
Jesus enacts love, shows love to us, so that we might know how to love others. Jesus takes the role of the servant, and gives up his life in love, to do good for people who may never recognize his love, much less respond in kind.
As a community, we are called to live this love fully. We are challenged to love even past the point of sacrificing something of ourselves for the well-being of another. We might have to give up something to love another. Yet that does not mean we encourage each other to stay in harmful relationships, or enter into suffering for the sake of suffering. Rather, it means we strive for justice. We seek to enter into relationships that build each other up: not just emotionally, but in dignity and wholistic well-being. We love authentically, knowing each other’s brokenness and struggles, embracing differences, and remaining faithful even when it’s difficult to get along.
Love one another. This is hard work! Because it doesn’t come easily, we need a practice community. Throughout the centuries, Christians have gathered together around word and sacrament, with prayer for all the world and giving up some of our money for the good of others, taking time for confession and reconciliation in sharing Jesus’ peace. Here, in this congregation, we practice loving each other, so that we can leave this place and love each person we meet. After meeting Jesus, practicing love through prayer, giving, confession, and reconciliatory greetings, we are propelled outward.
The world will know we are Christians by our love. They will notice our love when it has the same radical nature as Jesus’ love: when it reaches outside of our safe bounded community, when it changes the lives of those it embraces, when it is real and authentic, and sometimes dangerous in loving those who don’t respond and those the world would rather we don’t love.
Jesus enacts love without regard for its return. You are loved with this reckless, selfless, embracing love. Jesus welcomes you into his community, at his table, to wonder and rejoice in the God who created you and gives you life. Knowing all of who you are, this God will always love you.
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