David A. Davis
February 21, 2021
In the Gospel of Matthew, when the Pharisees and Sadducees were gathered together with Jesus, one of them who was a lawyer put a question to Jesus as a test. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mt. 22:36-40)
The Great Commandment, as the tradition labels it, also appears in Mark and in Luke. In Luke the Great Commandment and the lawyer’s second question, “And who is my neighbor” is the lead-in to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have versions of the Great Commandment. But it is nowhere to be found in the Gospel of John. In John, it is not the Great Commandment. It is the new commandment. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
In the first twelve chapters of John, the author doesn’t talk all that much love. John’s Jesus doesn’t say all that much about love. When Lazarus was dying Mary and Martha send Jesus a message: “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.” (11:3) At one point in the 12th chapter, Jesus says “those who love their life will lose it”. (v.25) But that’s pretty much it for Jesus and love in the first half of the Gospel of John. But here in this lengthy conversation with the disciples on the threshold of his suffering and death, Jesus makes a turn toward love. Here with the disciples, with the reality of his departure hitting them in the face, here as Jesus tries to assure them of his presence even as he departs, when it comes to the disciples call to love, Jesus makes a move toward love in a big way. When it comes to Presence in Absence and the Departed Jesus Who Remains, the call to love another is a clarion one never to be missed.
The new commandment here in the 13th chapter is just the first note of that call. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another”. Chapter 14. “If you love, you will keep my commandments” (v.15) Chapter 15. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you… I am giving you these commandments so that you may love one another” (12-14, 17). It’s a three-time commandment. Love one another. Love another. Love another. It is not just a call. It’s a trumpet blast. You remember when the Risen Christ cooked breakfast for the Peter and the disciples after they had gone back to fishing. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”. Peter answered each time with a yes. And the Risen Christ answered, “Feed my lambs…Tend my sheep…Feed my sheep.” Or in other words, love one another!
It’s not that the love Jesus has for others isn’t on display throughout John’s gospel. He’s not talking about it earlier in John, he is just living it in his ministry. He had a long conversation with the Samaritan woman as the astonished disciples couldn’t believe he would talk to her. There are the healing stories. He feeds the five thousand. He weeps over the death of Lazarus and brings him back to life. And, of course, he washes the disciples’ feet in act of servanthood and love. In fact, the foot washing happens here in chapter 13 right just before Jesus gives the new commandment. He washes the disciples’ feet, predicts his betrayal at the hand of Judas, and Judas leaves the dinner in the dark of night. The new commandment is nestled here between the betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter; “before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”. Love squeezed by betrayal and denial.
Maybe that’s why Jesus won’t let it go in the chapters to follow. Because love can be so easily lost, overshadowed, hard to find amid the reality of sin and the human condition. So Jesus, he keeps at it, he gives it one those divine “three-peats”. Love one another. Love one another. Love one another. Moses only gave the tablets of the Ten Commandments twice! You wonder if the repetition makes the commandment all more demanding or does it sound more like a plea. Like Jesus is begging them, “You have to, you just have to, please, you have to love.”
But this delay in John when it comes to Jesus teaching, preaching, commanding love? This waiting until the end of the 13th chapter and then bringing it pretty much with a fire hose, its actually more than a kind of literary device to juxtapose love with betrayal and denial. Jesus is making a stronger, even more compelling claim for loving one another. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” I am with you only a little while longer. Where I am going you cannot come. But everyone, including you, will know you are my disciples, you are mine, if you have love for one another. Here is where the cynical theologians and interpreters among us try to hedge, make a parochial move. The call is simply to love one another, The commandment stays in the family. Love one another. Of course, nothing can be more antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the breadth of his example and teaching. Loving one another means loving period. By this everyone will know. Everyone.
In the first have of John’s gospel, everyone knows the disciples of Jesus because they are with him. Jesus triples on the new commandment because everyone will know the disciples of Jesus because of their love. Even more, knowing that his absence from them is imminent, Jesus is telling them that in their love for one another, in their love, they will experience his presence. The presence of Christ is experienced by everyone when his followers live a life defined by love. For it is in loving and being loved that the departed Christ is ever present. “Now you are the body of Christ” Paul writes. That profound affirmation to the church is, of course, the down beat to Paul’s iconic oratorio on the greatest gift of love in the 13th chapter of First Corinthians. The body of Christ and the commandment to love.
In the adult education episode for this week, Dr. Shane Berg points out how everything shifts in the Gospel of John at this Last Supper Discourse. It all shifts toward the glorification of Christ, his hour, his being lifted. The eyes of John’s readers are turning to the Lord’s arrest, and trial, and torture, and crucifixion, and resurrection, and ascension. His departure. Readers of all four gospels are familiar with that trope that Jesus keeps telling the disciples about his coming death and resurrection but they never seem to get it. They never understand. That knowledge for the reader, for the church, for the followers of Jesus, it always seems to include a sort of theological, spiritual, pious, maybe even a smug, spoiler alert. That somewhere, somehow in our encounter with the Jesus of the gospels, we know how all this ends. The poor disciples, they don’t get until sometime after Easter morning. But we, we Christians, we got it. We got this. Jesus and his passion predictions, you and I, the church today, we’re good.
But when it comes to the new commandment tucked right here in yet another passion prediction from Jesus in John, when it comes to Jesus and his trumpet blast of love in this Last Supper Discourse, when it comes to everyone knowing that the Church writ large, throughout history, because of loving one another, because of loving and therefore everyone knows the followers of Jesus, when it comes to those taking the name of Christians and the Lord’s timeless, ever present call to love, when Christ’s presence in the world is made known through the church’s acts of love, well, that is a much different kind of spoiler alert, isn’t it. Ancient church history, church history, church…and love? January 2021 was hardly the first time Christian symbols and symbols of hate were paired together. And, my guess is that when it comes to being a follower of Jesus and his commandment to love and all of us getting it, my hunch is that there is not much room for any smugness at all from any one of us. Because love can be so easily lost, overshadowed, hard to find amid the reality of our own sin and our own humanity. Love squeezed again and again and again by the human condition.
Somewhere, in the kingdom of heaven, the disciples are gathered and looking at the world, over the church, over the followers of Jesus, those who sat with Jesus for the long, last discourse, they are looking at a Jesus’ disciples today wondering why so many just don’t get it. And Jesus, well, Jesus, Jesus is now just pretty much begging. “Love one another. Love. You have to, you just have to, please, please, you have to love.”