Scripture: John 13:31-35
It is right there in our Scripture reading for today, but if we didn’t pay close attention or were not listening at the beginning of the reading, we probably missed it. The disappearance of Judas, going out into the night, tells Jesus that his time, his great moment, is rushing upon him like a tidal wave. As the door shuts, a sense of excitement grips John’s writing. It is as though Jesus is drawing the 11
even closer to himself; you can almost picture him drawing them in together like a football huddle. It is as though he is telling them new things, things he couldn’t say when Judas was there, things he must now say quickly, precisely because Judas has gone & the time is very short.
Our reading is where the “farewell discourses,” as they are often called, really begin. The disciples ask questions from time to time, but from now until the end of chapter 16, Jesus is explaining the fact that he is with them for a little while longer, & that they cannot follow him just yet. He is showing them what it all means for their future life, their own sorrow & joy & mission in the world. The discourses end with the great prayer of chapter 17, after which the story picks up with the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.
These chapters have often rightly been seen as among the most precious & intimate in the Bible. They are full of comfort, challenge, & hope; full of the deep & strange personal relationship that Jesus longs to have with each of his followers. We should not be surprised that they are also full of some rich theological insights. They include a sense of discovering who the true God is, & what God is doing in the world, & in us. Where you find true devotion, you often find rich theology, & vice versa. Shallow thinking & shallow loving often keep company.
This is only the second time that Jesus has spoken of the Son of Man being glorified; the other is in chapter 12. Before this moment, he has spoken of God being glorified, & of the Son of Man being lifted up. Now he puts the 2 together. As in Daniel 7, one like a son of man will be exalted, coming on the clouds to the Ancient of Days, & the whole scene will be the moment of God’s glory, revealing who the true God is, over against the dark forces of the world that have resisted him & trampled upon his worshipers. You can feel the excitement in verses 31 & 32: Glory, glory, glory! Jesus is overwhelmed with glory, with the coming events as the unveiling of God’s glory, with his own ministry rushing toward its conclusion & bringing God glory.
Jesus is also overwhelmed by the fact that he is going to leave the disciples behind. He has only been with them a short while, & now he must go. Most teachers can relate to such a moment, when they wonder if they have done enough, gotten through to their pupils. The disciples seem to have learned so little, understood so little, grasped so little of what their wonderful master has been doing in their midst. How will they cope without him?
The next 3 chapters of John will provide the answer, as Jesus makes the disciples solemn promises about the coming Holy Spirit who will guide them as he himself has done. But before he even gets to that, he has something else to offer them: the simplest, clearest, & hardest command of all: Love each other.
He describes it as a new commandment. Love, of course, is central in many parts of the Old Testament. The book of Leviticus commanded the Israelites to love their neighbors as themselves. But the newness is not so much a matter of never having heard words like this before. It is a matter of the mode of this love, the depth of this love, & the type of this love. Love each other – just as I have loved you.
It has been hard for the disciples up to this point even to appreciate what Jesus has been doing on their behalf. Now he is telling them to copy him! As with the foot washing, they are to look back at Jesus’ whole life, his whole way & manner of life, & to find in it a pattern, a shape, an example, & the power for living. To wash someone else’s feet, you have to think of yourself as only a slave. That, as the Scripture just prior to our reading shows, can feed all the wrong kind of thinking: it can produce a sort of inverted pride, a pride at one’s own humility, if you will. But with true love there is no danger of that. Love is all about the other person. It overflows into service, not in order to show off how hardworking it is, but because it just comes naturally.
This has to be the badge that the Christian community wears before a watching world. As we read verse 35, we are bound to cringe with shame at the way in which professing Christians have treated each other - & the world – down through the years. We have turned the gospel into a weapon. We have hit each other over the head, & burned each other at the stake, with it. We have defined the ‘each other’ so tightly that it means only love the people who ‘reinforce your own sense of who you are.’
And yet we know that this is not the way that Jesus loved. And we know it is not what Jesus meant when he commanded us to love each other. I want to briefly touch on 4 degrees of love, each building upon the other because I believe it is a faulty foundation that has caused us to falter in fulfilling Jesus’ command. Verse 35 is directed to those of us who believe & seek to follow Christ. So this message is directed at all of us within the church.
It all begins with ourselves. First & foremost, we must love our self. I don’t mean have a reasonable measure of self-esteem or self-worth. I mean we must truly love our self. We must recognize that we are loveable, being created by God in God’s image. We must acknowledge that we have value, that God loves us, & that God created us with a purpose.
Let’s not get all tangled up in how our actions don’t mirror our purpose. I will be the first to acknowledge that we are all sinners & that our salvation is totally unmerited. But I am also convinced that God loves us, every one of us, to the point that God was willing to allow Jesus to die for us. As Paul wrote, that proves God’s love toward us! And if the perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing God of the universe can love me, then surely the least I can do is love myself!
If we can love our self, then the next task is to love our family. This is a 2-fold love. First, we must love our biological, nuclear family. I’m sure you have heard the saying, “Blood is thicker than water.” I believe it should be especially true for those of us within the church. I know Jesus said that because of himself, father would turn against son & daughter against mother. But I believe he said this about families that would split over faith in Jesus Christ & split over following Jesus Christ. Still, that in no way removes the command to love. Just because someone in our family doesn’t love us back, or doesn’t love Jesus, that doesn’t take us off the hook for loving them! And yes, I know unreciprocated love is hard. Extremely hard. But nowhere does Jesus say that any of this faithful living would be easy!
If we can love our blood relatives, then we can expand our circle to include our family in the faith. Again, I’m convinced – after 62 years of life & especially my 20 years of pastoring – that loving our self builds the foundation that allows us to love our family, & loving our family builds the foundation to love our church family. And to love not just our church family, but the worldwide family of faith.
And once we can love our sisters & brothers in Christ, then, & only then, we have the foundation to love the whole world. Then we can truly begin to reflect & live out the command of Christ to love each other. But it takes the proper foundation. It takes a growing commitment to love – no matter what.
The reason I believe these solid foundations are so critical is because Jesus’ command is so critical – for us & for the world. And I believe it is because Jesus’ command is so demanding – that we love as Jesus loves us.
And how does Jesus love us? Jesus loved - & loves us still – selflessly. Jesus never thought of himself. His one desire was to give himself & all he had to those he loves. Do we put others before ourselves?
Jesus loved - & loves us still – sacrificially. There was no limit to what Jesus would give or to where Jesus would go for those he loves. Do we put limits on our love?
Jesus loved - & loves us still – understandingly. Jesus knows us through & through, & yet he loves us. Sometimes we say that love is blind, but that’s not true. Real love is open-eyed. Is that the way we love?
Jesus loved - & loves us still – forgivingly. No matter how insensitive, cruel, or cowardly those around him treated him, Jesus forgave them & loved them - & us. Can we honestly pray to be forgiven even as we forgive others?
Sisters & brothers, we have fallen far short of Christ’s command. Only you know where the problem lies. I know some of you are thinking, “Dave, you don’t understand my situation. This person is impossible to love.” But I do understand. I understand that in our own power, with our own limited resources, a particular person or people in your life may be impossible to love. That is where the Holy Spirit comes in. You need to pray for that person & give that person over to God – for with God all things are possible! And in giving them to God, we can find a way to love them.
Others of you are saying, “That person will never love me back.” To which I say, so what! Jesus gave us his command, & in the end there were few who loved him back! Verse 35 does not read: ‘Love those who return your love.’ No, we know that on another occasion, Jesus said love your enemies. Reciprocating our love is not a condition we can lean on for Jesus’ understanding. Our call, our responsibility, is simply to love.
But I am firmly convinced of this: we must get our foundations right. We must build, stone upon stone, in order to fulfill Christ’s command. So, now it is up to you. Only you know where you must begin. Perhaps it is at the beginning – you simply have not loved yourself. If so, then you must go to God in prayer – a dedicated, however-long-it-takes prayer session with God – until you can truly see yourself as God sees you, as a deeply loved, highly valuable member of God’s family.
Perhaps you need to start with your family. Maybe this is where loving relationships break down. If so, you need to pray for your family. Not just a passing prayer, or a quick lifting up of a name or names. Deeply pray for the person who doesn’t seem loveable. Pray until, through the power of God, you can love your family as you love yourself. And, as far as it concerns you, seek reconciliation. Full reconciliation is a 2-way street, but you can be reconciled from your side at least.
Maybe you need to grow in love for the family of believers. I think by now you know the steps to take. Pray, then pray, then pray some more. Offer forgiveness & ask to be forgiven. When forgiveness is offered, accept it. I am convinced Shiloh Church will not be everything God intends it to be until this step is reached by every member. You heard correctly – by every member.
When we get to this point – note, I didn’t say if, I said when – then the world will already be at our door, wanting to see just what kind of place this is, where everyone truly loves each other. We won’t have to do much advertising, because the world will know that we are Jesus’ disciples. They will know by our love!
We need to start today. We need to start right where each one of us is. And a good start is going back to something we did when I first got to Shiloh. I want you to stand up, turn to your neighbor, & repeat after me: “God loves you & I do too, & there isn’t anything you can do about it!” And repeat until you mean it!