I’m not generally in the habit of publishing material from my sermons here, but I was specifically asked if this might be shared more widely. It is based on a short passage from the Gospel of John in which Jesus is talking to his friends gathered for the Last Supper.
“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.”
(John 13: 34-35)
Is it easier I wonder to ‘love one another’ than to love those who don’t share our faith or don’t belong to our community or even to love those who are our enemies? It sounds as if it could and probably should be easier, though to my mind it is often the very opposite. We can avoid our enemies, and it can make us feel quite smug to feel we are loving them. But it’s sometimes incredibly difficult to love those who are part of our own Christian community. These are the people we meet with week by week: those with whom we share fellowship; those we sit alongside in committee meetings; and those we wash up with after coffee.
They may see things differently from us, indeed they almost certainly do – and thank God for the richness of our differences. It can be one of the most challenging tests of love and generosity to appreciate the different perspectives others bring. Perhaps in a church context this might mean entering fully into a service which isn’t really our own personal preference. Or singing a hymn we think is hopelessly old-fashioned or a worship song we deem to be cringe-makingly banal. Challenging, but oh so rewarding!
But how we are with each other speaks so eloquently to those around us. People notice.
“See how those Christians love each other.”
wrote the Roman historian Tertullian, writing in the very early days of the church. Would a contemporary observer say the same I wonder? Seeing the suspicion with which different churches sometimes view each other. Or the fuss we make over small differences in the way we do things. The history books are riddled with the terrible things that Christians have done and said to each other over the centuries.
And yet, Jesus is unswervingly clear. The new commandment, the one that he leaves with them in that final evening they spend together, is that we do love one another.
And what does that mean? How are we to do that loving? Jesus is again unswervingly clear. We are to love each other, Jesus says,
“just as I have loved you”.
And here we need to remember the context of what we’re hearing. This isn’t a blue skies and sunny days kind of love, a good feeling and a nice idea for when things are going well.
Jesus speaks these words after that last meal, that last supper, with his friends. The clouds are gathering. Jesus speaks these words about loving in the context of betrayal and impending death. The love that Jesus shows to his friends and tells them to show to each other is the love that is even now taking him to the cross. It is a love that finds its fullest and most powerful expression in the gift of his very life for those he loves.
So if we are at all serious in trying to do as Jesus commanded and “love one another” we can begin to see the kind of love that is being asked for.
Love that is without limit.
Love that always seeks the best for the other.
Love that is prepared to give fully of oneself for the other.
And if we want to know more about what this kind of love looks like we find plenty more help in the Bible. The letters in the New Testament written to early churches help us to understand. Just like us, they sometimes struggled to love each other.
“Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude,”
writes St Paul to the early Christians at Corinth,
“It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth”.
Or to the church in Colossae,
“clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
“See how those Christians love one another.” If we in the church were truly to model the love that Jesus commanded, there could be no stronger witness to those around us. People couldn’t fail to notice the difference and would want to know why.
We can talk about love till we’re blue in the face; we can use the most persuasive or poetic language to try to explain the love that God has for his people; we can try to argue people into believing in Jesus. But if we don’t live his love then we might as well save our breath.
Read more clergy letters.