Psalm 116:1,10-17 Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10),11-14 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
If you knew you were about to die, what last, urgent piece of advice, cherished hope or dream would you offer the people you love? In our Gospel reading, Jesus answers this difficult question. The crucifixion clock is ticking. Judas has left the band, and Jesus knows that his disciples are about to face the greatest devastation of their lives. So, he gets right to the point. No parables, no pithy sayings. Just one simple, straightforward commandment, summarizing his deepest desire for his followers: “Love one another.” What is staggering is this commandment is that, though “simple enough for a toddler to memorize…most mature believers are…embarrassed at how poorly they comprehend it and put it into practice” (D. A. Carson). When I look at my own life, it is not hard to name why I perpetually fail to obey it.
Love takes trust, time, effort, discipline, and transformation, and I am suspicious and busy. Love is risky business, it cost Jesus his life and I am not ready. And yet Jesus did not suggest but rather commanded; meaning, it is not a matter of personal preference; it is a matter of obedience to the Lord.
But what does it mean for Jesus to command us to love? Does love obey decrees? Most of us would say no. Love is spontaneous. We fall in love. We know that authentic love cannot be manipulated, simulated, or rushed without suffering distortion. So, the best we can do is to behave as if we love each other by being nice, sharing our goods and using kind words. But these actions — often done with gritted teeth and rolling eyes — are not what Jesus is talking about. Jesus does not say, “Act as if you love.” He does not give his disciples (or us) the easy “out” of doing nice things with clenched hearts. He says, “Love as I have loved you.” As in for real, in the whole package of authentic feeling, deep engagement, generous action. Imagine what would happen to us, to the Church, to the world, if we obeyed and cultivated this “impossible” commandment? I ask these questions because I don’t know how to answer them, even for myself. Do I love as Jesus loved, feel a depth of compassion that is gut-punching, experience a hunger for justice so fierce and so urgent that I rearrange my life to pursue it, empathize until my heart breaks? Do I want to?
Most of the time — I don’t. Those things are hard and costly. And yet this was Jesus’ dying wish. Why? “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” Love is the litmus test of our Christian witness. Our love for each other is how the world will know who we are and whose we are. Our love for each other is how the world will see, taste, touch, hear, and find Jesus. It is through our love that we will embody and make Jesus relatable, possible, plausible, to the world. Such is the power we wield in our decisions to love or not love. Such is the responsibility we shoulder, whether we want to or not. Impossible as this commandment may be, Jesus does not leave us bereft and directionless in the wilderness. He gives us a clear road map: “Love as I have loved you.” “Live as you have seen me live,” he says. Weep with those who weep. Laugh with those who laugh. Touch the untouchables. Feed the hungry. Welcome the child. Release the captive. Forgive the sinner. Confront the oppressor and the oppressed. Wash each other’s feet. Hold each other close. Tell each other the truth. Guide each other home. In other words, Jesus’ commandment to us is not something that we should wear ourselves out, trying to conjure from our own depleted resources. Rather, it is someone we are invited to abide in — Jesus — where all love originates. This is God’s love and there are no parched places God will not drench if we earnestly ask. So, let us ask God to help us love one another as he has loves us.