April 17, 2014
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from John 13:34-35.
“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that your are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
This wasn’t actually a new commandment. It appears in Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” Chapter 19 in Leviticus sets forth the rule of conduct for the Israelites and begins, “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.’” John repeats the command to love one another in chapter 15. John’s first letter in chapter two acknowledges that this commandment is not new. “Beloved, I am writing no new commandment to you but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard….Whoever loves his brother remains in the light, and there is nothing in him to cause a fall. Whoever hates his brother is in darkness; he walks in darkness and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” Then,John repeats it again in chapter three, “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning: we should love one another.” And again in the same chapter, “And his [God’s] commandment is this: we should love one another just as he commanded us. Those who keep him commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit that he gave us.”
This is obviously an important point that John wants to make sure I understand. So, how does he want me to understand it? The New Jerome Biblical Commentary points out, “This ‘commandment’ is ‘new’ because it is grounded not in the love commands of the Jewish tradition but in the self-offering of Jesus.” There’s the key — the self-offering of Jesus. His decision to lay down his own life, to give up his own self, is what he meant by loving one another. John Shelby Spong in The Fourth Gospel puts it this way, “It is love that is selfless and thus produces and enhances life. John’s Jesus wants to open the world to this love and thereby to invite his disciples into a new dimension of what it means to be human….Oneness is achieved in our willingness and in or ability to love one another. God is experienced as present in us, in our freedom the escape our needs and to give ourselves away to one another.” Selfless love leads to oneness with one another and, more importantly, with God.
So, Barclay reminds me, “Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that love is meant to give us happiness. So in the end it does, but love may well bring pain and demand a cross.” Love is selfless. I am called to give all of me, all of my love away, to hold nothing back for myself. To give away what I think I need or desire for my own happiness. All the while knowing that I will undoubtedly suffer disappointment and heartbreak. I want to veer away from that awareness. I want to avoid the pain of suffering. But again and again and again God tells me to love others no matter what. The hardest commandment for me to obey.
I like the way Barclay concludes his commentary on this commandment. It helps me to try and try and try again despite failing again and again and again. “Jesus held nothing against them [his disciples]; there was no failure which he could not forgive. The love which has not learned to forgive cannot do anything else but shrivel and die. We are poor creatures, and there is a kind of fate in things which makes us hurt most of all those who love us best. For that very reason all enduring love must be built on forgiveness, for without forgiveness it is bound to die.” First, I have to forgive myself for my own selfishness, my own failure to love others selflessly. Only then can I forgive those who fail to love me, who disappoint me, who hurt me, who are selfish just as I am, who long for forgiveness as I do. That is the way to oneness with God and with one another. It is the way of the cross.