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Love One Another (A Sermon on John 13:31-35)

Love One Another (A Sermon on John 13:31-35)

We are in the 13th chapter of the Gospel according to St John’s this week, and I’m going to unpack our reading verse by verse as it is a difficult passage.

“When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” (John 13:31)

The person who had ‘gone out’ was Judas, and the sentence seems to suggest that Judas’ leaving somewhat brought glory to Jesus, which sounds really odd.

“If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.” (John 13:32)

I really have no idea where to begin with that statement!

“Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.'” (John 13:33)

That statement makes sense to us as Jesus speaking about his own impending suffering and death, though at the time it made no sense at all to His disciples.

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 13:34-45)

That concluding pronouncement, I suspect, is the most difficult to understand of all!

“All you need is love!” – so said the Beatles.

When I read statements like these from the lips of Jesus, I can almost hear the soundtrack of that well-known Beatles song playing in the background.

“Love is all you need. Love is all you need… “

It’s not true, of course. Love isn’t all we need – not in relationships, not in families, not in governments.

We had an election yesterday. Did you vote for the most loving candidate? Should you have?

I tried to give some thought after reading this passage as to who the most loving candidate for electoral office was. It wasn’t obvious.

It didn’t take me long to come up with the names of politicians who were definitely NOT full of love and sweetness, but it seemed less obvious to me which candidates actually were.

Did the candidate who loves us the most win? Do we care?

In truth, in as much as we might say, “all we need is love”, I don’t think we really care whether our political leaders love us, any more than we really care whether our boss at work truly loves us. Love is not all we need. A good capacity for management is probably far more important in cases like this than is love!

Love is not all we need in government or in families, and it’s not even all we need in a system of morality! This might sound counterintuitive. Is not all of morality – all our statements about what is right and what is wrong – really an extension of that basic ideal of love?

Certainly, over the generations, scores of philosophers and other great thinkers have suggested that all of our moral intuitions can be reduced to one simple exhortation – if not ‘to love’ exactly, to something very akin to that.

The British philosopher, John Stuart Mill, saw all of morality as a system of increasing pleasure for people and reducing harm. He is probably best remembered for his ‘harm principle’:

“That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

I have a feeling that if you’d asked Mill what the essence of morality was, he might not have said ‘love one another’, but might well have said ‘don’t’ harm one another’, which is pretty similar.

Likewise, the great 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, believed that morality could be reduced to a single maxim – the ‘categorical imperative’:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

That’s always sounded to me like a really complex way of saying ‘love your neighbour as you would love yourself”, which, of course, was Jesus’ ‘golden rule’ that many people see as being His one-line summary of the moral law, along with the first and great commandment, of course, that you have to love God:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

We are familiar with these commandments. We hear them every week in church, and they do seem to suggest that everything in the law of God comes down to love, and that the rest is just commentary.

Is that really what Jesus was saying? St Augustine thought so, and in my previous sermons on these passages, I have suggested exactly that – that there is really only one law of God – that we love – and that the rest is just application. My more recent reading though has suggested that it’s actually a lot more complicated than that, at least if Jesus really was being true to His Hebraic tradition.

The Hebraic law centres around the Ten Commandments – the ten words of God to the people of Israel – and while it seems straightforward to see commandments like “thou shalt not steal” and “thou shalt not murder” as being extensions of the commandment to love, other commandments like “honour thy father and thy mother” do not seem to be so easily reducible. Honoring your father and your mother seems to be more about respecting authority than it is about love.

I’ve been reading a very interesting book lately by moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, called “the Righteous Mind”, in which he outlines what he calls ‘moral foundation theory’.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should rush out to get a copy of this book. It is not an easy read and could prove difficult if you don’t have an academic background in the study of philosophical ethics (which, thankfully, I do).

The author’s key point, at any rate, is that our moral intuitions can’t be reduced to any one simple maxim such as ‘love one another’ as morality is invariably more complex than that.

Haidt suggests that there are five reasonably independent dimensions to our moral awareness, and ‘caring’ for others is just one of those dimensions. The others are:

  • Fairness (which is all about justice, rewards and punishments)
  • Loyalty (which is associated with values such as faithfulness and patriotism)
  • Authority (where you honour your father and your mother, king and country)
  • Sanctity (which involves respecting your body and potentially embracing things like chastity, temperance and cleanliness)

Forgive me if I’m now sounding more dry and esoteric than the book I mentioned. My point is actually a simple one – that ‘all you need is love’ is both simplistic and inadequate. We don’t only need love – not if we are going to be successful in our relationships or in all of life. We actually need a lot of things – courage, self-discipline, wisdom, nurture and support and a good education, and more!

Of course, Jesus didn’t say “love is all you need”. That was ‘The Beatles’. What Jesus did say was “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”. In other words, Jesus didn’t say that love is all we need to live a full and productive life. What He said was that it was all we needed in order to show the world that we are His disciples. That might sound like much the same thing but it’s actually quite distinct.

The life of love is not a strategy for success, despite what any number of tele-evangelists might have told you. Indeed, if it’s right to consider it a strategy at all, the life of love could only be a strategy for getting yourself killed. That’s certainly how it worked for Jesus.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that friend who said to me “I’m sick of hearing people tell me about all the problems they had before they met Jesus and how He solved them all for them. My problems didn’t start till I met Jesus!”

That’s difficult to hear, I think. We don’t want to think of Jesus as the one who leads us down a path of suffering and misery. We want to think of Jesus as one who elevates us to heavenly places.

Isn’t that what religion is for after all? Isn’t good religion supposed to benefit our lives and help us live more fully and peacefully with a great sense of purpose and fulfillment? Surely, it’s not just about suffering in this world so that we can enjoy a better life in the next? Surely there’s more to it than that?

I don’t think Jesus is saying that discipleship is all about suffering any more than it is all about success. Discipleship, Jesus says, is all about love, and everything else depends on what Jesus means by love.

Jesus says His command to love is a new commandment, and that’s a surprise. Certainly, the commandment to love is as old as the Scriptures themselves, so it must be the latter part of the commandment – to love one another ‘as I have loved you’ – that makes it new.

When we hear those words, I suspect most of us immediately think of the cross and Jesus laying down his life for us. That makes sense, and indeed the same Gospel writer, John, writes in his first letter “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). Even so, without wanting to press the issue of the timeline too heavily, the exhortation we have in today’s Gospel reading -to love one another “as I have loved you” happens before the cross, suggesting that the model on view here may not be the death of Jesus but the life of Jesus!

Further, as noted, today’s reading begins with a reference to Judas – “when he had gone out” – and Jesus’ exhortation to love each other as He has loved us comes immediately before the two terrible betrayals from disciples whom Jesus had just broken bread with and whose feet Jesus had just washed – the one betrayal being from Judas, of course, and the other one being from dear Peter!

Jesus loved Peter, was betrayed by Peter, and would eventually be reconciled with Peter. Jesus loved Judas but would never be reconciled with him. Even perfect love does not guarantee a perfect ending to the story. Even so, love anyway – that’s the new commandment.

Yes, “greater love has no one than this – to lay down one’s life for their friends” (John 15:3). That is true, and bodily self-sacrifice is indeed the ultimate example of love, but most of the time love is not so grandiose and (thankfully) not quite so painful. The far more common (and in some ways more difficult) labor of love is the ongoing work of having to forgive those who fail us, and sometimes fail us very badly.

This, I believe, is the love by which everyone will now that we are His disciples – it’s the love that breaks bread with those who betray us and that washes the feet of those who turn their backs on us. It’s the love that finds its ultimate inspiration in the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, but which likewise finds daily encouragement in the simple acts of grace shown by Jesus towards those whom He knew would radically fail Him.

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 13:34-45)

It’s not a strategy for success. It’s not a means to a better life or more successful relationships. It’s just the way that we demonstrate to the world that we are followers of Jesus. We break bread, we wash feet, we empathise, we forgive. We love one another just as He loved us.