May 15, 2022, Love: As Old as the Hills, as New as the Cross, John 13:31-35 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
A man came to Jesus one day, and he asked Jesus a question. “Teacher,” he said, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” And Jesus answered him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” The word “depend” that Jesus uses, is the word for a hinge. Jesus is saying to the lawyer that like a heavy door hangs securely on strong hinges, love of God, and love of neighbor, those are the hinges on which the entirety of Judaism hangs, not just the law but the Law and the Prophets, every word handed down to Israel from God, everything on which their faith rests. Love is the oldest, most foundational commandment of all.
And love isn’t unique to Judaism. All the major religions – and most of the minor ones as well – teach love. And, on a purely human level, love is what holds communities together. Nations are united by love of one’s fatherland: love of a mutual language and shared traditions and a common history. Families are united by love of one’s blood relatives: the natural love that brings people together in marriage, and the powerful, instinctual love of parents for their children. Even though we’re not always very good at doing it, love is in our human DNA, which makes all the sense in the world, if we believe that we were created in the image of God, who is Love. Right back to Adam and Eve, whom God brought together because he knew that “it isn’t good for man to be alone,” human beings have always known what it is to love.
So, it would be fair to ask, why did Jesus say to his disciples, on his last night with them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another?” Why would Jesus call something new, that was part of the fabric of their everyday life, and more, that was the foundation on which the faith of their ancestors had rested, going back thousands of years to the call of Abraham? The answer is in the little phrase, the little qualifier, that Jesus added. “Just as I have loved you,” he went on, “you also should love one another.” Because even though every human being since the creation of the world has had an instinctual tendency to love, our understanding of what love truly is has always been incomplete: fractured by sin like an image reflected in a broken mirror, and as limited as the vision of a new-born baby who can’t focus any farther than the length of her own little arm. But when Jesus came, we saw real Love for the very first time, because Jesus was love – love, as Eugene Peterson put it so wonderfully, who “put on flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”
And it turns out, we didn’t know love as well as we thought we did. The love we saw in Jesus took people by surprise. Sometimes, the love of Jesus even offended people. It was something new. Probably one of the things that offended people the most, was that Jesus seemed to have love and law all mixed up and backwards. Jesus even seemed to be saying that love takes precedence over the law. The law, for example, required anyone with leprosy to maintain a respectful distance from everybody else, to live outside the camp, and to announce their presence by crying out, “Unclean!” But Jesus seemed to disregard that very sensible provision of the Law. When Jesus met lepers, he did the unthinkable. He reached out in love to touch them. In doing that, he was flouting the traditional understanding of the law. But instead of Jesus becoming infected, those lepers were healed.
Jesus seemed to particularly delight in healing people on the Sabbath, which riled the authorities up no end. The law commanded people to observe the Sabbath as a day of rest, and the teachers of the law had drawn up a whole host of detailed regulations for how that was to be done – how many steps one could take, what necessary tasks were allowed and what tasks had better be completed before the sun set and the Sabbath began. But Jesus healed people on the Sabbath with a casual freedom that drove the authorities crazy. At one Sabbath service there was a man with a crippled right hand in the synagogue. All eyes were on Jesus, to see if he was going to break the law – again. “Let me ask you something:” he said, “What kind of action suits the Sabbath best? Doing good or doing evil? Helping people or leaving them helpless?” He looked around at all the people, hoping they would understand. And he healed the man’s hand, in the presence of all.
As Jesus revealed it, we found out that love is the precedent. Love is the guiding principle for obedience, not the other way around. In fact, Jesus revealed that there is no justice or righteousness or obedience apart from love. Loving never breaks the law, love never can break the law, because all justice and all righteousness and all obedience is defined by love. When we make choices about what to do or what not to do, Jesus showed us, we don’t measure ourselves by a set of rules and regulations. We examine our hearts. And by saying that, Jesus wasn’t being permissive. Far from it. “You know the laws ‘You shall not murder’ and ‘You shall not commit adultery,’” Jesus said. “But I say to you, if you hate your brother or sister in you heart you have committed murder. And if you look at another person as an object for your lust, you have committed adultery.”
Jesus showed us that sin is neither more nor less than a failure to love. “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Paul wrote. “For all the commandments are summed up in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Jesus also showed us that love, real love, divine love, is really, really, big – infinitely big, which shouldn’t surprise anyone if love is what God is. Human beings understand love of family, and love of friends, and love of country. We understand our small, finite, familiar loves. Human loves have borders and boundaries and limitations. Human love draws safe, comfortable circles that keep loved ones in and others out. But Jesus showed us a love that is borderless, a love without safeguards or contingencies or stipulations, a love that takes risks, and a love that grows and just keeps on growing.
John wrote: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son… which means that God loves all of his children. He loves those who hate him, not only those who love him. God loves those who do terrible and ugly things, not only those who do kind and beautiful things. The love that Jesus showed us was such a new kind of love, that it’s a little bit dangerous, to think about loving like him. It’s risky to love without borders or rules or limitations. Loving our family and friends and neighbors is just the tiniest baby beginning of loving as Jesus has loved us. His love doesn’t stop at the walls of home or church; it doesn’t peter out at national boundaries. His love doesn’t stop with the grateful and kind and hardworking and thoughtful; it’s big enough to encompass the ungrateful and the unkind, big enough to encompass even the lazy and thoughtless. It’s big enough to encompass you and me, which is pretty unbelievable some days, if we’re honest. That’s how big the love of God is.
Jesus showed us that real love is the only measure of obedience. He showed us that real love is infinitely big. And more, he showed us that love, above and beyond anything else, is in what we do. And Jesus showed by his teaching, and by his life, and by his death, that real love, divine love, lays itself down for the good of the other. Real love delights in serving. Real love, in fact, is that very, very uncomfortable word: sacrifice. And not sacrifice as we already knew it, but sacrifice that transcends our human understanding.
“We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for,” Paul wrote, “and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him.” When we had turned our backs on him, when we were wrapped up in our desperate needs and selfish concerns, when we decided that we were getting along just fine, thank you very much – that’s the very moment when Jesus poured himself out for us, in the glorious freedom of his infinite love. “The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served,” Jesus told his disciples, “and to to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage.” That’s what real love looks like; that’s how the love of God acts.
“This is why the Father loves me:” Jesus said plainly, “because I freely lay down my life.” Among all the gods humankind has created for themselves to worship – and people never seem to get tired of inventing objects for our worship – never has anyone thought of creating a God who acts like a servant, who washes feet and touches lepers and holds conversations with women, a God who doesn’t insist on having so much as a roof over his head, a God who puts his life into the hands of his enemies – all out of pure, unadulterated, love.
We spend a lot of our energy and anxiety trying to do the things that we think we need to do to be good Christians. We go to church and we pay our tithes. We do volunteer work. We try very hard not to gossip use bad words, at least when other Christians are around. We join campaigns to get prayer back in the schools or the Ten Commandments posted in courthouses. Or we join demonstrations protesting the abuse of civil rights. And none of these things are bad things to do.
The trouble is, that we find ourselves feeling a lot like Martha in that story we all hate, when she was running around the kitchen trying to do a dozen things at once to please Jesus, and ended up failing to do the one thing that was necessary. “Only one thing is necessary,” Jesus told Martha, very gently. Jesus left us this one commandment. “Love one another. The same way I have loved you, you are to love one another.” In Jesus, we have received the love of God, a love that is without borders or conditions or limitations, a love with no expiration date and no maximum capacity, a love that delights in serving, a love that pours itself out for the good of the beloved. Our one and only commandment is to love with the love that is ours in Jesus. Only that is necessary. Everything else, everything we do or say or choose, hangs securely on the perfect love that Jesus revealed to us, in his life, in his death, in his rising, and in his promise to be with us forever. And it is by that love alone that people will know we are his disciples. +