Loving as Jesus Loved
Text: John 13:31-35
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If there’s one word that’s very important, and yet somehow has become cheapened by overuse, it’s the word “love”. We talk about how husbands and wives love each other, and then we’ll talk about how we love a restaurant. Last week we talked about love between a mother and her children, and then after brunch we talked about how much we love the dessert. So here too, we hear Jesus’ words, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another,” and we rejoice. We like love. We love love. But before we just go with butterflies in the stomach and warm fuzzies over the mere use of the word, we need to see exactly what Jesus means by this command to love one another.
“Just as I have loved you, you are to love one another.” And what were the ways that Jesus loved His disciples? What are the ways He loved us? Certainly we need to talk about actively helping those whom God has put around us. Jesus taught, He gave freely and charitably, He defended in words and deeds. He healed, He forgave, He blessed. “Just as I have loved you, you are to love one another.” OK, we think to ourselves, how do we do that? We begin in our vocations, the places and roles that God has called us to. So husbands and wives love one another, helping each other. Children love and serve their parents, while parents love and protect their children. Those who have a calling in teaching vocations do that very thing that Jesus did: they teach others about God and His creation. Those who work in the healing arts follow in their Savior’s footsteps, alleviating the pains of the curse that fell on mankind after the Garden of Eden. Those in the creative arts take part in God’s work of making and creating things from the materials God Himself has provided. We are blessed by Jesus and then, in return, we bless those whom Jesus puts in our paths.
Now up to this point, it’s all well and good. “Just as I have loved you, you are to love one another.” Check. What’s next, Jesus? But it’s when we look at what’s next that we might start to falter. Jesus speaks these words, “Just as I have loved you, you are to love one another,” on the night He was betrayed. He’s about to suffer. He’s about to be unjustly crucified. In fact, these words of Jesus come immediately after He says that one of His own disciples is going to betray Him. And then right after He gives this command to love as He has loved, He tells Peter that he’ll deny Jesus three times that very night. Suddenly the path of love has gotten infinitely steeper.
It’s a very easy thing to love those who are nice to us. It’s easy to reflect the kind words of other people back to them when they speak kindly to us. But to love someone who betrays us? To love someone who we know will deny us in front of others to save themselves, or their reputation, or just get something they want? That’s a tall order for any of us. And yet sandwiched between these prophecies of Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial, Jesus says clearly, “Just as I have loved you, you are to love one another.” He’s going to love sacrificially, when it’s not easy. He’s going to love even when it hurts, even when it costs Him. He’s going to love the unlovable. Jesus still calls Judas “friend”, in spite of Judas’ plotting and betrayal. In spite of Peter’s denial, Jesus still looks at Him and loves Him to the point of death, even death on a cross.
This is where it gets difficult for us. In fact, we can’t help but fail at this. I don’t even know how many times I’ve heard or seen Christians talk about love-this and love-that publicly, and then in their private lives be ice cold, withholding, passive aggressive, or simply unloving. For we cannot pretend to love our neighbor as Jesus has loved us and then slander them behind their backs or keep them at arm’s length, or further. We can’t nod along with Jesus’ command to love as He has loved and then give the silent treatment to those we say we love or hold their sins over their heads. We can’t post on social media about joy and love and kindness and forgiveness and then refuse to forgive our trespassers in real life as we have been forgiven by God. Nor can we say that loathe the sin but love the sinner, as God does, when all we do is mock and ridicule the sinner, or ice them out, or leave them no place to receive the grace and peace of God as it flows among us and through us. Our private lives, actions, and words must be in keeping with the sacrificial love of Jesus if we are to keep His command: “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
So where do we go from here? It’s a hard word of Law, an impossible word. But just because it’s difficult, that does not mean that we are to ignore it or set it aside. After all, God has never deleted any commandment from those stone tablets just because they were a challenge. So what do we do? How do we go on? How do we actually change ourselves so that we can begin to love God, love Christ, and love one another as our Lord has told us?
The answer is hidden in plain sight. “Just as I have loved you…” That’s the key. When the command to love—to actually, truly love, not only in word and speech, but in deed and in truth—when that’s too hard and we fail, we return to the source. We go back to the love of Jesus. “Just as I have loved you.” And how is it that Jesus has loved us? By forgiving us. He forgives us all our sins, even our sins of lukewarm love, or a lack of love entirely. We recognize our shortcomings there, our sins when it comes to loving our God and neighbor as ourselves, as Jesus loves them, as He loves us. We admit it. We confess that we don’t want it to be that way. We ask God to forgive us and change our hearts. And He pours out His forgiveness in a flood of baptismal water, in a torrent of water and blood from His side on the cross, an ocean of Gospel to redeem us. Then, being filled to the brim—no, overflowing with forgiveness from Jesus—our cup runneth over and forgiveness goes out to those around us. That is how we love one another as Jesus has loved us: being forgiven and then forgiving in turn.
Jesus does not make excuses why He shouldn’t forgive anyone. He doesn’t give reasons why some people who have wronged Him deeply don’t deserve it. Nor does He only say that He forgives while keeping a closed heart or mouth toward those He’s forgiving. He forgives fully and freely, even Peter, even Judas, though he was unwilling to receive that forgiveness. He forgives Pilate and the soldiers. He forgives the bloodthirsty crowds. He forgives you. He is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world; the real, dark, terrible sins of the world.
But what if it’s hard to forgive? Jesus was God, after all, and we’re only frail mortals. So that weakness is to be expected. But again, we’re not allowed to just set aside the command of Jesus simply because it’s hard. What if it’s difficult to forgive, or we just can’t? Then go back to the source, Jesus’ love, and ask Him to forgive that too. Recognize that it shouldn’t be this way, that you want to forgive, but can’t. Receive absolution for that. And slowly, over time, perhaps even years, that forgiveness will reshape your heart, as surely as a stream wears down rock, as surely as a master craftsman sands a dead piece of wood into a beautiful work of art, one brush of the sandpaper at a time.
To love one another as Jesus has loved us means going back to Jesus’ love time and again. That’s the only answer. Anything else will rely on our own strength and we know that isn’t enough when it comes to such a tall order. We go back to Jesus’ forgiveness over and over. We order our lives around that forgiveness, that love of our Lord, receiving it everywhere and every time we can, taking in so much of it that it can’t help but overflow to those around us.
Jesus tells us that the world will know that we are His disciples if we have love for one another. Being a disciple means walking behind a Teacher, a Master. So we walk behind Jesus in His forgiving, sacrificial love. We walk in the path of His love for us, and in doing so, we will show the world how we are His disciples as His love moves through us to those around us. In the name of Jesus, who is Love. Amen.