James Tissot, The Last Sermon of Our Lord (c. 1892)
And it’s famous! Along with the “Treat others as you would be treated,” there’s no saying of Jesus, or line from the Bible, or ethos of Christianity that is more well known. We see it on billboards and bumper stickers, everywhere from mission statements to tattoos. Often it is embraced by those who wouldn’t dare to call themselves Christians – and sometimes it’s even used against Christians, to challenge them as to whether some specific belief or practice is really in keeping with “loving one another.”
But as simple as this statement seems, as easy it might sound, I think the vast majority of us get it wrong. Of course, we certainly get it wrong in living it out – if only we truly did “love one another,” the world would be a much happier place. We’re sinners, unfortunately, and we need help from God and his grace in truly loving others.
And yet, I think we also fail at times to understand what Jesus really meant. Because when he said “Love one another,” he did not mean merely “be nice to one another,” or “do your best not to upset or offend one another." Often, this "new commandment" of Jesus is interpreted as a commandment of tolerance as the ultimate moral good, with our desire to not to offend, or disrupt or disturb coming before all else.
But that just isn’t consistent with what we know about Jesus – a man who challenged the presumptions of the Sadducees, condemned the hardness of heart of the Pharisees; a man who cleansed the Temple, who called the disciples to leave everything and to follow him, a man who brought healing of body and soul to so many who were suffering from deformity or illness or sin.
For Jesus, “love” can’t be equated with a basic tolerance, with a desire not to offend or disturb. His love rather is for something. It's intentional, it's directed at a goal – namely, the good of the other, and their true good at that, not what we believe their good to be, or even what they believe their good to be. In a sense, Jesus loved in a way that was precisely not tolerant: he came to offend our sinful way of thinking, to disturb our apathy and brokenness; in short, he came to wake us up and bring us back to God. And by his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, which we celebrate in this Easter season, Jesus proved just how much he meant it.
Notice how today’s Gospel comes in a key moment of Jesus’s life. Did you hear how it began? It said, “When Judas had left” – that is, “left” to go and betray him. And Jesus begins by saying “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” How exactly was Jesus going to be glorified, and God glorified through him? By being handed over to torturers, by being beaten and stripped, by being crucified on the Cross – all as a testament of what true love really is, of what God’s love for us is like.
For Jesus, and for us who follow him, love is not primarily a feeling, but an action, a witness, something that is tested, something that must be proven. And the true test of whether we really love is what we do in times of difficulty and rejection. Jesus’s commands us “to love one another”, not in a generic sense, not as the world understands love, but rather “as I have loved you.” That’s an important qualifier – loving as he loved means to love whole-heartedly, knowing that we will suffer for this love, that we will be inconvenienced and challenged and rejected and maybe even persecuted. If we are truly to love one another as he has loved us, then we must love each other in such a way that we lead others closer to God, challenging each other at times perhaps, and encouraging each other (and ourselves) to not be satisfied with tolerance or mediocrity, not settle not for what we like, but for what is truly right, for what is truly good.
Friends, Jesus continues to give us, just as he did his first disciples, that same commandment – to love one another as he did. And to do so, as Paul and Barnabas said, “it is necessary for us to endure many hardships, in order to enter the kingdom of God.” When you find yourself challenged in some way – because another has ignored you, or offended you, or betrayed you, or scorned you – remember that commandment of Jesus, and ask him for the strength to love as he did. And then do so, joyfully. As we prepare to receive the sacrament which, above all else in our lives, helps us to love as Jesus loved, may we renew our commitment to do just that, that he might continue through us “to make all things new.”