A sermon on John 13:34-35 by Rev Richard Keith on 5 May 2019.
We measure distance in metres. We measure weight in grams. We measure the straightness of floors and walls and ceilings with a set square. But how do we measure love? What is the standard by which love can be weighed? What is the unit to which all other love can be compared? Jesus tells us in John chapter 13.
A new command I give you. Love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.
Before we look at these couple of verses more closely, let’s take a minute or two to put them in their context. It was the night of the last Supper. Jesus had just finished washing his disciple’s feet. It was dark outside, of course. The sun had gone down, and the stars were out. But there was a deeper darkness lurking in the corners of the room. Because Satan had already put it into Judas’ heart to betray Jesus.
Judas had information that would lead the authorities to find Jesus away from the crowds. At that time, we don’t know when Judas planned to do it. But Jesus knew that it would be soon. He said to them,
I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me.
The disciples didn’t really know what he meant, and they didn’t know if he meant one of them, one of the inner circle, one of the twelve, or someone else. “Who is it?” asked John who was sitting next to him.
“It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” And he dipped it and gave it to Judas, saying, “What you are going to do, do quickly.”
This was the decisive moment in Judas’ life. He had already been to the chief priests. He had taken their money. But up to this point he could have still backed out. But this was when he decided to leave, to do what he had promised and to do it then.
To share food with someone is to express friendship. When we eat together we say to each other, “You and me, we are family.” To pass someone food is an act of kindness.. “May I have the butter, please?” we might be asked at the table. “No, get it yourself,” is not a kind reply.
Jesus had shared the last supper with Judas. He had passed him the bread dipped in sauce. And that’s when Judas decided to betray him. Perhaps, he thought that Jesus was weak. Perhaps he thought that Jesus was a loser with a death-wish. That Jesus was like the class clown coming last in the race at the athletics carnival so instead of trying to the end he does some silly forward somersaults to get a laugh. Jesus knew what Judas was going to do and he wasn’t even going to try to stop him. Perhaps, Judas thought, Jesus was too weak to deserve his love and obedience. So he left. And verse 30 says that it was night. And Judas’ heart was as dark as the evening.
Many people make the same decision as Judas. They see Jesus as weak. They see his way as losing. They don’t want to have anything to do with his cross. They don’t want to walk his way. What Jesus calls love they see as giving up instead of getting up and having a go and fighting for what you believe in. In the end they decide, like Judas, that Jesus is too soft, that the failed Messiah on his cross is not worthy of their love or their obedience.
It is in this context of darkness that Jesus said to the other eleven,
A new command I give you: Love one another.
Who is it that has the right to give a command? Who is it that has the authority to tell other people what to do? Here we see Jesus acting as their Lord and teacher. Not soft and weak and giving up like Judas saw him. But strong. He knows things that they don’t know. He knows where he has come from and he knows where he is going. What he is doing for them, they cannot do for him. Where he is going they cannot follow him. Jesus must do the thing that no one else can do.
Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” He spoke without thinking. He didn’t know what Jesus was planning. He didn’t know yet the weakness in his own heart. He cannot do for Jesus what Jesus is going to do for him. Because Jesus is the Lord. The choices he makes, the actions he takes, he does them as the Lord. The cross is not plan B. The cross is not the silver medal for the first of the losers, or the booby prize for coming last. The cross is plan A all the way. What Jesus does, he does not do because he is weak, but because he is strong. What happens to him is not because his life and death are out of his control, but because they are completely in his control.
And just as the Lord appeared to Moses and carved his ten commandments in stone, Jesus the Lord gives his disciples a commandment. A new commandment. Love each other. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
It is a new command. But love does not make the command new. Love is not the new thing. The old commandment was love as well.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
And love your neighbour as you love yourself.
Look at those Bible references. That’s not Matthew 6:5. That’s not Luke 6:5. That’s not Romans 6:5. That’s Deuteronomy 6:5. And that’s not Galatians 19:18. That’s Leviticus. They are both from the Old Testament. They are the law of Moses. And the law is love.
So the command may come with authority from the Lord. But it does not demand from us our resentful compliance. It does not compel our conformity. The commandment cannot be fulfilled half-heartedly or unwillingly. It calls for our love. It asks for an agreement of heart and mind that the Lord is right and that he knows best. To give the appearance of obedience and yet nursing a resentful and rebellious spirit within, as if to say to God, “You can make me do what you want but you cannot make me love you,” is the worst kind of disobedience. Because the command is love. Whether old or new, God’s commandment is love. It is about doing what is right, what is good, what is kind, what is best, not because we have to, but because we want to.
Jesus said, “Love one another.” It means I love you, and you love me, and each of you love all the other yous as well. There is no one way flow of love from the lowly minions to the high and mighty. There is no room in the church for a celebrity cult where the leaders basks in the adoration of his admirers. The love flows in the church in each and every direction as we love each other. Not just tolerating each other. Not just putting up with each other. But loving each other. It’s more than just not doing all the harm that we otherwise would want to do to each other. Do not lie. Do not steal. Do not kill. But more than anything, love is about actually seeking and promoting and doing what is good and best for others at our own personal cost.
We love each other. And we do it for each other, but not to receive something in return. I love you and you love me. But I don’t love you so you will love me back. We love each other just for the love of it. Freely. Without expecting any thanks. So that when we get no thanks, we can thank the Lord just for the privilege of being his obedient children.
The new command is love. But love is not what makes the command new. What makes the command new is the measure of love. The standard and example of our love for each other. The old command said,
Love your neighbour as you love yourself.
And anyone who knows me will tell you how much I love myself. You wouldn’t believe how far I will go out of my way to do something nice for myself. I love myself so much that when I am hungry, I get myself something to eat. When I am thirsty, I get myself a drink. When I am in danger, I run for safety. No one loves me like I love me. The old command said, Love your neighbour as you love yourself. Treat other people the same way you want to be treated. It’s the golden rule. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.
But the new command is the platinum rule. Because it lays down for love a greater, higher, nobler measure and standard than our love just for ourselves. Jesus said,
As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
Not as you love you. That’s the old command. But as Jesus loved you. Not a feeling, but an action. I don’t mean that Jesus doesn’t love you. Of course, he does. But more importantly, he loved you. He gave himself for you. Not the smallest part of himself. Not even the best part of himself. But all of himself. For you. Not for what you will be. But for what you were before you ever loved him. Not when you were good, but when you were a sinner. Not when you were strong and could do him a good turn in return, but when you were powerless. Not when we were godly, but when we were not like him at all. This is the measure of love. Not your love or perhaps your hatred for yourself. Or even your couldn’t-care-less-how-people-treat you. But the measure of love is Christ’s love.
And it shows us that the love of the new command is cross shaped, because our love for each other is to be like his love for us. For the down and outs. For the outcast and social lepers. For those who can’t match it or return it, but only receive it. Our love for one another is to be cross shaped.
And that is why Jesus said,
All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.
When we love each other as Jesus loved us, we tell the gospel of Jesus as loudly as the most clever preacher. It is not an excuse to be quiet about the truths of the gospel. But our words of the cross mean nothing if it is not demonstrated by the love of the cross. By our love they will know that we are Jesus’ disciples. Not by how we dress. Not by all the things we don’t do. Not by our showy and sometimes self-serving sacrifices. But by our love. They will see his love in our love. They will understand his cross, they will understand Jesus’ love for them, when they understand our love for one another. That it does not come from weakness but from strength. That it does not do good for good in return, but for nothing in return. That it is as free as the love of God that is poured into our hearts from above. And they will know that our Lord is Jesus. Not money or power or influence in politics or control over people’s behaviour. That what drives us is not fear or weakness or guilt or superstition, but the love of Jesus. For we are called not just to believe the gospel. Not just to preach the gospel. But to live the gospel. And they will know that we are Christians, that we are Christ’s, by our love. For the law of Christ is love and his gospel is peace.
Distance is measured in metres. Weight is measured in grams. And I use a set square as the measure and standard of a wall to know that it is straight. And the measure of love is not my love for me. But Jesus’ love for me. Jesus said,
Love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another. All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.