“A new command I give you:Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13.34-35.
In the Vulgate – the Latin version of the Bible – the phrase “new command” is mandatum novum and it is from that mandatum that we get the “Maundy” in Maundy Thursday. And indeed it was on the evening of what we now call Maundy Thursday that these words in John 13 were spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper that preceded his death on Good Friday, the following day. They could be called his “famous last words” because he had held them back in order to deliver them in this most solemn, hear-this-if-you-hear-nothing-else departure speech which John records in this part of his gospel. And that, of course, is part of their problem. They are famous. So famous that we hardly hear them anymore. But I was challenged afresh by them as I read them this morning, and I want to share here a few of my thoughts about them.
First thought: What is “new” about this command. It is in fact as old as the hills and it already was in Jesus’ day. “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” the Jews had been told way back in Leviticus 19.18. Ah yes, but there are two words for “new” in Greek – kainos and neos. Neos is new in terms of time but kainos is new in terms of quality and character; and here the word is kainos. Jesus is investing the old command with new meaning and new depth; and it’s the “as I have loved you” that gives the new quality and depth. At the beginning of this chapter we are told that Jesus “having loved his own that were in the world … loved them to the end” (John 13.1) and “to the end” there is eis telos which carries not only the sense of “to the end” but also of “absolutely, utterly”. As Jesus would demonstrate so awesomely the following day, there were no limits to his love for his followers. It was utterly selfless, utterly genuine, utterly forgiving, and utterly redemptive. And that, he says here, is the love you must both have and show to one another. In that – in it being like his love – lies its newness.
Second thought: Although (as I’ve just proved to myself) it is selfless, non-discriminatory, sacrificial love just like his own that Jesus is talking about here, how often do my words and actions and attitudes point to my reading it as something else entirely. “A new command I give you: Tolerate one another,” or even, “A new command I give you: Judge one another.” And yet I claim to love God. Oh dear! “We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister” (1 John 4.19-21).
Third thought: But is it possible to love one another in the way that Jesus says we must?
Apparently so. A hundred years after John wrote his gospel, a Christian writer called Tertullian who lived in Carthage in North Africa reported that the non-Christians of his day said of the Christians: “See how they love one another. How ready they are to die for one another.” So if it was possible for those early Christians, it must be possible for us. Indeed, the fact that it is a command and not merely a suggestion or helpful hint for growing a happy church, means that it is possible. Jesus didn’t even say, “Try to love another” – he tells us to absolutely get on and do it.
Fourth thought: But how?
There is, of course, only one way and it is by Jesus himself coming and doing the loving in us and through us by his Holy Spirit. “If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” (John 14.15-17). When Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Colossae, he had just been visited by Epaphras, one of the ministers of the Colossian Church, who had reported to Paul the state of things in that church. In his letter, Paul summed up that report in one sentence, “He told us of your love in the Spirit” (Colossians 1.8). The Colossians loved one another, as Christ had loved them; but they did it “in the Spirit.” So too – if I am to love my brothers and sisters as Jesus loved me – must I. There simply is no other way.
Come down, O love divine, seek Thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with Thine own ardor glowing.
O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear,
And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.