“By Our Love”
It’s one of my favourite songs – one of those 1970s church songs that I grew up singing. You can play it on the guitar if you learn three basic chords, and it’s one of the first ones I learned to play in high school. “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
It feels great to sing it in our happy Christian communities. I sang it first at a Christian camp – a community that I loved, where I felt included, and valued, and where I belonged. And over the years, it has felt right and true to sing it in the congregations I’ve served and often in ecumenical settings too. We commit ourselves to walk with each other and to work with each other across our differences. We pray for unity, remembering that it is God’s Holy Spirit that can make us One with all our diversities.
And no matter what challenges we face, we remind ourselves that Jesus’ most important commandment to us was to love one another. Like Tertullian, a theologian in the late 2nd Century, who said that pagans in his time were struck by the witness of Christian love, we may imagine people outside the church looking at us and exclaiming, “See how they love one another!”
But do they? I mean, do they really? Or do most people outside the church today look at our Christian communities and scoff at us instead? They may simply think that what we are doing together is irrelevant. Or they may notice only the sad history of the Church’s arrogance, colonization, and even violence against people with different cultures or faiths.
Or maybe (and this one may be the most disheartening possibility) they look at Christians and do not see love enacted. They see communities that sing about love, and talk about love, but spend more time arguing with one another, and wrestling for influence and power, and keeping strict boundaries around who is in and who is out, who is welcome and who is not. Maybe they see hypocrites, who say we want to live like Jesus, but choose instead to live for ourselves.
There is a meme I’ve seen on social media that says: “And they will know you are my disciples by your: Rules, Theology, Righteousness, Power, Rhetoric, Purity, Clubs.” Each word in the list is crossed out, and at the bottom remains only the word “Love.” It’s a stark reminder of the ways we get off track in our self-understanding of who we are as Christians, and of the only thing that is actually important.
It was just after the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples, as he said goodbye to them and gave them some final instructions. After being quite clear that his time with them was coming to an end, he said: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
But it wasn’t exactly a “new” commandment, was it? Commands to love, after all, are at least as old as the Book of Leviticus. Or think of the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses and the Hebrew People in the wilderness. We nicely summarize them by saying that the first four are all about loving God, and the last six are all about loving other people. Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught that the greatest commandment was to love God, and he said that a second one is just as important – to love our neighbours as ourselves.
What does appear to be “new” in the commandment as Jesus presents it to his friends after supper is in the second phrase: “as I have loved you.” God made human beings for love, and commanded us to love all along. But now, Jesus is saying that we must love like he loves. We are to love one another as Jesus has loved us.
As I mentioned, the Last Supper has just taken place when Jesus says these things to his friends. And in that gathering, Jesus’ love has been shown in some very special ways. The way John tells the story includes the part where Jesus gets up from the table to wash the feet of his disciples. Jesus’ love means becoming a servant to others. It means caring for people in very practical ways. And he very clearly invites the disciples to follow his example. He says, “Just as I have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.”
One biblical commentator, Elisabeth Johnson, explains it like this: “Loving one another as Jesus has loved encompasses the mundane; it means serving one another, even in the most menial tasks. On the other hand, this love encompasses heroic acts of great risk; it extends even to the point of giving one’s life for another.”
As the other Gospel writers tell the story of the Last Supper, they emphasize that heroic, risk-taking, and self-giving love of Jesus. As he breaks bread and shares it with his friends, he tells them that the bread represents his body that will be broken as his life is given completely in love for the world. As he shares the cup of wine, he talks about his blood being poured out – his total self-giving, a heroic act of love for us.
And in every version of the story, what happens at the end of the supper is that Judas goes out to betray Jesus – identifying him and turning him over to the authorities who will arrest him, torture him, and ultimately execute him on a cross. When we are invited to love one another “as Jesus loved” us, it means loving one another in the everyday, even mundane acts of care and service. And it also means being ready and willing to risk and to sacrifice in heroic acts of self-giving love.
As many of you know, I was in Vancouver last week for a short time of study leave at St. Andrew’s Hall. And that meant that I flew on a plane for the first time in quite a while, including the experience of sitting next to strangers on each of the full flights. I had almost forgotten about those airplane conversations that we used to have before the pandemic, and I was reminded about them when a couple of my masked seat-mates were really enthusiastic about talking along the way.
But the part I want to tell you about was on my final flight from Calgary to Regina. When I got on the plane, my seat-mate was already sitting in his aisle seat and I pointed out that mine was the one by the window. He promptly got up and gave me space to slide into my seat and begin to stuff my bag under the seat in front of me.
But then he interrupted and said, “Hey, would you prefer to put your bag overhead? There’s room in the bin up here if you don’t need it during the flight.” “Good idea,” I replied, and he reached out for the heavy bag and carefully lifted it and placed it in the bin above our heads. Perhaps you might be thinking that it’s a pretty normal thing for people to do for one another on public transit. But I remember that it immediately struck me as observant, thoughtful, and caring.
As we began to talk, my new neighbour was friendly and interested, without being pushy or prying. He soon learned that I was a minister, and shared that he attends a Baptist Church here in Regina. We discovered a few people we knew in common, and discussed similarities and differences in our practices and theology. I noticed that a couple of people nearby looked over occasionally with curiosity. How often do they hear strangers talking about faith on a plane, I wondered.
What really struck me about the experience though, was that his act of kindness in offering to stow my bag was the first thing I noticed about this person. I didn’t know he was a Christian at that moment, but I was delighted to discover that he was. Not because I prefer a Christian seat-mate on flights particularly, but because he provided an example of a Christian who automatically showed love and care for strangers.
At least in that moment, he loved as Jesus loved in the everyday, mundane acts of service performed for others with respect and humility. I saw him do it again at the end of the flight, helping a couple of older women in the seats around us.
And it made me wonder… if something really terrible had happened on that flight like a medical emergency, or a fight breaking out, or a crash landing, would he have been one of the people taking personal risk to assist others around him. After talking with him for over an hour, I was pretty sure that he would be. I was fairly confident that this Christian regularly embodied Jesus’ love in the mundane, and that he would be ready to do it in heroic acts of love when necessary.
Elisabeth Johnson says it this way: “The love of which Jesus speaks, then, and which Jesus demonstrates in his life and death, is a love which extends from the mundane to the heroic and encompasses every kind of self-giving act in between. Jesus tells his disciples that it is by this kind of love that everyone will know that they are his disciples.”
What about me? What about you? Are we, as disciples of Jesus, practicing this everyday love and service to others? Are we keeping our eyes open for opportunities to show care by helping, by encouraging, and by serving our neighbours?
I don’t expect that many people will actually “know” that we are disciples by our love. But wouldn’t it be great if when they learned that we are Christians, that they might reflect on how loving they experienced us to be? Wouldn’t it be great if no one discovered that we are church-goers and thought, “My goodness, she’s pretty rude and self-centered for someone who claims to follow Jesus!”
And I wonder too… if we keep practicing Jesus’ love in our everyday, mundane acts of service and care for others, might that prepare us for the times when we are called upon to give more? Will that train us for putting others first as a natural part of our being, so that when God calls us to heroic acts of sacrifice that we will be ready to follow Jesus all the way?
I think of Judas and I think of Peter, and I remember that Jesus loved and forgave them when they did not stand firm when the situation became really risky and required a lot from them. And when Peter persevered and stayed on the path of discipleship, Jesus continued to teach him and lead him, gifting him with the Holy Spirit and power. He showed him, again and again, how to love others across all kinds of differences, and gave him courage to cross boundaries, and do new things, and stay faithful even to death.
Let’s trust that Jesus will be with us also to help us along our way. And let us strive to practice Jesus’ love in the mundane and the heroic, because he commanded us to do so, and because they will know we are Christians by our love.