John 13. 31-35
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Our readings this morning turn from the resurrection appearances heard in the first few weeks of Easter towards Jesus’ forewarnings of his coming absence, forewarnings we hear in the weeks to come leading up to the Feast of the Ascension. Today’s Gospel scene from John takes place within Jesus’ final few hours before his Passion begins. Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet as an “example” (13.15) of loving service to follow after he has ascended. Judas has then “gone out” in order to betray Jesus. It is here that Jesus gives his one and only “new commandment” as he prepares to suffer, die, be resurrected, and then ascend: namely that his followers must “love one another.” What are we to make of this new commandment, couched as it is within betrayal, and as costly, even reckless, as it seems?
When we consider the one giving the commandment, the commandment itself, and the coming absence together, the nature and character of Jesus’ words become clearer, if not easier.
First, then, the one giving the new commandment is Jesus. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection show the eternal nature and depth of divine love; they depict a story into which we are invited of self-giving, generous, abiding, faithful, and permanent love. John’s Gospel opens with the cosmic vision of the eternal Word shining in the darkness, who graciously gives life and being to all, and who lovingly abides with us even though we do not know him. The footwashing just before our reading from John today acts as a microcosm of that macrocosmic love: it offers a condensed sign of God’s love which recognises the beauty and dignity of the other, and which expresses itself through tender service, even when the object of such love may seem unworthy, unlovable, even when betrayal will follow. Indeed, love and betrayal walk hand-in-hand as Jesus washes even the feet of Judas. This is the abundant, generous, and self-giving nature and character of the Jesus who promulgates a new commandment.
The new commandment itself is grounded in the imitation of Jesus and his footwashing: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Jesus command remains intensively distinctive from the Golden Rule of levitical law. The Jewish command is to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19.18): the moral responsibility to the other is bound up here with a sense of reciprocity, a desire for equal treatment under the external legal strictures of religious conduct. Jesus effaces the desire for reciprocity: “as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” As we have seen, Jesus’ love takes no account of the response (desired or actual) of the object of love. Jesus shows love to Judas who betrays him. Likewise, his new commandment does not involve an exterior law or a calculation of self-interested reciprocity; the command to love one another might be costly, asymmetrical, and risky, extended even to those whom we find difficult to see as beloved or lovable in any sense.
Finally, Jesus promulgates the new commandment as he prepares not simply to go to his Passion and death, but as he prepares for resurrected glory and the ascension. In his ascension, Jesus will no longer be physically present to teach, heal, or guide. Instead, he abides in his followers as the new commandment. We become like Jesus through the habitual practice and acts of loving service, of seeing the other, whoever they are, as lovable, worthy, beloved. By abiding in us as a character of divine love, we grow to abide in that great cosmic story of God’s self-giving, abundant grace. As John puts its later in the Gospel, loving one another acts as a criterion of our knowledge of God and the reality of our salvation (John 15. 12-17). We become little Christs to the world, the sign and real presence of God among us: “by thus everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The ethic of love becomes the internal principle of who we are, not an external fiat from a superior with the legal threat of punishment.
If Jesus new commandment of love seems inexplicable, framed as it is by the departure and betrayal of Judas, then it demands a change of perspective within ourselves. The new commandment tells us what God is like: self-giving, generous, creating, discovering, and affirming as lovely everything and everyone that He makes. The new commandment shows us a life of sharing in God’s love: we turn from a calculus of our own benefit towards the needs and benefit of others also created by God and therefore lovely in some sense. In an age of cuts to welfare, fears over immigration, tensions over gender and sexuality, Jesus’ new command calls out for taking the perspective of those we encounter irrespective of their ability to reciprocate. That will naturally be costly, dangerous, subversive, but it might also be saving. Amen.