John 13:31-35 (online here)
Here’s Jesus at his last supper. Judas has left the building. It ought to be a somber time, but Jesus sounds pretty upbeat—God’s life in him is glorified even in betrayal. And then he says, “Oh, by the way, I’ve got this brand new commandment. There’s nothing else quite like it. Are you ready? Here it is: Love one another.”
That’s it? Love one another? It’s just as well that I wasn’t there. I’d be tempted to get sarcastic. “Hmmm. Love one another. Isn’t that original? Thanks, Jesus. You are so deep. I’m so glad I left everything and followed you around all these years just so I could learn that. Can you say it one more time? I wouldn’t want to forget part of it. Love … one … another. You should copyright that.”
The fact is, “love one another” was already in the public domain even back then. It was already too late for copyrights. It didn’t sound new at all. Some of us cringe when we hear somebody bring up the book of Leviticus, because one or two verses get quoted over and over again to clobber certain groups. But that’s also where we hear, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s where we learn that loving your neighbor means paying attention to people on the margins, giving justice to the poor, to workers, to people who are deaf or blind. When people asked Jesus for a commandment that summed up all the others, he tacked this familiar verse on as “Part-B” of his answer: A: Love God with yourself; B: love your neighbor as yourself. Love one another / love your neighbor as yourself. It’s the same basic idea. And it didn’t sound new, not even back then.
It definitely doesn’t sound new today either. For some 2,000 years we Christians have been telling the whole world that we’re a community of love that welcomes everybody. We’ve even insisted that God is this mysterious communion of love—lover, beloved and their mutual love all at once. “God is love,” says John’s first letter, “and those who dwell in love dwell in God, and God dwells in them” (1 John 4:16b). Or there’s that Latin hymn from around the thirteenth century, Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est: “Where charity and love are, God’s own self is.” And of course there’s that campfire song that goes, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” which of course comes right out of today’s Gospel: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Ever since the Church began, we’ve been proclaiming this message of universal, unconditional love. We just can’t shut up about it. So maybe we’ve got even more of a right to ask, Just what’s so new about this new commandment? It definitely doesn’t sound new, especially today.
Well, maybe we should answer that question with another: If this commandment is so familiar, if we preach it and sing it day in and day out, why are we so good at forgetting it? We Christians have been using “love” as our favorite pick-up line for some 2,000 years, and the world and the Church seem just as full of hateful people as ever. In fact, sometimes you wonder if there aren’t more hateful people insidethe Church than outside it. Sr. Helen Prejean reminds us that people who like the word “Christian” are more likely to favor capital punishment than the overall population. Christians from the earliest times down to the present have worked awfully hard at finding new ways to shut people out in place of welcoming them in. Christians can greet people warmly during the Exchange of Peace and then repeat every malicious rumor about them behind their backs. We seem to be awfully good at forgetting the very meaning of our favorite pick-up line. Love one another. It’s just three words, but the way the Church acts most of the time, you might wonder if we’ve ever heard them.
So maybe there’s something new here after all. The words themselves may date all the way back to a time when writing things down was a high-tech investment. But their meaning keeps growing on us. In fact we needthe meaning to keep growing on us, because we’re so good at turning it into empty words. Maybe what’s new isn’t those three words by themselves, but the way those words keep taking flesh among us every day. It’s not just, “Love one another.” It’s, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
“Just as I have loved you”—there’s a whole story behind those words—and it’s not even finished yet. It’s a story of God’s coming to live with us in a new way by calling a whole people to practice holiness; it’s a story of God’s coming to live with us in a new way by sharing Jesus’ life, death and risen life with us; and it’s a story of God’s sending us out in the Spirit’s power to invite all sorts of strangers to join us in writing the next chapters. All of it’s a story of God’s love finding new ways to take flesh among us, calling us back to the Love that created us in the first place. Yes, God’s love is constant, but the way God’s love takes flesh among us is new every day. And it makes new people even out of the likes of us.
“Love one another just as I have loved you.” And how has God loved us lately? God’s been loving us by pushing at the limits of who we’re ready to love. Ever since St. Paul started preaching, God’s been pushing us to welcome people we thought too defective to belong with us. Back then it was Gentiles—which is what most of us are today. Lately it’s been people of different cultures, different races, different genders and gender identities, different relationships, and even different faiths. Every time somebody unexpected got welcomed as one of our own, those three words—Love one another—became a new commandment all over again. That’s how God’s been loving us.
So … who might need welcoming today? How might “Love one another” take flesh among us here?