There’s a well-known question that most of you will have heard me use from time to time: ‘If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’
That of course begs the question, ‘What would be considered relevant evidence?’ Would we point to how regularly we go to church? How much money we give to the church every year? Whether or not we wear crosses or lapel pins that identify us as Christians? Whether we say ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’ at Christmas time? What would constitute conclusive proof that we were followers of Jesus?
In today’s gospel, Jesus addresses this issue:
“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” (John 13:34-35).
In other words, as the old worship song from the 1970s put it, ‘They’ll know we are Christians by our love’.
Now of course, Jesus was a simplifier, and I think we need to recognize from the outset that this cannot possibly be conclusive proof that a person is a Christian. Why not? Well, it is obviously true that Christians are not the only people who love. Most of us have been on the receiving end of incredible acts of love and compassion from people of other faiths and no faith at all. It would be the height of arrogance for us to go up to a compassionate Muslim or Buddhist or atheist and say to them, “You’re such a loving, caring person – you must be a Christian!” I suspect they wouldn’t receive that statement too well!
What is unquestionably true, from Jesus’ words and from his whole teaching in the gospels, is that if we’re looking for essential character traits of disciples of Jesus, love is a non-negotiable. We can’t leave it out. We all know that when he was asked to identify the most important commandments, he pointed to love – ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as you love yourself’. We can pray and read the Bible, go to church and take communion, spread the gospel and work for righteous political causes, but if we don’t have love, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, we are nothing.
But notice that it’s not just any kind of love that Jesus is talking about. He says,
“And now I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (v.34).
“Just as I have loved you”. Jesus is inviting them to reflect on their experiences of his love for them, and to use them as a blueprint for their own behaviour toward each other. What experiences might he be talking about?
Well, of course, this command to love is set between two powerful acts of love. The immediate context is the washing of the disciples’ feet. The disciples are reclining on couches around a low table in the middle; each of them is leaning on one arm, and helping himself to food with the other. Each of them would be quite close to the feet of his neighbour, and in that setting it would be painfully obvious that one particular custom of the day had not been observed that night. It was the usual practice for a servant to wash the feet of guests as they came in from the dusty roads, but presumably Jesus’ little group had no servant, and no one had done this. So Jesus himself got up from the table, took off his outer garment, wrapped a towel around his waist, took a basin of water, and went around the table, washing the feet of his disciples. He went on to say to them,
‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for this is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you”’ (John 13:12-15).
So the footwashing is the immediate context for the command to love, but of course, the cross is looming large as well. Jesus has been warning his disciples about it for a long time now, and he knows that it’s only hours away. This is his ultimate act of love for the whole world: stretching out his arms and giving his life as a sacrifice for sin, so that we could be forgiven and reconciled to God. In John 15:13 Jesus says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. But of course Jesus goes even further than this. He says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you”, but when he gave his life for the human race, we weren’t exactly exerting ourselves to obey God’s commands! Far from it! But his act of love on the cross reaches beyond his friends to the whole human race, whether or not they love him.
This love is obviously not a feeling; there’s absolutely no mention of any emotion on Jesus’ part as he gets down from the table and washes their feet. And later on that night, as he’s in the garden of Gethsemane contemplating the supreme act of love on the Cross, the only thing he’s feeling is ‘Get me out of here!’ His love is action-love, not feeling-love. What can we say about it? Well, it’s obviously a sacrificial love. John says, ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’ (v.1). In other words, there were absolutely no limits on the love that Jesus showed for us. He wasn’t just willing to make little sacrifices; he was willing to be a sacrifice, to pay the ultimate price, so that we could receive God’s forgiveness and new life.
So Jesus would ask us this evening, “Where do you draw the line?” When the gospel calls me to love my Christian brothers and sisters, how far am I prepared to go? In the Roman world there was a saying: “See how these Christians love one another!” The Romans didn’t say that because they noticed that the Christians gushed all over each other and gave each other warm hugs; they said it because, over and over, they had seen Christians willingly give their lives for each other. And Jesus said, “By this” – this kind of sacrificial love, that is – “everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35).
Are you there yet? I know I’m not. Personally, I’m not a big fan of self-sacrifice; it interferes too much with my personal enjoyment of my life. I guess I’ve got some growing to do.
Let’s go on: Jesus’ love is sacrificial, but it is also unconditional. The essential characteristic of the Christian gospel is grace: love that you don’t have to deserve and you don’t have to earn; it just comes to you as a free gift from God, because God is love.
Did Jesus wash the feet of his disciples because they were such a deserving bunch? I doubt it; at the time, they were still consumed with asserting their own self-importance. Did he go to the cross and die for the human race because we were such a deserving bunch? We were not; we were rebellious, and had shown over and over again that we would rather take any other way than the way of love for God and for one another. But the God of the Bible is a God who loves his enemies, not just his friends. On the cross, Jesus not only prays for his disciples but also for those who are busy crucifying him: “Father, forgive them”.
People sometimes leave the church because of the failures of the people they find there. They thought that the Christian community would be a place of unbroken love and gentleness and respect and joy, and instead they found people with the same character failings as everyone else. But I ask, “Why were you surprised? After all, you’re here, aren’t you? And so am I!” I know that I am a seriously flawed person, and I need God’s forgiveness, and the forgiveness of my sisters and brothers in the church. Each of us is in the same position; we know we have many failings, and so we can be gentle with our sisters and brothers who have their own set of failings too.
Are you there yet? I know I’m not. It’s easy to love people who love me, but it’s tough to love people who seem dedicated to making my life difficult, or who don’t even seem to notice my existence. I guess I’ve got some more growing to do.
We’ve seen that Jesus’ love is sacrificial, and it is unconditional. But thirdly, Jesus’ love is practical and unspectacular too.
It’s a pretty dramatic thing to die for someone else, but in some ways it may be a lot harder to live for them. People who die for their friends get medals and glowing obituaries; when people take out the garbage for their friends, no one notices. But the love of Jesus isn’t just about the cross and the nails and the spear; it’s also about the basin and the towel and the kneeling down and washing dirty and smelly feet. It’s not just the dramatic gesture; it’s the daily acts of loving service, even when no one notices it. It’s the person who is willing to go over and spend time with a friend who is depressed and, for the five hundredth time, needs to tell someone else about it in exhaustive detail. It’s the person who is willing to put their name on the kitchen roster at church and stay behind afterwards to do the dishes and sweep the floor. It’s the person who commits themselves to being at the soup kitchen once a week, whether they feel like it or not, or the person who gives quietly and faithfully to World Vision without telling anyone else about it. This is what our community here at St. Margaret’s is called to be. We’re called to be like Jesus, not just in his dying for us, but also in his living for us.
Are you there yet? I know I’m not. I don’t especially enjoy doing the mundane daily acts of service; I’d much rather put my feet up and read a good book, or write a brilliant blog post expressing my point of view on some current issue. Once again, I guess I’ve got some more growing to do.
They’ll know we are Christians by our churchgoing? Or by the crosses we wear around our necks? Or because we kick up a big fuss about saying ‘Merry Christmas’ rather than ‘Happy Holidays’? I don’t think so. Jesus has showed us the heart of the matter by his love for us: sacrificial love, unconditional love, practical and unspectacular love. He has told us what he wants of us: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). This evening I’ve had the easy part of this; I’ve been talking about it! Words are the easy part; actions are far more difficult. But it’s actions that are required of us, as John says in his first letter: ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’ (1 John 3:18). So let’s not forget these others words of Jesus from John 13: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:17). Amen.