Jesus’ command to love one another is the focus of the Gospel reading this Sunday.
This message is central to the Gospel of John and reveals the heart of Jesus’ teaching. It is what marks the Christian life as distinctive. What was so attractive about the early church was that it was marked by compassion, so people said, “See how the Christians love each other.” This love was demonstrated not only within the Christian community, but also in the way Christians exercised hospitality and gave of themselves and their money to help the poor.
That’s not to say that loving is easy, in fact it is the most challenging endeavour we are asked to engage in, for it demands the very best in us, and because of that it beckons us on an adventure in life where we are constantly invited to grow into that love. For Love is both a wonderful gift that we receive and give to one another, but it is also a choice we make. Someone once said that when brothers and sisters are together, loving is not automatic. Rivalries may spring up and conflicts arise. So how should we behave?
Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus constantly speaks of himself in relation to God the Father. I and the Father are one, he says. And there is a deep insight here that we often miss. It’s a phrase that reminds us that we are all connected, we are not isolated individuals, even though our society often treats us like that. Human beings are social beings, meant for community, meant to live together supporting and upholding each other. At the beginning of the Bible God sees Adam on his own and says, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone, I will make him a helper as his partner’ this teaches us that we need each other’s love, insights, wisdom and understanding.
In giving us this ‘New Commandment’ Jesus is only too aware of the rivalries, jealousy, ambition, struggles for power and so on that permeate our world and our lives. He gives that commandment on the eve of his death where he gives his life in love for the world, giving us an example of true love. Knowing the grief and loss his disciples will face, Jesus shows that love is never satisfied just with words, ideas or feelings. It is touched by the very real misery it sees, which disturbs it. It seeks ways of dealing with this; it gives itself tirelessly and never shrinks from the humblest work.
Although we all have some ideas about love and aspire to it, what we often call love is not always love. The love described in the Bible is a balanced concoction of justice and compassion. Too much justice can lead to authoritarianism – imposing what is right on others. Too much compassion can end up in mere sentimentality. The hard edge of Jesus’ command is that it demands much from us, in a world where some expressions of religious faith actively foster violence and foster intolerance and hatred toward those who don’t share their view of the world or of God.
The test of true faith is that it leads us to act with justice and compassion toward those who are different from us; toward the stranger, the outsider.