When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 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 13:31-35)
“Love one another as I have loved you.” As far as I’m concerned this has to be what we would take as the “hardest” commandment ever given in the history of all of God’s dealings with Israel and the church. And it is, decidedly, a commandment. This is God in the flesh, laying down his law. Jesus, after washing the feet of his disciples, welcoming them into the Father’s household, tells them what they must do. Here comes the requirement: You must love one another just as I have loved you.
Now, the text is clear that what Jesus was talking about was something the disciples could not understand until later (John 13:7). “Love one another as I have loved you” is not something that they ever could have understood apart from the cross and the resurrection. Indeed, “Love one another as I have loved you” simply means, “Live my cross and resurrection toward each other.” To love one another as Jesus has loved us means to do the very thing that Jesus did: to abandon oneself wholly to the loving service and nourishing of others. And if we do this, Jesus claims that “though we die, we will live” (John 11:25).
But how? How can we even countenance loving one another as Jesus has loved us? That is a word too deep to bear – and I mean that literally. We, being who we are, as human beings bound in slavery quite simply cannot bear the word that Jesus lays on is. It is too much. It takes us beyond the bounds of what a people, born into slavery and deeply comfortable there, can stand. Like Israel, when we are called into the wilderness of loving one another just as Christ has loved us we find ourselves crying out for the fleshpots of Egypt:
“They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14:11-12)
And so also, when we hear Jesus’s new commandment, “Love one another just as I have loved you” we respond with cries of desperation and despair. This is just too much! This is a wilderness of death and toil! We cannot abide Jesus’s call to uncalculated, unconstrained, unhesitating love. We just can’t. After all, look at what Jesus’s loving looks like in this very passage. Jesus humiliates himself for those he loves, and those he loves aren’t exactly the easiest bunch to love. The feet Jesus washes are the feet of Judas the betrayer and Peter the denier.
This is a point that must not go unnoticed when we read the gospel and letters of John with their constant call to love “one another.” Don’t for a second think that this is somehow the easy version of “love your enemies.” The “one another” that Jesus loves is the company of betrayers and backstabbers, of cowards and utterly irritating simpletons who utterly and completely don’t get it. It is a crowd of sleazy corrupt bureaucrats and guerrilla revolutionaries. This is the “one another” that Jesus loves and which he calls into sharing that same love, the love that washes feet, the goes to the cross and the grave.
No matter what, whenever we read Jesus’s call to love one another just has he has loved us we all have a sense of its radical hardness. And even if we believe it is possible, we know its not very likely. However, if we avoid lifting these discourses of Jesus out of their narrative context, things get more interesting. They get interesting in that Jesus seemed to think the very opposite in regard to the message he was preaching: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
In Jesus’s view, the call to abandon ourselves in cruciform love that he was preaching was not something hard and burdensome, but rather a call to leave such burdens behind. Jesus seems to think that this self-abandoning is easy, and that by contrast it is restless striving of the Gentiles and the burdensome commands of the priestly elite that is hard (cf. Matt 6:32; Luke 11:46; 12:30). In other words, Jesus viewed his call to love one another in a way that is exactly opposite from how we view it when we encounter it. What is to us an impossible demand that must have some other explanation is for Jesus liberation, resurrection, indeed the very life of God the Father. What we cannot bear is the depth to which this love will liberate us from the dominating forces of slavery and death.
Because after all, we are used to living in a world run by control and calculation. This is the logic of all existence under sin. This the logic that says “Hey, this guy is raising the dead. We gotta kill him” (cf. John 11:47ff). But most of the time the logic of control, calculation, and management doesn’t seem so insidious. We figure out what we can handle, what we need to limit, the boundaries we need to draw to do right by ourselves, or maybe our families, possibly even some friends. We learn how to be reasonable, to manage, to get by with what we have and acquire what we need. Is this so wrong?
Yes. A thousand times yes. Or rather, this is slavery. This is the life that accepts death and the final outcome of all things. Death is the limit, the boundary for all our doings. All the resources we have, all the things we can do, all the methods and calculations we can employ are ultimately a dance with the inevitable: death. Where death is the ultimate boundary there can finally be no truly new possibilities, no complete and utter transformation, and certainly no loving one another “just as I have loved you.” If death is the boundary that finally rules, then yeah, it sure would be better to be a slave in Egypt than to die in the wilderness!
And this is why the resurrection of the crucified is our only hope. Indeed only if Christ is raised is there any such thing as hope. If Christ has been raised, then death, which hovers at the boundary, defining our lives of calculation and control, has no power to shut things down anymore. If resurrection, new creation. If resurrection, new possibilities. If resurrection, love one another even as I have loved you.
The word of self-abandoning, cruciform love is indeed a word that we cannot bear. It is so unbearable that we must undergo a complete death to everything that we are. Our whole identity of possession and calculation and qualification must wither away and die on the cross with Christ so that we may be raised to new life with the Risen Jesus. We cannot bear to love one another, but the unbounded word of the gospel is that we have been born by Christ, by the one who lived his life wholly for others, giving himself away in love to the fullest, to the point of death. And this One, this man, who recklessly threw himself away in love, the gospel proclaims that he lives. And if this true, if he really does live, then everything is made new. Nothing whatsoever is the same anymore. The old world—the world run by death at the boundary—that world has been crucified with Christ! Your old life, the life ruled by calculation, by control, by management—that life has been crucified with Christ!
The word to abandon yourself in love for one another—and remember who the “one another” is—is simply the word of the resurrection written into our lives. It is a commandment that is a non-commandment, a law that is non-law. What we see here is not a demand for self-improvement, moral effort, or righteous action; those are the province of the old world, the world ruled by the law of death. No one I know of has said this better than Robert Jenson:
The gospel’s specific morality is a matter of opened opportunities, of what we may reasonably do because Jesus lives, that otherwise would have been foolish. The normal morality is a matter of imposed constraints, of what we must do, that otherwise we would have liked not to. [. . .] the gospel’s specific morality is a morality of freedom. Insofar as the gospel moves us, we do what we do because we may, not because we ought. And a good act is one which finds the way to love, to the affirmation of the brother’s freedom.
We hear the from the gospel what we may do, when the gospel affirmatively interprets the hopes and fears that move our lives. The gospel makes our hopes possibilities by making them hopes for the love that is indeed coming. When the gospel is spoken to a [person] or a community, it speaks to the particular inhibitions that keep that [person] or community from [. . .] their own humanity. The gospel dismisses those inhibitions. It’s pattern is: “You may . . . because, if Jesus is risen, there is no need to fear . . .” [. . .]
Thus the specific morality of the gospel is not a mater of “laws.” The gospel’s moral discourse does not say “Do this and do that because you ought/must/would be best advised/will be rewarded.” It does not have the “if . . . then . . .” form. It imposes no conditions whatever, on anything at all. It does not say “Do . . . , because otherwise you won’t get into heaven.” It does not say—with a bit more religious sophistication: “Do . . . , because, although of course God will accept you anyway, that is what good Christians do.” It does not even say: “Do . . . , because virtue is its own reward.” The moral discourse of the gospel says only: “You may do . . . , because Jesus lives” (Robert Jenson, Story and Promise, 81, 82).
The gospel’s commandment, to love one another just as Jesus has loved is precisely the proclamation of liberation, of freedom into God’s resurrecting life. You may love one another fully, to the end, without reserve, because Jesus lives and therefore there is no need to fear. The reason we need not fear is that Jesus, the man who existed wholly as love, as self-abandoning agape, is risen. Death has no dominion over him. And if death has no final dominion over love, then we can joyfully throw ourselves away into love. To again quote from Robert Jenson’s beautiful articulation of this truth:
[. . .] Jesus was a lover who went to death rather than qualify his self-giving to others; the love which was the plot of his life is an unconditional love. Of this person it is said that he nevertheless lives, that he is risen [. . .] for love means an unconditional self-giving and an acceptance of death, and a successful love would be an acceptance of death which nevertheless did not result in the lover’s absence from the beloved, but in his presence. Love must finally mean death and resurrection. For this particular man, resurrection, if it happened, was therefore but the proper outcome of his life.
And if this lover’s resurrection happened, then there also now lives an unconditional liver with death—the limit of love—behind him, so that his love must finally triumph altogether, must embrace all people and all circumstances of their lives. If he is risen, the human enterprise has a conclusion: a human communion constituted in its commonality by one man’s unconditional self-dedication to his fellows, and so embracing each individual and communal freedom established in the history so fulfilled.
Thus, if Jesus is risen his personal love will be the last Outcome of the human enterprise. If he died, his self-definition has been written to its end, as each of ours will be, but if he also nevertheless lives, [. . . then his life] is not thereby a dead item of the past but an item of living, surprising time, an item of the future and indeed, of the last future. (Robert Jenson, The Triune Identity, 22-23)
And this is precisely why Jesus’s call to us to love one anther as he has loved us, to throw ourselves away in love is paired this Sunday with the most holy vision of John the Revelator of the new heavens and new earth:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” (Revelation 21:1-6)
This vision simply expresses the truth of the gospel that the outcome of everything is the victory of Christ’s radical, self-abandoning love. Just as Christ threw himself away in becoming flesh, walking among us, healing us, feeding us, teaching us, weeping with us, dying for us, and rising for us, so also the fullness of God will finally throw itself away on us. The infinity of God’s unbounded radical love will descend and it will consummate and manifest what has already been achieved in Christ’s resurrection.
Because of this God, this self-abandoning God who throws himself away on us, we can love one another in the same way. Because this God’s self-abandoning life will be the outcome of all things—down to the most minute, petty, precious slaveries we still cling to—because of this we are freed into self-abandonment. We can throw ourselves away on each other without fear. For, as Paul proclaims, we “did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:14-17).
The word of the gospel is that we are freed into loving one another just as Christ has loved us, that we can do this without fear because God throws himself away on us, and that reckless act of self-giving is power that sustains all creation. We can love one another because Jesus is risen, because God is the God of Jesus Christ. In Jesus we see God as God truly is, as God will be in the outcome of all things. In Jesus’s abandonment of himself we get to see what true human life is, and we get invited into that life of joyful self-abandonment. Herbert McCabe speaks to this in a way worth recalling:
In Jesus [. . .] we can watch God understanding himself. God’s understanding of himself is that he throws himself away in love, that he keeps nothing back for himself. God’s understanding of God is that he is a love that unconditionally accepts, that always lets others be, even if what they want is to be his murderers. God’s understanding of God is that he is not a special person with a special kind of message, with a special way of living to which he wants people to conform. God’s understanding of God could not appear to us as someone who wants to found a new and better religion, or recommend a special new discipline or way of life—a religious code laid upon us for all time because it is from God. God’s understanding of God is that he just says: “Yes, be; be human, but be really human; be human if it kills you—and it will.” The Law of God is a non-law; it has no special regulation. The Word just says: “I accept you as human beings; what a pity you have such difficulty in doing this yourselves. What a pity you can only like yourselves if you pretend to be super-humans or gods.” God could never understand himself as one of the gods; only as one of the human race.
[. . .] To be able, through faith to share in Christ, in God’s understanding of himself, to be in Christ, is to be filled ourselves also with this joy, this Holy Spirit. It is a joy so vast that we can only faintly sometimes experience it as our elation and joy—just as our sharing in God’s self-understanding hardly at all seems to us an understanding, a being enlightened. We have a life in us, an understanding and a joy in us, that is too great for us to comprehend. Quite often it has to show itself as what seems its opposite, as darkness and suffering. The Word of God is Christ crucified. But it is God’s way and the truth of God and the life and joy of God. And this is in us because we have faith. We have been prepared to go into the dark with Christ, to die with Christ. And we know that this means that we live in Christ. And that life, the divine understanding and joy that is in us, will one day soon show itself in us for what it truly is. And we shall live with the Father, through the [. . .] the Word made flesh, in the joy which is the Holy Spirit for eternity. (Herbert McCabe, God Still Matters, 104-6)
Life, resurrection life, is coming and is now here. When Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us he tells us to do nothing more than give ourselves over to his love, throwing the consequences to the wind. This is abject and utter foolishness. A stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. But Christ has been raised. And therefore this is the power and wisdom of God. This is God’s own self-understanding that will finally triumph over every authority and ruler and power.
The love that Jesus commands will ultimately have its way. It will be victorious. Our infantile dreams of calculation, control, and qualification are doomed, one way or the other. Lay them down. Give yourself over, in all the concreteness, contingency, and hardship of your life to the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. He has come that we may have life and have it abundantly. Everything else, every other word steals, kills, and destroys.
Because Christ is risen, you are free to love one another. You are free to throw yourselves away in love. You are free to waste yourself on the worthless, on the trivial, on the stuff that no reasonable person should put up with or care about. You are free. Death no longer has dominion over you. You are no longer enslaved to fear, to calculation, to qualification, to self-protection. You are free to just throw yourself away, to lavish yourself in all your imperfection on one another in love and on God in worship. And this is life. This is the life of the gospel. The life of the crucified and risen Lord. The life that death cannot touch. The life of the world to come. Amen.