“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35
Albeit five Sundays into the Easter season, today’s text comes from the portion of John’s gospel immediately leading up to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. This is the beginning of what scholars call the “Farewell Discourse”, or more properly, “Farewell Discourses” in John. The “Farewell Discourses” take up several chapters in John’s gospel, in which Jesus directs his teachings no longer at the crowds in general, but at his disciples in particular. Jesus’ goal is to prepare the disciples to continue on without him after he dies, is raised, and finally ascends into heaven – in the case of this first discourse, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his crucifixion.
Here, Jesus begins his instruction by giving the disciples a new commandment: to love one another. Significantly, this is the first time in John’s gospel that the love commandment is given, and rather than situated within a discussion of the greatest commandment in Jewish law as in the synoptic accounts, John states it as a “new” commandment just for the followers of Jesus. In Mark’s gospel account, when asked what commandment is greatest Jesus replies,
“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
In Luke’s gospel, which is the first of the two volume series by the same author from which the reading from Acts is drawn, it is not even Jesus who states the command. Instead, Jesus asks the lawyer who has come to question him about eternal life, “What is written in the law?” to which the lawyer gives the same answer (cf. Luke 10:25-37). However, Luke then goes further. When the lawyer asks who his neighbor is, Jesus responds by telling the story of the man who fell into the hands of robbers. This parable is commonly called the story of the Good Samaritan, but if we are to take Jesus’ commandment to love the neighbor seriously, the focus of the parable should be not so much on the one acting in love – the Samaritan – as it is on the one who receives the love – the unidentified victim. The victim is the neighbor, the one whom Jesus is instructing the lawyer and the disciples to love. In any case, whether victim or Samaritan or both are the focus, Jesus’ interprets the Jewish commandment to love the neighbor as a command to care for the Other – whoever finds themselves outside of your most similar or immediate, easiest, socially acceptable group of friends.
It is therefore not surprising that in the Acts reading for today, the same author depicts Jesus sends Peter to the home of Gentiles, commanding him to “make no distinction” between himself and them (Acts 11:12). Indeed, as a result of this encounter with those whom he would have otherwise avoided as Others, not only are Peter and the whole Jerusalem church opened to a larger view of ministry, but everyone in that household – including, one would assume, slaves, women, and children (more Others in the first century world!) are baptized and experience Christ’s salvation. Through Peter’s love of the Other, they are thereby brought into the community of Christ.
Which brings us back to John’s account… here Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to love their neighbors, Gentiles or Samaritans, victims or Others. Jesus tells his disciples to love one another – those who are already in the community of Christ (John 13:35). In the context of John’s church, which was beset with tension both from without and within, this was important and necessary advice. In order to bring the good news of Christ to the nations, it was necessary that the followers of Christ take care of one another, that in the midst of disagreements about doctrine and struggles in establishing the church, the disciples of Jesus needed to love one another. The politics of a world beset against Christianity required it.
Indeed, in a world in which Christianity too often finds itself beset against itself in wars over scriptural authority, denominationalism, separation of church and state, and the like, the advice of the Johannine Jesus continues to be excellent advice – setting aside all our differences, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to love one another. In today’s culture, such a command can be read as a cry for ecumenism. But, at the same time, in a world in which Christianity finds itself entrenched in the culture rather than beset by it (even in the face of the growing secularism in Western nations), to stop here, looking only inward at ourselves and our churches, would be to miss the point.
The reason for the conflict experienced by John’s church was because it was a missional church – because it was making itself known and felt in a world hostile to it. In this regard, if not in many others, it was not all that different from Luke’s church described in Acts. In other words, the mission of the church, in the various forms and the various circumstances in which it’s found itself, has from the beginning been grounded in a vision larger than itself. For John’s Jesus, this was showing the world the Light – what it meant to be a follower of Christ. For Luke’s Jesus, this was showing the world aid and concern – helping the victims, eating with those different from you, and baptizing whole households, even slaves, women, and children. Being a disciple of Jesus in these circumstances meant loving into community the whole people of God – not simply loving those with whom one was already in communion.
This, I believe, is what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had in mind when he talked about the Beloved Community. Pointing toward his vision for the end goal of the fight for desegregation in the U.S., King was quoted,
“the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.” (http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy Accessed 04-15-13)
In another speech, Dr. King expanded upon the kind of love necessary for the Beloved Community, which he understood to be agape love. Of the three types of love common in ancient Greek language and culture, this is the type of love to which Jesus in our gospel refers as well. King explains,
“Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people…It begins by loving others for their sakes” and “makes no distinction between a friend and enemy; it is directed toward both…Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community.” (http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy Accessed 04-15-13)
The message of today’s readings is Love. But whose love? And for whom? What kind of Beloved Community do we imagine? To what kind of Love is Christ calling us? And how, therefore, ought we to respond?
The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a fellow in theology and practice at Vanderbilt University in the area of New Testament and early Christianity. She and her family reside in Franklin, Tennessee where they attend the Lutheran Church of St. Andrew.
[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]