It ought to be so simple. Love one another – it’s only a three word commandment. There are no complicated rituals or long moral codes to follow. Jesus didn’t say do this on Sunday, do that on Thursday, do this other thing every time the moon is full and the tide is high. Sometimes I wish he had. Sometimes I wish he had left us with a long list of instructions rather than this one simple commandment. If he had, I might have more of an excuse. If he had, I might be able to confess on Sunday – “Well, Lord I was doing alright until I got to the third line of the fourth paragraph on page five then I messed it up.” But he didn’t. All he said to his disciples on the last night of his life right before his arrest was – love one another. It sounds like the kind of simple instructions I give my kids as I head out the door to go to work – Marshall, feed the dog. Eliza, clean your room. Something so simple ought to be simply accomplished. Maybe it should take a little hard work or a little time but you ought to be able to do it.
Why then is this three word commandment given by our Lord so difficult to obey? Why, when love is the one thing each of us wants more than anything else is it so hard to find? As anyone who has children knows, love isn’t a limited resource. It isn’t like you have only so much of it to give and then you run out. After Marshall was born I never thought I could love anythone as much as I loved that child – until Eliza was born. Then my love doubled, it wasn’t cut in half. Love is an unlimited resource, why then is it often so scarce? From the moment we are born until the moment we die each of us craves to be loved. We crave it when we are infants, toddler, and teens; when we are fat and flabby and middle-aged; when we are old and doddering. At every stage in life we crave to be valued and appreciated, to be treated with kindness and respect without strings attached – that’s what love means. We all need love and we all have love to give – Jesus’ command to us ought to be the simplest thing in the world . . . but it isn’t.
No, it isn’t because of this little thing we call sin or brokenness or separation from God. Sin is what warps love, squashes love, makes love seem like a scarce resource. Because of our sin, our brokenness, we love ourselves too much or too little. Because of sin we love conditionally – with strings attached. I’ll love you if you make “X” amount of money, if you get good grades, if you can still fit in a size six dress, if you do what I say. Sin warps our love into greed, selfishness, anger, hatred. Sin seems so prevalent and genuine love so rare that we believe and unknowingly teach our children that you have to do something to be loveable, you have to deserve love. Be successful, then you will be loveable. Be good looking, then you will be loveable. Be powerful, wealthy, smart, then you will be loveable. But that isn’t God talk. That isn’t what Jesus said. That’s sin talk.
If you remember our reading for this morning then you know there is another little part attached to this simple commandment. Love one another, Jesus said, as I have loved you. That means we are supposed to love without conditions as he taught us in the parable of the Prodigal Son. That means we are to love in spite of a person’s past as Jesus did when he invited himself to dinner with Zacchaeus the tax collector. That means we are to love enough to be honest as Jesus did when he spoke truth to the woman at the well and the rich young man who wanted to get into heaven. That means we are to love enough to forgive as Jesus forgave those who took his life and Peter who denied him three times. That means we are to love sacrificially as Jesus did when he laid down his life for the sake of others. You and I are to love as Jesus loved us because this is how God loves and this is the loves that conquers sin.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Period. This is it, this is the bottom line, Jesus tells the disciples. It won’t be how well you organize that matters. “Or how well you evangelize. Or how splendidly you preach. Or how majestically you build your basilicas. Or how orthodox you are in deciding who is “right” and who is “wrong.” It won’t be in how much money flows in, or in how high your endowment reaches.”1 All of these things are important, but what will make or break the Christian community we create, will be how well we live into and express Christ’s love.
Richard Hayes, a professor of mine at Yale, once said in connection with this passage, “The charge to the church is momentous: the credibility of the gospel is contingent upon our sacrificial love for one another. If outsiders do not see in the Christian community love of another kind, there is no reason for them to attend to the message that God loved the world so much that he sent his Son to rescue it. The visible truth of the gospel hangs on upon our visible counterculture of love.” After all is said and done, isn’t it this kind of love that makes us special? When you get through all the creeds and theology and liturgy, when you peel through the layers of tradition, doesn’t the content of our faith somehow lie in the truth that the living Christ not only saves us, but he enables us to live in the world in a new way – as people who in their finest moments love as Jesus loved?
Many have commented on the hypocrisy that the church falls into. The hypocrisy of form without content, creed without commitment or community without love. It is a tragic reality of this human institution called the Church that we can easily become a hollow shell of nothing but words – words about love, but devoid of love itself.
You see, the love that Jesus holds up for us today is a love that has died to evaluating or judging another’s worthiness to receive it. And this love is supposed to infuse the church. We are all broken. We are all in need. Is your marriage falling apart – come on in, you are still loveable. Are you struggling with addiction – come on in, you are still loveable. Don’t have two pennies to rub together – come on in, there is love here for you. Lost, lonely, hurting, depressed – come on in, you’re no different from the rest of us and the only real reason we exist is to let you know that you are loved. I would trade all the cathedrals of the world for the smallest community, if that community had this Christ-love. Because, in the end, everything else is just hypocrisy; in the end love is all that matters. Amen.