Love one another. When Jesus gave this “new” command to his disciples, it really wasn’t a NEW command. The Greek word for “new” doesn’t mean this is a different command. It means a qualitatively better commandment – an improvement of a former command. Maybe Jesus refocused this command because we often don’t think of those who are in our families or in our churches as our neighbors.
Biblical Greek concordances say agape love is the kind of love that is grounded in esteem, appreciation, and respect. Love’s foundation comes from what you and I think or feel about the other person. Some synonyms are these: to accept, to consent, to submit with agreement, and to cherish with reverence. It sounds like positive inner feelings are needed to call it love.
The other kind of love in the Bible (brotherly love) is the kind of love that has more to do with emotion and affection. This is closer to friendship. You like someone, and maybe want to spend a little more of your time with them. Jesus didn’t command friendship kind of love. He instructed that we should esteem, respect, accept, agree, consent, submit with approval, cherish with reverence one another. And the same command is given to love our neighbor, and our enemies in this way. Esteem, respect, accept, cherish with reverence are part of love.
St. Paul defines biblical love like this: (1 Corinthians 13:4-6) “Love suffers long and [still] is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; love does not behave rudely, love does not seek its own [benefit], love thinks no evil…” How do we love like that?
What might be helpful is to remember St. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians, “Do you not know that Christ is within you?” (13:5). You and I ought to be treating each other with the same respect and acceptance that we would treat Jesus himself. Not just respect, but esteem, acceptance for who we are, cherishing with reverence. I think Mother Teresa had it right. She didn’t care what the poor in Calcutta believed about God or about her. She didn’t place any conditions on why they deserved her attention. She accepted them as human beings created by God. She saw Jesus in each one of them. And she loved them.
Love is the inner reason for why we perform an action that brings good to others. We can be on a mission of love and might not be following the command to love the way Jesus meant it. I read a story about a teen-aged boy who came home and told his father about the wonderful service project that the church youth group was going to carry out. They were going to hand out blankets to the homeless. Excited, he said, “We’re passing out blankets so that we can tell them about Jesus!” His father said, “Wait a minute. We don’t give blankets to the homeless to tell them about Jesus. We give blankets to the homeless because they are cold.” Love’s agenda is to make them warm, not to convert them to believe what you believe.
Love does not seek its own benefit. If we are motivated by the idea that we’re going to make our church a bigger church, our love is false. Our action may be good, but the world can pick up quickly that our motivations are more about putting another notch on our Bibles for ourselves or for Christianity.
Today’s gospel is powerful because Jesus showed us how it’s possible to love someone within your own close-knit religious family who is at odds with you. He gave us the ultimate example of love for each other when he demonstrated esteem for Judas who was planning to betray him. In the story before our gospel reading, Jesus is shown accepting Judas for the person he was. Even though he was a traitor, he did not treat Judas any different from the other disciples. He didn’t kick Judas out of the room for being a hypocrite, or a liar, or for planning harm to him. Jesus submitted, as a Servant, and washed Judas’ feet with the rest. Then he continued to welcome him into communal relationship with him. “Come, eat at my table.”
Jesus didn’t make a spectacle of Judas. He didn’t openly bring dishonor to Judas. Judas brought dishonor to himself. Jesus continued treating Judas with reverence to the bitter end. I don’t like to think of any of us as a Judas. But anytime you or I do not esteem, respect, or cherish with reverence our brother and sister in Christ, we betray Jesus and his new command. The world cannot see Christ in a church embroiled in internal warfare. To act contrary to love is to betray the love that Jesus lived and taught.
After Judas left the room, Jesus claimed that what he had just done had glorified himself. “To glorify” means to give importance, praise, or honor. Jesus brought honor to himself by showing love for a brother who meant him harm; and he brought honor to God in showing love for a flawed disciple. This incredible display of love, washing Judas’s feet and welcoming the one who was planning to betray him to eat with him, brings honor to Jesus. And it brings honor to the heavenly Father.
Through Jesus, God is shown to be a God who accepts and serves sinners and continues to welcome all of us to his table even though we betray him. We betray Jesus so clearly when we say we will follow him but then turn around and refuse to love each other as he loved us. God knows we do this every week. And yet, the invitation remains open to come to his table of grace.
By spending time together at the communion table, at the tables in fellowship hall, sharing life stories and breaking bread together, we begin to understand where each person has come from and why each person believes what they believe. Only through this kind of fellowship can we ever hope to respect, esteem, and cherish each other as we do Christ who dwells within each of us.
Why is it important that we love one another? Jesus told us why – because the world will know – by the way we interact with each other – that we are his disciples. Jesus did not say the world will know we are his disciples if we do miraculous things. He said the outside world will be amazed when they see large communities of people interacting with each other in love and humility and compassion.
The true nature of God is revealed in Jesus Christ. If St. Paul is correct and Christ is within us, the image of God lies dormant until we begin to love. God will never fail to accept us, wash our feet, or prepare a table for us. God will never stop loving us, because God is love.