St John’s, Decatur—John 13:31-35
Back in the early years of the second century—so, barely a hundred years after Jesus walked this earth—there was a young Roman official by the name of Pliny, who was governor of the province of Bithynia, which is in what we now know as northern Turkey. Pliny had a vexing problem that was putting him in an ever more awkward position. There was an offbeat religious sect called Christianity that was beginning to enjoy substantial growth in his province. Pliny viewed any such cohesive group as a threat to the social order, so his practice was to simply execute anyone who publicly admitted to being a Christian. But the sheer number of Christians that he was putting to death was starting to become embarrassingly high, which was itself a threat to the social order, so he decided to “punt,” and wrote a letter to Trajan, the emperor in Rome, asking for advice.
Pliny’s letter to Trajan somehow managed to survive the centuries, and has come down to us as one of the most important documentary sources for our knowledge of early Christianity. It’s particularly interesting because it gives us a glimpse of church life in that time through the eyes of an outsider, someone who was not himself a Christian or on his way toward becoming one. Pliny acknowledges that there is nothing in what Christians say and do that is inherently evil or criminal by Roman standards. In fact, their communal life seems to be characterized by love; they seem to be distinguished by their love for one another.
“By this shall the world know that you are my disciples, that you have love for one another.”
There are many ways of “hearing” that short and simple statement by Jesus, that “parting shot” to his disciples on the night before he was handed over to suffering and death. One way to “hear” it is, “until I feel a heart-throbbing, pulse-quickening, stomach-churning affection for everyone whose life intersects with mine—family, neighbors, colleagues, classmates, strangers on the street—then I am falling short of this standard, I am failing to love in a way that distinguishes me as a Christian.” This way of hearing supposes that the “love” to which Christians are called, the love which will let the world know that we are disciples of Jesus, is something that just wells up in our hearts to the point of overflowing, that it is something we feel deeply, an intense affection or attraction or familiarity.
Most of us in the room this morning are old enough, I suspect, to remember the TV sitcom from the 70s, Rhoda. The climax of one of the seasons was when Rhoda finally married Joe, the man she’d been dating for several long … weeks. As was the custom in the free-wheeling 1970s, Joe and Rhoda spurned tradition and got married in an apartment, and wrote their own vows. I still remember being roused from my couch potato trance by a phrase that started out oh-so-familiar, but which, by changing one single letter, radically altered its traditional meaning. Instead of promising to love and honor and cherish one another “as long as we both shall live,” Rhoda and Joe made this promise “as long as we both shall love.” In other words, as long as I feel the way I feel now, as long as you make the earth move under my feet, as long as the emotion is still there.
Needless to say, Joe and Rhoda’s marriage fell apart during the next TV season; with marriage vows like that, it was a foregone conclusion.
Another way of “hearing” Jesus’s command for us to love one another is this: “Until we’ve fed the last hungry stomach, until we’ve sheltered the last homeless person, until we’ve freed the last prisoner, until the last vestige of racism is obliterated, until we’ve nursed back to health the last forgotten human being in the darkest slum in the black hole of Calcutta, then our Christian outreach, our Christian love, is inadequate; the love by which the world will know that we are disciples of Jesus is not yet visible enough.” This way of hearing understands the command that we love one another to be absolutely universal, with no priorities, conditions, qualifications, or any defining context.
I read about a psychological study some time ago that indicated that the average human being is capable of sustaining only about one hundred relationships of any meaningful substance or significance. A hundred may sound like a large number, but if we actually think about it, one hundred is a quota that can be filled very quickly. For most of us, this limitation on our capacity for love stops well short of the last forgotten human being in the black hole of Calcutta. So whether we “hear” our Lord’s command that we love one another in terms of intense emotional feeling, or in terms of unrestricted universality, or—as is very likely the case—in terms of both these characteristics, what we end up with is a mess of confused or misplaced expectations and a general sense of guilty failure.
Guilt and failure are not enjoyable experiences, so our eyes cast about for relief, for deliverance, for redemption. The good news today, the “gospel of the Lord” today, is that Jesus wants to set us free from this unnecessary sense of guilt and failure.
There is yet another way of hearing the command to love one another. The kind of love that is distinctively Christian, the kind of love that Jesus says is the identifying trademark of those who are his disciples, the kind of love that the Roman governor Pliny recognized in the Christian community in Bithynia—this kind of love is not a product of our emotions but is an act of the will. Christian love is not a feeling. Christian love is a decision.
Let that sink in. It’s important.
But while you’re letting it sink in, please don’t misunderstand me. I am not against “warm fuzzies” and being nice and feeling good about each other in the family of the church. I need these and want these as much as anyone. But warm feelings and kind conversations do not constitute Christian love! You and I are not under any obligation to “like” all our fellow Christians. We are not under orders to have deep feelings of affection for everyone. If you do have these feelings, then God bless you, I’m happy for you. But if you don’t, then don’t sweat it, you’re OK! The love that Jesus calls us to is not just a churchy version of Joe and Rhoda’s wedding vows—”as long as we all have warm feelings for one another.” It is at the same time less burdensome and more profound than that.
Does this come as a relief to anyone?
The love that Jesus calls us to have for one another is the same sort of love that God has for us—love that is not primarily of the heart or of the mind, but of the will. The New Testament Greek word for this sort of love is agapē. This is God-like love, love as a decision, demonstrated by action.
“By this shall the world know that you are my disciples, that you have agapē for one another.”
Agapē-love is grounded in the very nature of God, which, according to the teaching of the church, is a community of one God in three persons. The love within the community of the Trinity is a model for love within the community of the church.
Jesus did not say that his disciples would be distinguished by their love for their enemies—although he did say, “love your enemies.” Jesus did not say that his disciples would be distinguished by their love for their neighbors in the world—although he did say, “love your neighbor.” No, Jesus said that his disciples would be distinguished by their love for one another!
Love for our enemies, love for our neighbors, love for the homeless and hungry and for the last forgotten human being in the black hole of Calcutta—that’s all wonderful, it’s to be commended. But what empowers such universal love, what gives it a specifically Christian meaning and context, is the love of the church for her own, the love of the body for its own cells. The primary, foundational, obligation of love, the love which tells the world that we are disciples of Jesus, is our love for one another. To the extent that the life of the church is characterized by mutual acceptance, long-suffering patience, giving the benefit of the doubt, loyalty even when it’s not returned, being present both to listen and to do when needs arise, supporting each other in prayer, bearing one another’s burdens, sacrificial generosity with our time and energy and skill and material substance—to the extent that these are the marks of our common life, then will the world indeed know that we are the disciples of Jesus, that we are the church. This is what will give credibility to our witness. This is what will cause the world to sit up, take notice, and say, “See how those Christians love one another.” This is what what will cause the world will be beating a path to our door hungry and thirsty for what they see we possess, and which we’ll be able to share without limit.
By this shall the world know that we are his disciples—by our love for one another.
Love not based on the fickle whims of human emotion, love that is not spread so thin as to lead only to grief, but love that is an act of the will, and which flows generously out of God’s own love, the love of the Blessed Trinity.
Alleluia and Amen.