“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jo. 13:34).
Pundits and pollsters tell us that the partisan divide in our country is as bad as it’s ever been. Not only are we divided, but animosity is on the rise. People feel threatened by opponents who, in turn, are viewed by those people as evil and wicked. We all agree this state of affairs is a shame, except when it comes to our own enemies, who (of course) deserve our suspicion. They really are bad guys! So it goes, on and on, in a seemingly unstoppable cycle of animosity.
Jesus’ teaching in our reading today, drawn from the Gospel of John, stands in stark counterpoint to this state of affairs. Jesus is speaking after the last supper and the foot-washing of Maundy Thursday. Here, in John’s Gospel, Jesus not only teaches us to love God and to love our neighbor as oneself, summing up the teaching of the Old Testament in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, a kind of unidirectional commandment laid upon the individual, but calls us further to the two-way love of loving one another.
In other words, it’s a call to mutual love; the kind of love we discover only in community. Elsewhere in the New Testament, following Jesus’ lead, the apostolic writers talk about this over and over again. In the Letter to the Hebrews, we read “Let mutual love continue” (Heb. 13:1). It’s summing up so much of St. Paul’s teaching, in his letters, about the love that is meant to prevail in the Christian community. “Love one another with mutual affection” (Rom. 12:10), he writes in Romans, underscoring the theme. Or St. Peter, in his First Letter, where he writes to the churches in Asia, “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart” (1 Pet. 1:22).
Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel is all about the mutual love that Christians are called to in the community of the church. We cannot love each other without being in relationship with each other. Love in the abstract is just that, abstract: unreal and unrooted and unsecured by relationship with real people. Love in the abstract lends itself to lip service, without any real demands of relationship with actual particular people. We need each other, real people, in order to keep the “new commandment” (Jo. 13:34) of love for one another.
This is part of the urgency of the apostolic letters: St. Paul and St. Peter and the other writers know exactly how difficult love in community can be. Show me people who are irritated with each other, and I will show you people who are closely related. It’s easy for us to come into conflict with those who are closest to us: our family, our friends, our fellow members in the church, because we are so close. Nevertheless, the apostle tells us, we must “love one another deeply from the heart” (1 Pet. 1:22).
Love like this, in the church, only comes about through Jesus’ love of us. As he says in our Gospel, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jo. 13:34). God’s love makes us lovely: not because we have to earn that love, or because we’re worthy of it already, but because it’s God’s gift to bestow. This gift of love binds us together in a way we could never manufacture by ourselves, by shared experiences or shared opinions or by a common will. It is a gift that Jesus gives us together, a connection that St. Augustine called “so pleasant a bond” (Tractatus 65), so that we can love each other with mutual love. That love is stronger than death, because God raised Jesus from the dead.
Remember, Jesus taught his disciples to love each other as they shared the last supper, and as he washed their feet: acts of faithful fellowship and loving service. As we pursue our life in the church, we will continue to have opportunities for ministry that will build up our life together. Sharing a common life of fellowship and service will make for mutual love among the members and will make concrete the love of Christ for us.
Jesus’ teaching about love may not clear up the animosity we find in our society, but imagine the leavening effect over time of Christians who love each other. We all have lessons to learn when it comes to mutual love, but here our confirmands are showing us the way, by their willingness to step into the spotlight and reaffirm their baptismal vows to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to receive the laying on of hands. We share this Holy Communion today, as well, as an effective sign of Jesus’ love for us: a gift that makes us lovely for no merit of our own. He loves us, and so we ought to love one another.