In today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” If you love me, you will keep my commandments. What commandments are Jesus talking about?
Jesus gives us the summary of the law in two commandments – love God and love neighbor; but I’m interested in exploring the single commandment Jesus gives in the gospel of John, in the chapter just before today’s lesson. John 13:34-35 – “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Jesus talks a lot about love during his three years of ministry, which is appropriate because his life was lived as a perfect example of what love truly is. He showed his love for others through his life, teachings, and ultimately in his death and resurrection.
The Greek word that is translated as love in the gospel reading is Agape. Many of you might have heard about the three main Greek words for love: eros, philia, and agape. Eros is passionate love, it’s the kind of love that you think about when you watch a romantic comedy. Eros doesn’t have to be romantic or sensual in nature although it often is. Philia means friendship, it’s a dispassionate virtuous love, loyalty. Agape is used to refer to a different type of love, a love that is self-sacrificial in nature. Agape, meaning love or affection, was rarely used in ancient texts. It is in the New Testament that this word keeps appearing, often from the lips of Jesus, but also from Paul. Jesus gives us the two greatest commandments…”Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And Love your neighbor as yourself.” He also tells us to “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Paul gives us that wonderful description of love in 1 Corinthians that starts off “love is patient, love is kind.” At the end of his description of love he says that it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” The love that Jesus and Paul talk about is agape love. Jesus doesn’t ask you to be passionately in love with your enemies, and Paul isn’t suggesting that every friendship will endure everything and never end. They are talking about a specific kind of love, a love that is demonstrated in actions rather than words or feelings, a self sacrificial one that Jesus lived his whole life according to.
We see this life of love through the gospels. Jesus healed the sick, he talked to the outcasts of his society, he forgave sinners, he fed thousands with loaves and fish, he even raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. Jesus’ love wasn’t always demonstrated through such nice actions – he also told sinners to go and sin no more, he stood up against the corruption and hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. These were also actions of love, meant to prevent those who he loved from further harm by themselves and from others.
“Love one another as I have loved you.” The early Christians took this command quite seriously. One of the best examples I have heard of this is how the Christians reacted during plagues. There were several major epidemics in the Roman empire during the rise of Christianity, which killed a large portion of the population. Plagues were greatly feared in the ancient world. The physicians knew that the diseases were contagious, but they did not know how they spread through bacteria or how to treat them. So once a plague started, there really wasn’t much that could be done and the doctors left town because they knew what was happening and that they couldn’t stop it.
People were encouraged to leave their homes and abandon sick family members. Since there was nothing you could do for your loved one to save them anyways, it was better that you not get sick too. They did not know a better way to prevent themselves from getting sick. Unlike the pagans who largely abandoned family and friends, Christians largely stayed. They were commanded by Christ to care for the sick. So, they stayed with their loved ones, nursed and took care of them, and many got sick and died. But the people who received care were more likely to survive.
The Christians didn’t just take care of their own. They took care of their non-Christian neighbors too. Even though this very well might mean their own death, they ministered to the needs of all of the sick, Christian and non-Christian. Those that received care were more likely to survive. And a large number of the pagans who survived ended up converting to Christianity.
It wasn’t just the way Christians took care of the sick that got people to convert. Pagans saw the way that Christians took care of orphans and widows, the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the prisoners. They saw a new community of life and love, and they wanted in on it as well. A compelling description of the early Church comes from Tertullian, who wrote: “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents, who say, ‘See those Christians, how they love one another.’” It was just as Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The early Christians were easily recognized as followers of Christ, because of the love they showed one another. Even though it was illegal to be a Christian in most places, they insisted on being vocal about their faith and living up to Jesus’ command to love one another.
Jesus showed us the way to love through his whole life, but above all by his willingness to die for our sins on the cross. We celebrate this love all Easter season; in fact we celebrate this love every day. As Christians we are called to imitate Christ in all things, especially in the way he loved others. The early Christians followed his example, by caring for the plague victims, even if it meant their own death as well. How do we Christians today show our love? How is there evidence in our lives that we are disciples of Jesus Christ?
The only way that we can answer those questions satisfactorily is how we live our lives once we leave this church building. When we go out into the world, do we live a life of service to others, a life of agape love? It doesn’t have to always be in huge ways, we don’t have to travel the world looking for plague victims and we all can’t be the veterans that are remembered on Memorial Day. We should celebrate and honor those who have been particularly good examples of Christian love to others, but we should not forget that we all have something to offer. We are called to love those who are here in our community, Christian and non-Christian, in the ways that they need love. Caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, visiting those that are lonely – those are the things we must do.
Jesus said “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And the commandment Jesus gave us was to love – to love actively and self-sacrificially, to love God and to love each other. We have been commanded to love, and by living into agape love for other people we are showing our love for God. The world is in great need of this kind of love, and will recognize us as Christ’s disciples when we live with that kind of love. Amen.