John 13:34-35


34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’


            This is our faith’s most fundamental value and most compelling mandate.  We literally worship it and all of the core values our church aspires to emerge from it.  It is simple but it is (a) often misunderstood and/or (b) very daunting.


            Jesus offered these words about love at the last supper. Jesus did a whole lot of radical loving in his life and this night was his penultimate example.  He wanted his disciples to learn how to love and he wanted his disciples to know love is always a gift.  Love is not transactional.  He did not seek recognition.  Sometimes he actively avoided it.  He did not expect to be appreciated. He gave of himself, literally and figuratively, to demonstrate his care and regard for everyone he encountered.  On this night in particular, he could see the handwriting on the wall. He was going to be killed.  Yet, as one of his last acts, in order to illustrate what he meant by love, he washed his disciples’ feet—INCLUDING the feet of the man who was to betray him and the man who was to deny him. He knew, no matter how deeply he loved, his care could be rejected.  He loved anyway.


One of the most common misuses of love is to view it transactionally.  At its most blatant, the thoughts, if not the words, that come to us when our care is not reciprocated are “Look what I’ve done for you … you should at least do a little for me.  That is a very human way to think and it is a very human way to try to control what we receive. But Jesus loved quite differently.          


            Love is a choice to proactively cherish.  It is something offered, without regard for position, state of mind or faithfulness.  It has nothing to do with deserving. When it becomes so, we lose contact with the love Jesus offers.  Two examples in ordinary life come to mind—one at the beginning of life and one near the end of life.  


No matter how much we love an infant, caring for another human being is an enormous amount of work.  Most parents get tired, most of us complain but most (certainly not all) parents continue to do the work of losing sleep and sometimes sanity in our desire to care for our child.  Human motives are rarely ‘pure’, but most of us do the work of love because we love the child—not simply because we are supposed to.  There is a huge difference.  In the first instance, we want our child to grow, to find themselves, to become all that they can be.  Again, motives are mixed, but ideally, we do not expect recompense from our children. While it might be tempting to do so, we do not keep a list of ‘Look what I did for you.’  The work of proactive cherishing is not offered to get something, it is offered because we hold that child in love.  And even when that child sorely tries our patience; even when we do not really want to be around them (for whatever reason), the state of being that is love remains.  I am very aware that many parents do not offer love in this way but hopefully you have at least observed love of this sort.


            The second example is similar except it occurs near the end of life. It is an uncomfortable truth that for most of us, if we live long enough, we will be helpless. We will become radically dependent.  We will need help with our most basic human needs. If you have cared for a dying person, a debilitated person or a person with dementia, you know the physical and emotional demands of love. But once again, ideally, the work of such proactive cherishing emerges out of the state of love rather than the obligation to love. (I must admit, however, in our ordinary humanness these two motives for care often get intertwined).


My mother mostly lives in another decade. Words rarely get through to her.  But she lights up at the visit of any caring person.  She has taught me that love does not depend upon recognition nor reciprocity. On my good days, I can honestly be glad for those moments even when she is clueless about who I am.  On others, I grieve my loss of connection. Real life always includes both.


At the beginning of life and at the end of life the reality of our helplessness is undeniable. We are not in charge of what we receive.  But it is also true in the lives we live in-between.  We just don’t always know it.  When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he showed regard for them whether they understood, were faithful, full of doubt or antagonistic. His love did not depend on the receivers. But the very act of the Rabbi washing the disciple’s feet shattered the orderly hierarchies of his day.  Washing feet was a servant’s job.  Jesus demonstrated that love did not depend upon position.  No one ‘deserves’ deference because of their position in the world. Everyone can serve and everyone can receive.


Any attempt to decide who qualifies for God’s love simply reveals a very human, albeit sinful way of categorizing the world.  All of us ‘qualify’ because God chose us to be his children and no one is ‘above’ service, showing deference and regard.   As I said last week, this deference is not to suggest someone is ‘better’, it is a behavior that reflects our desire to express regard for another and for them to experience such regard.  It is proactive cherishing.  It is the love Jesus has offered us and the love he calls us to emulate.


Two final notes.  First, secularly, we derive our sense of worth, our identity, from a variety of categories—wealth, position, ethnicity, gender, faithfulness etc. but by Jesus’s radical role reversal, he demonstrated that our actual value resides in the experience of being loved apart from any of those categories.  This a concept that is downright disturbing to the ‘haves’ of this world and incredibly good news to the secularly disenfranchised. This is the core value of love.


Second, the idea that we should ‘love as Jesus loved’ all too easily becomes a ‘to do list’ by which we try to measure our faith.  It is an unfortunate paradox that all too often the first response to the Good News is guilt rather than joy. As much as we hunger for love, we are just as likely to ask what we must do; to ask if we have done enough; to ask if we are enough.  No matter how often we are promised that we stand firm in the embrace of God’s love, we find ourselves asking but “Where do I stand?”  


In ordinary life, someone can tell you: “I love you.”  We may even say thank you—but the internal dialogue raises questions.  “I want to believe you but why do you say that?”  Or, worse, “If you really knew me, you wouldn’t say that.” We are simply not in control over who loves us and that in turn leaves us at risk. The illusion is, if we knew ‘why’ someone loves us, we could keep it up and perhaps make sure that love would continue. But as soon as we go there, we turn love into a transaction instead of an act of grace. It is hard to be dependent and harder still to depend on a love that is unilaterally offered. But any close attention to actual lives reveals that such dependency is part of life. If you can bear that knowledge, your anxiety about ‘where you stand’ will be transformed into grateful joy about where you stand.  

Live like you are loved.  None of us deserve it.  It is always a gift.  “…you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Let it be so.