Our gospel reading picks up right after Judas has left to bring back the soldiers to arrest Jesus and begin the trials that will lead to crucifixion on Good Friday. And now that the passion is definitely under way Jesus proclaims to the remaining apostles, “Now is the son of man glorified.” And the next thing he says is, “I give you a new commandment: love one another.” He tells us that as he has loved us so we should love one another. And it is through our loving each other that the world will know we belong to Christ.
The new commandment replaces the old covenant of the Mosaic law. Let us remember that we received the law from Moses because our forefathers had rejected the original relationship of loving harmony with God and neighbor. Adam and Eve had an intimate relationship with God, for the book of Genesis tells us that they walked naked with God in the evening in the garden of Eden. And they had no sense of shame at their nakedness. Shame came with the fall, with the decision to listen to the serpent and turn away from God.
When we hear Jesus announce a new commandment of love, we might be tempted to think that the message of the Old Testament is somehow different than the message of the New Testament. But the Old Testament and the New Testament are both parts of one message: our God loves us, he made us in love, and he made us for love. It was we who turned our backs on God and had to leave the garden of Eden. He didn’t kick us out, we did it to ourselves. But even as we were leaving the garden, God was planning on how to get us back. The rest of the Old Testament after that first couple of chapters in the book of Genesis is God reaching out to us through messengers and prophets calling us back to be in an intimate relationship with him. Sometimes it worked, but we could not maintain the relationship that he made us to have with him.
The great stories of the Old Testament, like the burning bush, remind us how persistent our God has been in his invitation to communion with him. Those same stories show us how even great men like Moses — who conversed with God in the burning bush — could not sustain a relationship of true love with God and neighbor. Moses was not allowed to see the promised land because he grew angry at the rebellious Israelites in the desert. Those Israelites, when they looked at Moses’s face after he came down from the mountain, said “we don’t want to talk directly with God; you talk to him and tell us what to do.” This is where the Mosaic law came from. The people of God could not love God as he loved them. The best they could do was fear him and observe all those laws that Moses gave them. But the laws did not draw them closer to loving God. Indeed, for some the observance of the law became the most important part of a godly relationship. So LAW took the place of LOVE.
When we turn our back on the God of love, there are other gods that we can worship and adore. There were terrible pagan gods like Moloch who demanded child sacrifice, and our modern culture that enables abortion seems to suggest that Moloch is still active in our world. There are less direct gods like Honor and Power and Wealth. These gods also demand sacrifices when we worship and serve them. The god of Honor demands of his servants that we sacrifice humility. The Power god demands that we sacrifice gentleness for ambition. Mammon demands that we sacrifice temperance for greed.
We live today 21 centuries after Jesus gave his disciples this new commandment, and the world today remains with its back turned to its creator and its lover. The new commandment that Jesus gave us is in some ways harder to observe then all those laws of Moses. One could follow those 600 rules even if one’s heart was not really in them. The new law of love requires total commitment on our part. The love that Jesus is describing is the love of Christ on the cross.
You may remember a couple of weeks ago when father explained that there are more words for love in the ancient languages. This new commandment of love is a love that is greater than the love better called affection. Affection is only intense for a moment and it passes when the new affection takes its place. This new commandment of love is a love that is greater than the love better called desire, which seeks the good of the self through the pursuit and possession of another. This new commandment of love is a love greater than the love better called brotherhood, which binds us together in a common pursuit or call. This new commandment of love is a love of self-giving for the good of the other.
This new commandment of love demands a life of constant conversion, and we should be not discouraged by this requirement when we think of Christ on the way to the cross. He stumbled, and he got up again. He cried out to God in agony from the cross. We can only live this new commandment of love if we are willing to stumble and get back up again, and if we are willing to cry out to God in our suffering.
We can only live this new commandment of love if we keep in the forefront of our minds the promise of the crucifixion and Easter resurrection. In the vision that we receive in the book of Revelation today, John sees a new heaven and a new earth. That is the promise of Christ. Our stumbling and our suffering are merely bumps and bruises on the way to the new Jerusalem. We were made in love and we were made for love by our God who is love and who loves us more deeply than we can grasp. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that all who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life. God sent his son down to live with us and be like us in all things but sin because he loves us and wants us to return to a communion of love with him and with our neighbor. And this is how the world will know that we are his disciples: that we love one another as he has loved us.
In a world that has turned its back on God, our love for each other — that self-emptying love that seeks the good of the other perfectly shown to us by Christ on the cross — will be the sign that God and his love are still available to those whose backs are still turned to him. Just as the Israelites of old dared not look on God directly, our brothers and sisters of the world will not or cannot see God directly. But they see us. How we live, how we love each other, is how they will see God.
So let us commit to a life of love that will be a sign to the world of God’s presence. When we are slighted and our honor has been disrespected, let us choose to turn the other cheek rather than give in to pride. When we who sit in positions of power do not receive the deference due to our status, let us respond with gentleness and patience rather than an angry rebuke. When we don’t have enough money for the things we want, let us thank God for what we do have that is worth more than all the money in the world: an invitation from the God of love to have a loving relationship with him.