Our gospel text today lies in the middle of a long passage running from chapter 13 to chapter 17 in which John the Evangelist recounts Jesus’ conversation with his disciples at the last supper, beginning with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Scholars call this the “Farewell Discourse,” and it is far longer than any other conversation recorded by John or the other gospel writers. John’s text was written about 60 years after the events it records, and of course we have no way of knowing how accurate it is to the actual conversation. Matthew, Mark, and Luke say almost nothing about that last conversation except remarks having to do with the blessing of the bread and wine from which we take our Eucharistic ritual, something John omits to mention. John’s intent was to give a kind of theological summary of Jesus’ sense of his mission and directions for the disciples. So he selected sayings of Jesus, or perhaps his own paraphrases, that add up to this theological statement as understood by John and his community. Whether Jesus actually said these things in this order on this occasion is not the point, although in many other respects John is the most historically accurate of the gospels. The Farewell Discourse is edited with John’s understanding of Jesus’ theology, the most comprehensive understanding we have in the New Testament. This Discourse is the Jesus we know through the earliest witnesses.
Our text for today is the part of the Farewell Discourse in which Jesus says that, if the disciples love him, they will keep his commandments. Notice that the motivation for keeping the commandments is that the disciples love Jesus, as he has loved them and taught them to love one another. All this comes, Jesus says, because God the Father loves him and them, and Jesus’ work has been to demonstrate this love. Under ordinary circumstances, we might think that the proper motivation for keeping the commandments is simply that they are obligatory. Or if we are selfish, we might think that the motivation is to get some divinely bestowed reward or avoid punishment. For Jesus, however, the fundamental phenomenon of the faith, the most important religious reality, is love. His disciples, whom we now call Christians, are supposed to take this love as the grounding context for all Christian life. When they, or we, do this, Jesus says that we have the Holy Spirit as an advocate and guide for how to live in a world full of troubles.
Our text comes shortly after this remarkable saying by Jesus: “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.” Most of the Farewell Discourse has to do with explicating this commandment, which serves as a kind of summary for all the other commandments of Jesus concerning justice, mercy, help for the poor, release of prisoners, opening the eyes of the blind, and the rest. Jesus was particularly concerned about the avoidance of hypocrisy and in our text calls the Holy Spirit the Spirit of Truth. We know the general content of Jesus’ teachings, which he summed up elsewhere as loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as our self. In John’s gospel, our capacity to love one another is intimately bound up with God’s love for us and our love for God, as understood through Jesus and what he did.
Now the problem with this spirituality of love is that it can become syrupy piety that makes us feel good while disguising the fact that we live in anything but loving ways. So reflect with me, if you will, on what forms love might take in our lives so that it might be the genuine center of the Christian life. I want to consider four forms of love: social love, cultural love, family love, and love among friends.
Social love might be hard to think of as love, because society is where institutions put us in touch with people we do not know personally. Of the themes of Jesus’ teachings, justice and peacemaking are the most prominent elements of social love. Justice has three classic forms. Distributive justice is the fair distribution of the world’s goods and opportunities. What fairness consists in might be debatable in some situations, but injustice in distribution is cheating and the abuse of power, about which Jesus was scathing. Our own nation’s current policies get poor marks for distributive justice, withdrawing entitlements for the poor to pay for tax cuts for the rich and their wars to secure economic dominance; we also do not do well in protecting the resources of the environment. Retributive justice is the determination of guilt regarding evildoers, holding them responsible, and exacting punishment appropriate to the crime. Jesus had a prophet’s anger regarding evildoers, particularly those with social power. But paradoxically he also hailed mercy and forgiveness as the proper responses to guilt, urging the wicked to repent and amend their ways. Our justice system seems to favor those who can afford fancy lawyers and crushes the souls of the poor for whom prison seems a part of their culture. Restorative justice, the third kind, aims to reconcile aggrieved parties who have been hurt by injustice and who might continue on a downward spiral of recrimination if mutual respect is not restored. Restorative justice became popular first in South Africa where its institutions allowed the victims of Apartheit to confront their oppressors and forced the oppressors to sit and listen. Restorative justice, about which we have courses here in the Boston University School of Theology, aims to heal social wounds, and is perhaps the clearest form of social love. Peacemaking, of course, is the center of Christian activism at the social level and sets Christians in our time against our government’s policy of the use of force to get our way. War is never kind, to the winners or losers, even when it is necessary.
Cultural love is closely tied to social love and it has to do with those institutions and practices that give meaning to our lives. Our souls are formed around patterns of ethnic, linguistic, culinary, historical, and mythic identity. We have wealthy cultures and modest cultures, youth cultures and mature cultures; pity the cities that do not have the Red Sox. Our souls find meaning and fulfillment in the particularities of culture. Within contemporary Christianity, some people find meaning in high church liturgies, others in free church worship, some in classical sacred music, others in the culture of praise music. Cultures are always particular and have certain patterns that exclude other patterns. Yet the principal Christian model of love in all this is to celebrate inclusive table fellowship. Jesus ate with rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, saint and sinner. His example of the good neighbor was a Samaritan whose culture was in a hostile relation to Jesus’ own. In our time the great issues of inclusiveness have to do with racism, equality for women, full acceptance of gay and lesbian people, and overcoming national chauvinism in the clash of civilizations. A large group in America has defined the particularity of its cultural identity in terms of white superiority, keeping women in unfree roles, misrepresenting gay and lesbian people as intrinsically sinful, and caricaturing other cultures. The attempt to force this narrow cultural identity on others is an exercise in cultural hate. Cultural love seeks ways to respect the particularity of cultures while insisting that respectable cultures respect others.
Family love is the most familiar form of love in our society, though it was not always so. In Jesus’ time families were difficult economic institutions, placing heavy burdens on women and those with no families. For us, however, marriages are supposed to be founded on love, and are the social institutions in which children learn how to love, parents learn to love children, siblings learn to love those with whom they compete, and nuclear families learn to love those others who are outside their circle. To be sure, contemporary families can be corrupted to replace genuine love with consumerist selections and rejections of mates, to put women into new forms of bondage, to make life hell for gay and lesbian children, and to teach distortion and fear of people different from oneself. How ironic that many people who oppose gay marriage do so in the name of family values, when marriage is the very thing we should offer gay and lesbian people if it is so much the institution valuing love! What kind of family values do they have in mind? Certainly not love. The forms of family love foster the flourishing of all those in the family and those outside who are affected by the family.
Doubts about the family, at least as it was structured in his time, are probably what led Jesus to say nothing good about it and explicitly to substitute his voluntary organization of friends as the primary vehicle for his commandment to love one another. His relationship with the disciples has become the model for the Church in a certain respect. Of course the Church is large enough to be a society, and particular enough to be a culture. Sometimes the Church identifies with families so much that those without families are left out. Jesus’ point, however, is that a true community of loving friends breaks through the limitations of all family, cultural, and social structures. Where social love breaks down with injustice and warmongering, the community of Jesus’ friends needs to be a counter-force. Where cultural love breaks down with exclusion and bigotry, the community of Jesus’ friends needs to create an inclusive pattern of meaning. When family love breaks down into bondage and chauvinism, Jesus’ friends need to set people free and embrace those who otherwise have no place.
Jesus called his friends together for a mission, actually a continuation of his own mission, which is to create communities of friends who love one another. To love other people is not just to have a sentiment about them, but to make them better people, which means, to make them better lovers. Love is false unless it includes justice, deference to those different from ourselves, commitment to engage the issues of our time, and taking responsibility for what we make of ourselves. To make someone a better lover requires helping them with all these things, at the social, cultural, and familial levels. This commandment to love is very daunting, is it not? Are we not then blessed to have Jesus’ example of friendship? The love in friendship is where our souls are brought into existence. The greatest hurt to our souls comes from failed friendship. The greatest power of healing is in merciful loving friendship. Our friends are with us in the peak moments of experience, and also in the depths of despair; they companion us daily. They forgive us our forgetfulness and encourage us to push always to better life. The greatest friend was Jesus whose love of the unruly disciples brought them to love one another, and whose acceptance of God’s love allowed him, and the disciples to love God in return. Is that not the reconciliation of ourselves to God and one another? Praise be to God for Jesus our Friend who redeems our life and whose Spirit can make Jesus our Beloved.