In the words of our text today, the Lord Jesus lays before you a duty which is true for every Christian in every age. “Love one another.” It isn’t an optional extra to the Christian life, but a command to be obeyed. Every follower of Jesus has an obligation to love every other follower of Jesus. Which means that in the church, we are bound together by ties of love.
In the last two weeks, I have preached on loving God whole-heartedly, and loving your neighbour as yourself. Jesus speaks of these as the first and second commandments – commandments that demand your heartfelt and life-long commitment.
Today, I want to follow up by focusing on this great commandment that the Lord Jesus has laid on all who are true Christians.
It’s a particular application of “loving your neighbour”. This commandment tells you the positive way in which you should be responding to every other follower of the Lord Jesus in the church. And if we would only take this seriously, church life and relationships would be vastly different, and would be a powerful witness to the watching world of the truth of the Gospel and how Christ changes lives.
1. The Commandment (verse 34a).
The occasion on which Jesus spoke the words of our text is His last night on earth. In a few short hours, Jesus is going to be arrested, tried, condemned, and nailed to a cross. He will die and be buried; and all of this in less than 24 hours.
It’s a somber and serious time. Judas Iscariot has now left the gathering, and gone to the Jewish religious leaders in order to betray Jesus. Jesus is now alone with these 11 faithful followers He is going to commission as His apostles to establish His church.
And so, Jesus takes this final opportunity to give His disciples some foundational teaching for future church life. And of first importance is the commandment that is before you this morning: “Love one another.” It’s like a last will and testament from the Lord of the church to His people; and so you mustn’t lightly dismiss it. “Even if you forget to do so much else, make sure you carry out this duty that I lay on all of you – love one another”.
It’s called “a new commandment”, but it’s not as though it’s something never heard of before. In Leviticus 19, we read of various practical ways in everyday life that the Israelites were to love one another – or love their neighbour as themselves. However, it is “new” because the commandment is associated with the new covenant that was to be brought into being by the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. A covenant that promises the power of the Holy Spirit to enable you to do what is commanded. A covenant we celebrate in the Lord’s Supper.
So you have received this new commandment to fulfill within the covenant community – the Christian church. You are called on to love one another, and given the ability to do so. And that means you are to serve one another in humility - caring for each other, speaking well of each other, doing what is necessary to advance the welfare of the others in the church.
What if you don’t particularly like the other person, or they irritate you, or you struggle to get along with them? These things don’t let you off the hook! They make the commandment shine brighter. Jesus is reminding you that both you and the person you struggle to get along with are fellow members of His eternal family. And He is calling you to exercise your will to do them good – to be charitable, and not think the worst of others. And hopefully, mutual affection will grow.
You will always be closer to some Christians than others, and that’s OK. Jesus closest earthly friend was the apostle John. Then, a bit further out, there were Peter and James. Beyond them came the rest of the 12. And beyond that group, came the wider circle of followers, which would have included people like Mary Magdalene, Martha and her sister Mary, and Lazarus. Jesus loved them all – did good to them all – but he was closest to John.
So, within your church life there, you will be closer to some than others. But you are duty-bound to love each and every one. That’s what needs to be practised in your congregation and every congregation – doing what will advance the welfare of others; speaking well of one another; valuing each other and humbly serving the needs of all.
May God give us all the power and grace to love even those we find unlovely and do them good, just as Christ has loved you and done you good.
2. The Example (verse 34b).
Jesus not only gives us the command ‘to love one another”, He also gives you the example to follow. For He says in the second half of verse 34, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
Well how has Jesus loved the disciples? In the passage we read from the beginning of John 13, you are shown Jesus taking up the role of a servant – the lowliest slave. When you entered a house in those days, after walking dusty roads, it was usual for the host to have a slave wash the feet of the guests. This was necessary because of the open, sandal-type footwear which gave no protection from the dirt.
When Jesus and the 12 entered the house and upper room where they were to celebrate the Passover meal, no-one wanted to do the dirty, smelly job of foot-washing – not Peter, James or John; not the least of the 12, whoever that might have been.
And so, Jesus takes the position of a lowly slave, and washes everyone’s feet. And He tells the disciples afterwards that He has set them an example. He is rightly called Teacher and Lord. But despite having such an exalted office or position, He willingly served them. And they, the Twelve, must follow His example – not necessarily in foot-washing, but in humble service of one another. Taking the lowly position.
So Jesus shows love for His disciples in a very practical way. And it is an example for us to follow. But that’s not where it ends. Jesus actually points you to an example of love that is far higher and greater – His death on the cross in the place of His disciples. Jesus has loved you so much that He willingly stands in your place under the judgement and wrath of God for your sin. And He cries out: “Punish me, Father, that my followers may go free. I’ll pay the full price that their freedom and eternal life requires. Let the debt be mine, and the “paid in full” be theirs.”
The love and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ for you is extraordinary. He humbled Himself to the condition of a criminal – a sinner – for your eternal benefit and good. And now He calls on you to keep on loving in your relationships with one another.
We have the example of Christ’s love in His death on the cross. How come we aren’t prepared to humble ourselves before one another when we have been loved and forgiven so much? So what if that other person isn’t lovely? So what if they’re somewhat annoying and frustrating? Thank God that Christ didn’t wait until we were lovely, and less annoying and frustrating before He came into this world and suffered and died! We’d have still been waiting!
So we have the command to love one another, following the example of Christ’s great love for us. His love is self-sacrificing, unwearied, tender, gracious and merciful. So let it be with your love for one another.
3. The Witness (verse 35).
In verse 35, Jesus goes on to speak of the powerful witness the mutual love of Christians will be to the watching world. When the unbelievers see Christians relating to each other with kindness and humility and costly love, then they will recognize that we really are followers of the King of love, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Around the year 200AD, the Christian writer, Tertullian, recorded that the heathen were saying, “See how these Christians love one another.” But about 2 centuries later, the Christian preacher and leader, John Chrysostom, complained that Christian men showed all too little love. “Even now,” he wrote, “there is nothing else that causes the heathen to stumble, except that there is no love.”
What is your witness like in this church? Are you causing unbelievers to stumble . . . or drawing them to Christ?
Christ says that the distinguishing mark of His followers is their love for one another. He doesn’t speak of gifts and abilities. He doesn’t say that miracles will be the evidence that we are Christ’s. He doesn’t point to a well-organized, well–run church life and program as the evidence. It is love for one another in the church.
Pray that God would enable your witness as a church to shine more brightly as you learn better how to really love each other in a humble, self-denying, others-promoting way. Who knows how many people might be drawn to Christ and even added to this church if only we took this matter more seriously and grew in this grace? Who knows what spiritual blessing might flow to the Tamworth community simply because they see the extraordinary love you have for one another at TCPC?
Some weeks ago, I read an article in a weekend magazine in a Saturday newspaper. It was about a netball team in Perth that started about 1980. All the members were young Mums at the time, and it was an outlet for them. The team continued playing netball for about 20 years until the years started to take their toll.
The motto for the team was “Here if ya need.” Not a great war cry perhaps, but it served it’s purpose. If you were clear of opponents, you called out to your team member with the ball, “here if you need.” And they supported one another, on the court and off.
What struck me was the way they really were “here if ya need”. Over the 40 years since the team first got together until today, they have continued to help each other – not intruding, but being available, and caring. One member went through a divorce. Another two had children who struggled with drug addiction. One member died from cancer, and at least 2 members were with her at hospital and visited her at home every Friday until the end. Two members turned up out of the blue at the Funeral of a member’s mother-in-law, who they’d never met, loaded with cakes and scones, and helped their friend with the refreshments.
That’s 40 years of “here if ya need”. As I read the article, I was moved by the long-term commitment of these women to one another. And I couldn’t help asking myself, “How well do we do in the church in terms of this sort of support and care for one another?” I know how far short I’ve fallen; what about you? What about this church?
Let me finish by reminding you of the description of Christian love given to us by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
May such love for one another permeate all your relationships with one another in this church.