Context is one of the most important concepts in human civilization and yet it is what we seem to ignore the most. Jesus has never been clearer with his instruction than what we just heard from John’s Gospel. When Jesus says “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” he is not just reinforcing a habit or pleasantry, like when the adults in our lives remind us to say please and thank you. He is telling us that no matter what a person has done to us, to other people, or any portion of creation, we must love them. Which may seem like a bit of a leap since we know Jesus was talking to his friends in this passage, since he says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” so isn’t it possible that he was just talking to them? Well, everything is possible, but not everything is true, which is why context matters.
What is left out of this morning’s reading is the rest of John’s version of the last supper. John makes it clear that Jesus knows that the end has come, he knows that God has placed the choice in his hands, he knows that one of the disciples, one of his friends, is going to betray him; and what does he do with this information? He kneels before his friends and washes their feet, including the feet of the person he knows is going to betray him for money; he eats dinner with them, reminding them to give thanks to God whenever they do so; and then after he allows Judas to leave to carry out his plot, he tells the rest to always love each other just like he loves them. Which sounds quaint to our ears but let’s review the context of those words. Over the past few hours Jesus has sat with a person he knew was going to betray him to his death. He knelt before that person, looked them in the eyes and washed their feet, he enjoyed a meal with them and then revealed who that person was, not to stop him, but to ensure that the rest of the disciples knew that Jesus held no ill feeling towards him. It is right after these events that today’s passage begins, so when Jesus says “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you…” it is within the context of how they all saw and heard Jesus treating the person who just left to ensure his death. Loving people you like and agree with is easy and that is not what Jesus’ commandment to love is about. He is reinforcing the idea that we must love everyone, including the people we find it the most difficult to love.
I want you all to take a moment and think of a person you really don’t like. Maybe it’s someone you work or go to school with; maybe it’s that one cashier at the grocery store who just irks you; maybe it’s your sister or your uncle, who try to make everything about them; maybe it’s me. (Wait a good 20 seconds) Do you have someone in mind? Now ask yourself, can you see yourself sitting down listening to their story, and not make it about yourself? Because that is what it means to love them. It means listening to the cashier drone on about things you don’t care about without rolling your eyes. It means letting your coworker have a meltdown in your office, even though you have deadlines to meet, and you actually don’t agree with them; it means inviting that one relative no one likes because they deserve to have a nice holiday just as much as anyone else. It is also more than these things though, it requires that you genuinely listen and tend to the needs of these people, not just be polite. Jesus did not tolerate the presence of Judas at the last supper, he wanted him there and he treated him like everyone else.
There are many things that we do as Christians that get mistaken for Love. They are absolutely on the right side of what it means to be a faithful follower of Christ Jesus and they are absolutely good things to be doing, but in the end, they fall short of the example set by Jesus. Feeding and housing the poor because they are poor is not love, it’s charity. If we truly loved the poor, we would talk to them, invite them into our homes to share our food purely because they are people, not because they are poor.
Hanging a “black lives matter” sign in our front yards is not a sign of love, it is an emotional response to something that most of us have no way to understand, and however well intentioned the motivations are, it is not going to solve the issues plaguing our country. If we truly love our black brothers and sisters then we need to talk to them; we need to ask them how they feel and actually wait around to hear the response; and when we feel uncomfortable hearing what they have to say, and we will feel uncomfortable, then we need to keep listening and not try to fix it; we need to ask them how they want us to help, instead of assuming that we need to come to the rescue.
Sometimes love means doing things that we don’t want to do. I would imagine that Jesus didn’t really want to wash the feet or break bread with the person he knew was going to sell him out for a few coins; but he did it anyway. He was and is the walking embodiment of love and humility, which go hand in hand. If we claim we love someone but continually attempt to change them, are we really loving them? Humility requires that we accept things as they are, without judgment. So, when we decide to feed a person, we need to feed the person and not their poverty. When we decide to speak out about violence, we need to do so from a place of acceptance of our role in the system that enacts and perpetuates that violence, only then will it be about love.
I want to be clear that I am not advocating that we stop all the things we feel called to do, what I am saying is that we need to take the time to ensure that our motivations are clear. If we can’t explain why we need to do something, then we need to take some time to figure that out because treating the symptoms of larger issues such as poverty and violence will do nothing more than make ourselves feel good and that means that it is about our egos and not the Love of God. Amen.