Love one another – but how?

RCL Year C, 5 Easter

Love one another. I’m assuming this won’t be a new idea to you.

It probably wasn’t a new idea to Jesus’ disciples either, of course. But it did become a pretty central piece to their community after Jesus was gone. We hear a lot about that in the book of Acts, stories of what those early disciples were doing as they began to figure out just what it meant to be a follower of Jesus without Jesus around. But of course, all of these stories about the early church were told by, well, the early church – the writer of Acts (possibly Luke), and also Paul in his letters. There are a few other sources to draw on, however, letters and histories written by both non-Christians and Christians. And indeed, from these other sources, it appears that at least when positive things were noted about Christian communities (which wasn’t always), the early Christians were known for two things: the brave, faithful way they approached death in the persecutions, often singing as they were tortured and killed; and the way they loved and took care of one another – regardless of social class and usual boundaries. So it seems that the early church was already pretty good at following Jesus’ commandment to love one another.

Jesus seemed to have taught about love a fair bit, and showed it a powerful way through his life and death. And he was remarkably broad-minded about whom he loved, eating with and gathering a community of tax collectors and sinners. It took a little while for the early church to start living into this inclusiveness after Jesus was gone – Peter in the Acts reading today has to learn the lesson that the old boundaries don’t apply, and then to try to convince his fellow Christians of that as well. ‘What power do I have to stand in God’s way?’ he says. The early church was realizing that God wanted this mission to extend to all people. Of course, this doesn’t seem like a new idea either, especially for all of us Gentiles – though it’s nice to hear of how through a series of visions from God and encounters with other people, we got included in the church, of course, it all happened quite a long time ago. Later the whole balance of power shifted, and the church became all Gentile – and pretty anti-Semitic, ironically. So in a way, the story of how the Gentiles got included is pretty moot. But hearing these two readings together, the commandment to love one another and Peter’s coming to terms with who was going to be part of this community – it does make us stop and wonder: Have we yet learned the lesson? Do we love one another? And who is ‘one another’ anyway?

One hint is to remember what the context is of Jesus’ commandment. This is at the last supper, during which Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet, and told them to do the same to remember him. And then, after this love he shows each one of them, Judas leaves to betray him, setting in motion the events that will lead to Jesus’ death. After he leaves, Jesus tells them to love one another, just as he has loved them. Peter asserts how much he loves Jesus and is ready to die for him. Jesus says, well, nice words, Peter, but – before the cock crows, you will deny me three times. And not much longer after this, Peter does just that. It’s a heck of a time to be talking about love, in other words. This commandment to love is not about having nice feelings in happy times. It’s something pretty radical, not something soft and cozy.

So what, again, does it mean to love as Jesus loves us?  Jesus, it seems, loved with a strong, abiding, faithful, to-the-end love, expressed in action. He doesn’t seem particularly sentimental in the gospels – usually he’s pretty intense, wanting them to understand who he is, urgently preaching and spreading the news of God’s kingdom as much as he can. The love Jesus shows is not a feeling – it’s the enduring, abiding will to do whatever God sends him to do. So it’s something like that that we’re supposed to do as well

We need to get more specific, I think.

– Loving one another like this would mean that if right now you don’t really know the person next to you, you’d make a point of getting to know them.  And not just the surface details, what they do for a living, what they’re doing after church today, what they think of the news. Instead, you’d have to get to know their needs and hopes and desires, what was really true for them at a deep level. And then knowing about those, you’d see what you could do to help them, in tangible practical ways.

– Loving one another like this would also mean that you would tell the people next to you what you need and hope and desire, and you would ask them to help you. And you’d let them do it.

– And then you’d keep going, more of this with every Christian you met. You’re a follower of Jesus? So am I. How can I care for you? How can you care for me?

– And then you would take that series of examples of love in action, all the ways you’d been practicing it within the Christian community, and fed and trained by those experiences, you would find ways to reach out to people who weren’t Christian, to offer that same love and care for them, whoever they were. Because all of them are part of God’s intended community.

It’s a little daunting, isn’t it? Maybe especially the part that requires us to be vulnerable to others, to ask their help. We like being the one who helps – we like it much less when we’re the needy ones that others are helping.

But this is a school of love that we’re part of. Which means we’re learning. Everyone learns how to love and care for others in their lives – we all start out, as children, basically self-centered and selfish, and we slowly learn to love others and sometimes even to put them before ourselves. There’s a basic level of this we all attain, unless we’re sociopaths.

But if we’re Christians, we’re meant to keep going in that education process. We’re supposed to go further than the average person, not to stall out with being ‘nice’ and good citizens according to the rules of society. We’re supposed to practice constantly putting others before ourselves – the way you have to do with your children if you’re a parent, you’d do that with everyone you met.

So how do we manage this unearthly task? Where do we get the love to love with? We get it from God’s love for us.  Which means we might have to stop long enough to remember – that yes, even me, even me God loves enough to die for. Even me, Jesus loved with that fierce, demanding, radical kind of love. Maybe we don’t feel it every moment; maybe we don’t feel loving toward others very often. But feel it or not, we are still commanded to live this love out as Christians.

So this week, try stepping a little further on this path. You already love one another in this church and in your families, but perhaps there’s something more you can do for one another. Or something more you can allow another to do for you. Maybe there’s something you can practice out there in the world, driving in a more loving way on the freeway, speaking more kindly to your neighbor, spending time with the lonely person in the room next to the friend you’re visiting in the hospital. Do a little more, and learn even more how to love. Love one another as I have loved you, said Jesus. Amen.