The Simplest and Most Difficult Commandment

Although we are in the Fifth Sunday after the resurrection, our gospel passage today comes from shortly before Jesus’ betrayal and execution. Jesus and the disciples are gathered together in an upper room that they rented to spend some time together and to observe the Passover.

During this time, Jesus took of his outer robe (like someone would take off their tie and roll up their sleeves to work) and wrapped a towel around himself. Jesus took a basin from the corner of the room and poured water into it. Jesus kneelt down onto the ground and asked the disciples to remove their sandals. One by one, Jesus took their feet into his hands and poured water over them. He then dried their feet with the towel that we put on his waist.

You see, in the ancient world, people walked everywhere and they would wear sandals. The roads were not paved, of course, unless you were in the big cities, and feet often became dirty and dusty. Hosts would provide water for washing feet and sometimes a servant to do it for them. It was a basic act of hospitality, of caring for those who God has brought to them.

So in this moment, Jesus humbles himself to serve his disciples — makes me think of what Jesus taught before that, “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

One by one, Jesus took the feet of each of the disciples into his hands. Poured water over them, cleaned them, and then dried them, gently placing them back down.  When Jesus came to Peter, however, he protested, it was not right, therefore, for the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the savior and redeemer of the world to humble himself before the disciples. Finally, he allowed Jesus to wash his feet, and after Jesus finished washing the feet of all of the disciples, he put back on his outer robe (unrolls his sleeves and puts his tie back on), and sat down at the table with them again.

“Do you realize what just happened?” Jesus asked them.  Jesus was great at turning every moment into a symbolic and teachable moment.

“You call me Teacher and Lord,” Jesus continued, “and you are right, that is what I am. If I am your Teacher and your master, and I have washed your feet, then you must wash each other’s feet. I have been an example to you, and you must follow this example.”

Jesus was telling his disciples not simply to wash each other’s feet, but to care for one another, serve one another, take on humble tasks to help one another. Jesus was telling the disciples to submit to one another, not because one is lesser and one is greater, but because those who humble themselves will be exalted, but those who exalt themselves will be humbled.

You see, Jesus did not become lower than his disciples. Similarly, the disciples did not suddenly become higher or more important than Jesus, but still, Jesus stooped down, took their dirty feet, and cleaned them with his own hands.

The gospel writer now tells us that Jesus was troubled in spirit, as he told the disciples that one of them will betray him. Peter asked, “Who is it?” Jesus tells him that the one to whom he gives the bread that he dipped into the oil will be the one. Jesus takes the bread and hands it to Judas and we are told that Satan entered him, “Go quickly and do what you must do,” Jesus tells him.

The rest of the disciples don’t quite get what is going on. Now, Judas was the treasurer, and some thought that Jesus was telling him to buy the things that they needed for the festival, others thought that Jesus was telling Judas to give something to the poor. It seems simple to us, but in real life, it was a very enigmatic — mysterious, confusing — moment.

Judas, then, takes his piece of bread and goes his way.

This is where we enter the story, right as Judas is leaving the upper room with the disciples.

Jesus then tells them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

One thing that I often think about, is why does Jesus call this a new commandment?  Love for one another has always been a commandment, way back in Leviticus we can read this, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Lev 19:18). So love for one another has always been a part of our faith all the way back to the beginning.

This commandment, then, is not so much new as in never before heard of but new as in renewed, enhanced. You know the line, “New and improved”? This is the commandment that Jesus gives to us. The commandment to love one another is new and improved, enhanced, strengthened. We are not just to love others like we do ourselves, we are to love one another as Jesus has loved us.  As Jesus loves us.

Jesus continues, “‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”

Here Jesus lays down the simplest and and most difficult thing possible.  It is simple, love each other. But it is incredibly difficult, love each other.  You see, Jesus didn’t say, “love those who love you,” he didn’t say, “love those who are easy to love,” he didn’t even say, “love those who are kind to you.”  Jesus said, As I have loved you, love one another.

How many of you have someone in your life who you think is simply unlovable? How about this a bit closer to home. Look around the sanctuary, take a good look at everyone here. How many of you think that someone sitting in here is unlovable   See, if we cannot even love the 50 to 60 of us who gather here every week, we can see how difficult this command can be.

Jesus gives us this command not because it is easy, but because it important.  In fact, it is so important that Jesus tells them that the way that others will be able to recognize Jesus’ disciples is if they love one another. Not by wearing a cross, not by going to church, not by speaking religious language, but by love. Wearing a cross is fine, I do so. But that does not make me a follower of Jesus. Going to church is crucial, all Christians must gather together regularly, scripture is abundantly clear about this, but simply showing up to church does not make one a Christian. Speaking in the language of faith, talking about faith and Jesus is good, but simply speaking this language or knowing Bible verses does not make someone a Christian.  How do we know a Christian, a follower of Jesus?  We know them by their love for one another.

Surely not those who are unlovable right pastor?

I want to remind you that Jesus knew clearly what Judas was going to do. When Jesus washed the disciples feet, Judas was there. Shortly after Jesus gives this command to love one another, Jesus will demonstrate such love to die for people, even people who are unable to love Jesus on their own. Jesus could have said any number of things, but Jesus tells them to love one another.

But Jesus doesn’t just tell them to love however they feel like it, we are called to strive to love others as Jesus has loved (and loves) us. But how does Jesus love?

Theologian William Barclay notes four characteristics of Jesus’ love:

First, it is selfless. Jesus’ love for his disciples was so great that Jesus’ entire life was directed at them, not asking himself, “what do I get out of this?” So also must our love be focused on caring for the other person rather than what we can get out of the arrangement.

Second, it is sacrificial. Jesus will do whatever it takes to continue in love, even if it leads to a beating and a grotesque execution. Sometimes we may think that the goal of love is to give us happiness. But what Jesus shows us that sometimes love demands pain and a cross.

Third, it is understanding. Jesus knew his disciples. We often show up in the same building once a week at most, and many times we don’t really even get to know one another or know what is going on in one another’s lives. Jesus was deeply involved in the lives of the disciples not because he wanted to point out this thing or that thing that they did wrong, but because he wanted to know them, to understand them, so that he could love them better. Real love is not loving an ideal, but loving someone how they are.

Fourth, it is forgiving. Peter was going to deny Jesus at the very time when Jesus needed him most. Yet what did Jesus do?  Jesus reinstated him, forgave him, reached out to him, and welcomed him back into the fold. True love is based on forgiveness and always involves forgiveness.  Loving like Jesus requires that we can forgive even the most painful of betrayals, even when it hurts so badly to do so.

Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.

Loving is hard, and perfect love is something we will not attain, this side of redemption. But love is not something that is completely unattainable.  Think of a time in the past week, when you have chosen love. Think of a time when you could have acted in a number of ways, but you acted in a loving way. Perhaps you worked to be more understanding of another even when it was difficult, perhaps you sacrificed in some way to benefit another, perhaps you had a moment when you were thinking not of yourself, but fully of what is better for the other person. Perhaps there was a moment when someone wronged you and you really felt that you were in the right, but you offered forgiveness. These are all ways that we behave in love.

Take a moment to think about it. Think about what happened, think about what you were feeling and what you were thinking.

Now, I want you to think about a time in the past week or so when you found it hard to love. Perhaps you were simply not able (or willing) to try to truly understand the other person or where the other person was coming from. Perhaps you were not interested in thinking of the other over yourself, or you found it really hard to sacrifice. Perhaps you could not forgive someone for whatever reason.

Take a moment to think about it. Think about what happened, think about what you were feeling, and what you were thinking.

You see, we do love people, regularly, and we do fail, regularly. It is right for us to give thanks to God for allowing us those times when we have loved others, and we can pray to God to give us strength to be able to love others when we have not.

Remember this, loving someone else begins not with them, but with you. To truly love someone, the work is not that they need to make themselves lovable, but that we need to be more loving. If you can’t love those whom you don’t think deserve it, we can never truly love anyone. If we find ourselves unable to love we must first look in a mirror, we must look inside of ourselves, because the capacity to love others begins within.

Shortly after Jesus gives this command, Jesus goes on, not only to talk about love but to show love. To exhibit love. To redeem a world which rejected him, to bring true light into a world who loves darkness. Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected because “God so loved the world.” So even in those times when we fail to love, we can remember that God extends love to us, and God grants us grace to, little by little, grow in our capacities to love one another. After all, we love because God first loved us (1 Jn 4:19).

2 responses to “The Simplest and Most Difficult Commandment”

  1. This message really spoke to me. I’ve been trying (reluctantly!) to help two friends who are in conflict; points 3 and 4 about understanding and forgiveness are very helpful in that context. For myself, though, the first 2 points, sacrifice and selflessness, hit home the most. I’m grateful that God gives us the grace to love one another. Thanks for sharing this today.

    1. So glad to hear that you found it helpful! Helping people who are in conflict is very difficult — as you well know. I find that understanding and forgiveness are the most important. I’ve heard before, that we apologize not because we were necessarily wrong and the other person necessarily right, but we apologize because the relationship is more valuable than simply being right. Thanks for reading and for sharing, Jeannie.

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