St Aldhelm’s, Vulcan

Merciful God, you have prepared for those who love you riches beyond imagination. Pour into our hearts such love toward you, that we, loving you above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

May the words of my lips, and the thoughts and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Introduction

I heard that last week the Archbishop was here. Fr Gordon warned me that the Archbishop had given a 22-minute sermon and that I ought not feel the need to outdo him. I don’t really think I could. The Archbishop is a funny and engaging speaker who can preach without notes. So maybe I can’t outdo him in wit or oratory, but perhaps I can outdo him in the last refuge of the public speaker: brevity.

Our Gospel Reading today continues what is often termed Christ’s ‘farewell discourse’ his final message to his closest followers, friends and witnesses prior to his arrest.

Christ knew what was coming. He knew he would be betrayed. He knew he would be crucified. He knew he would be resurrected. He knew why. And he knew this was the last chance he would have to speak to his disciples before all of that took place.

In your own life, if you have ever been faced with a situation where you are with someone who you love and who you will not see again soon, what do you discuss? Do you discuss the weather? Do you have other idle small talk? Or do you take your final moments to say something important?

That is what Jesus is doing here. In just under a quarter of the entire Gospel of St John, Jesus offers these final words, this farewell discourse. What he chooses to share here is of fundamental importance to our Christian life.

Last Sunday, the Gospel passage was the vine and branches passage. There, Jesus explained the importance of bearing good fruit.[1] Our Gospel today builds on this notion by answering the question “what does that fruit look like?”

As we heard it today, Christ says to abide in his love by keeping his commandments, just as he has kept the commandments of the Father.[2] Okay, but what commandment, Jesus?

Back in Chapter 13, after washing the disciples’ feet Jesus proclaimed, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”[3] We hear this reading every Maundy Thursday. The term Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum which means commandment.

The Commandment of Christ

In our Gospel today, Jesus repeats himself, saying, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”[4] In our day and age, this passage has become somewhat difficult for us to apply and understand. Mostly because the words we use have many meanings beyond what Jesus was saying here.

There are really three sections to this verse that impact the way people interpret it. First, this is my commandment. Second, that you love one another. Finally, as I have loved you. Each of these three components needs to be understood and applied, or we risk misunderstanding this supremely important teaching of Jesus.

First, when Jesus says “this is my commandment” there is a risk here of thinking that this is all there is. This is common today among those who seek to deny the divinity of Jesus and instead want to focus on the idea of Jesus as being a good teacher. If this is all Jesus commands, then the rest of the Bible can easily be ignored. That is wrong, though. This is a reference back to the fact that Jesus is giving a new commandment, as he put it at the Last Supper. He is giving a summation of all his instruction, but as he also says not a single stroke of a letter of the law will pass until all is accomplished.[5]

Writing in the late 300s, St Ephraim the Syrian argues that this cannot be a single commandment that supersedes all others in the Bible, because Jesus,

also said, “Do not kill,” because the one who loves does not kill. He said, “Do not steal,” because the one who loves does even more—he gives. He said, “Do not lie,” for the one who loves speaks the truth, against falsehood. “I give you a new commandment.” If you have not understood what “This is my commandment” means, let the apostle be summoned as interpreter and say, “The goal of his commandment is love.”[6]

In other words, Jesus demonstrates that the law is fulfilled through a specific kind of love. That’s why he continues by saying that the commandment is to love one another as the second component of the passage. This is another point where people really seem to misinterpret. Taking these first two together, you get John Lennon’s “All You Need is Love.” That it is the only commandment and that the commandment is to be nice to other people. Neither of those things is really true, though.

Love is a complicated concept in the Bible. In English we use one word, love, to cover a range of very different things. For instance, the love that Fr Gordon professes for Bev is quite different than the love he professes for me. Or I hope it is. CS Lewis in his appropriately titled The Four Loves explores the nature of the four different categories of love, each of which has its own separate word in the original Greek of the Bible.

The first is storge, the love of affection. This is the love we feel towards family members and friends. It is a love that comes from enjoying something or someone. It is often rooted in relationships that define them: family members, friends, neighbours and so on.

The second love is Phileo, the love of friendship. True love in this sense is a bond that brings two people together out of mutual support for one another that goes beyond mere shared interests. This isn’t just about your neighbour who you meet up with on occasion. This is David and Johnathan, a covenantal, purposeful friendship that goes deeper than almost any other bond.

The third love is eros, the type of romantic love most people likely first think of when they hear the word love. It’s usually what we mean when we talk about being in love.

Finally, there is the fourth and greatest love, which Lewis terms charity but in Greek is a word some of you may have heard before: agape. It is the self-giving love that St Paul is describing in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”[7] This is the love of God, and it is this love that Christ speaks of here.

We know that Christ means this form of love because of the Greek, but even if it were the same word with four different meanings, the third part of this passage would confirm which meaning Christ intended. Christ does not simply say, “love one another,” but he says “love one another as I have loved you.”

The Example of Love

It is Christ who has demonstrated the self-sacrificial love that we are to emulate. He states this very clearly in the next verse when he says that the greatest form of love is, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[8] Going back to Paul in first Corinthians, this is what he means. If you want to lay down your life for your friends, then start by being patient, being kind, not being envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. When you consider the needs of others before yourself, you are moving towards the love Christ commanded.

But I said earlier, the love here is about more than just being kind. The world commands us to be kind to one another. But we are not called to follow the commands of the world,[9] but to follow the commands of Christ. We follow the model of Christ. “As I have loved you.”

Of our Gospel reading today, these five words are the most important. He’s telling us its not enough to hold loving affection for everyone, to be friendly with everyone or that his will is fulfilled in romance. Jesus tells us to give ourselves up for others. He also shows us the fulfilment of the law, that again the definition of “nice” or “loving” comes from the Law, not from shifting standards set by society. We follow the example of Christ who himself was the perfect fulfilment of the law.[10]

Following Christ

Okay, so we know what we are called to do, but how do we do it? What is the source of the love that I am commanded to show?

In the case of the love of affection, it’s our relationship with them. That they are family and friends. In filial love, it is a love that is born of a very specific kind of friendship and intimacy that has been created often over time and is defined in some formal acknowledgement of covenant. I don’t mean a legal contract, but rather that the two people have acknowledged their love for one another and are able to work together towards a mutual goal of at least supporting one another.

Romantic love is an interesting case. If you want to get down to it, there are biological factors that affect attraction and what we understand to be love. But when we think of love in its most positive forms, when we think of Holy Matrimony, we recognize that there is some element of God in there.

When we come to this self-sacrificial love, the source of it must be God, for it is Christ who embodies this love in that he became incarnate and died for our sakes.[11] It is the grace of God that gives us humility to bear with one another, to lay down our lives for one another and to do so over and over. St Peter asked Jesus how many times he needed to forgive someone who sinned against him. Not seven times, Jesus says, but seventy-seven times.[12] It is much the same with laying down your life for others.

Conclusion

Before you can lay down your life for others, you must lay aside your own life for Christ.

It’s not some coincidence that this passage comes immediately following Christ’s call to abide in him and be nourished by him. To be loved by him and to love through him. Christ has just said we must abide in him so that, like the branch that abides in the vine, we, abiding in Christ, will be nourished and be able to bear the good fruit of love for one another.

All of humanity falls short of love. Whether it’s misunderstanding the love we are called to show or, failing that, to even show any kind of love at all. We are living in a fallen humanity. Jesus offers us a solution. He is the solution. He offers us grace to enable us to love another, just as he showed us what it means to love one another.

He offers us grace in the Word written. He offers us grace in the Eucharist. He offers us grace in prayer. He offers us grace through the community of the Church, his Body.

To lay aside your life means to recognize how you fall short and the need to draw on his grace to enable you over and over to lay down your life for others.

Dear friends, take to heart Christ’s command: love one another, as he has loved us. Do not let yourself be distracted by the world, which will try to tell you something different about what it means to love. Loving each other has nothing to do with romance or being nice; it has everything to do with being Jesus. It is hard. We fall short. We, in our own limits, can never love others as Jesus loves them. So Jesus himself offers to strengthen us, to empower us and to equip us to love others.

May we always turn to Christ to be nourished by him so that we can turn to others and share the gift of his love with them.

Amen.

[1] St Jn xv. 1-8

[2] St Jn xv. 9, 10

[3] St Jn xiii. 34

[4] St Jn xv. 12

[5] St Mt v. 18

[6] St Ephraim the Syrian, Commentary on Tatian’s Diatesseron 19.13 (ACCS NT 4b: 173)

[7] I Cor xiii. 4-7

[8] St Jn xv. 13

[9] Rm xii. 1

[10] St Mt v. 17

[11] Rm v. 8

[12] St Mt xviii. 21-22

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