You are my friends if you do what I command you.
What does Jesus command us? Jesus teaches. He tells stories. He models kindness, righteous anger, self-sacrificial love. He calls people to transformation of heart and life. But does he command?
If you can’t think of one of Jesus’ commandments at the moment, don’t feel bad. There is a fair amount of talk about commandments in the Gospels, the books of the Bible that tell about Jesus’ life and teachings, and in the Epistles, the letters of the early church. But broadly, most of those texts are addressing a big question for the first Christians: In the new relationship with God brought about by and through Jesus Christ, do the commandments of the Old Testament still apply? Are Christians supposed to follow Jewish law?
Jesus’ teaching about the Great Commandment was important for early Christians because it gave them a touchstone for wrestling with that question. Someone asks Jesus, What is the most important commandment, in the whole of Jewish law? The dialogue is a little different in Matthew, Mark, and Luke; Luke is my favorite because Jesus does that teacher thing: “Well, what do *you* think?” And the man says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus says, Yep. That’s it. That’s all the Law you really need.
It took many decades, but Christians eventually resolved that this teaching – and Jesus’ other teachings that touched on law, obedience, and holiness – meant that Christians are not bound by Jewish law, the commandments of the Hebrew Bible.
Today’s Acts lesson gives us a glimpse of the apostle Peter in a moment of epiphany: “Look, the Holy Spirit of God has come down even upon these Gentiles, non-Jews who are unholy and unclean! I guess if God will baptize them with the Spirit, we should baptize them with water!”
So the Great Commandment is powerful stuff. Love God as hard as you can, and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself: If you carry those intentions into daily life, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to put them into practice.
But that’s not what John’s Jesus is talking about here. The Great Commandment doesn’t appear in John’s Gospel. Yet Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” What command does Jesus have in mind, here?
Our Gospel and Epistle today have the same name: John. Biblical scholars talk about a Johannine community – a church that gathered around a particular teacher, identified by tradition with John, one of Jesus’ disciples. That community seems to have received and developed some distinctive memories or understandings about Jesus, which gives the Gospel and the letters that that community produced their special theological perspective. I’ll keep talking about our author here as John, because that’s the easy; but let it be noted that that is a shorthand. We don’t know that the core voice here was a disciple named John; we don’t know that the letters and the gospel were written by the same person, although there is clearly influence and overlap.
These texts that bear John’s name have a distinctive voice in lots of ways.
John’s Gospel overlaps with the other three – Matthew, Mark, and Luke; it’s clearly telling the same story about the same person. But it tells it very differently – with events and characters that don’t appear, or appear differently, in the other Gospels; and with Jesus making some theological speeches that have no parallel elsewhere – except in the letters that extend some of their themes.
It’s in these texts – the Gospel of John, and the Johannine letters – that Jesus tells his disciples to obey his commandments. Jesus doesn’t talk about following him that way, elsewhere. Sure, he tells his followers what they should do, and how they should act. He just doesn’t use that Old Testament vocabulary of obedience to a commandment, in other texts.
So to understand what John’s Jesus means when he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you,” we need to look at the Johannine texts and see what they say about Jesus’ commands. That is not quite as straightforward as it sounds. The Johannine texts are notoriously dense; the grammar can be hard to untangle; they’re full of cryptic and mystical sayings whose meanings are far from obvious. But fortunately, if we follow the vocabulary of command and commandment through these texts, there is a pretty strong pattern. The gist is, Love each other.
It starts in John’s Gospel, at the Last Supper, 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. This is how people will know you are my disciples: by your love for one another.” (13:34) Later in the same speech, we have the passage that comes to us as today’s Gospel: “This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you. No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do what I command you…. My command to you is to love one another.” (John 15)
That core command comes up repeatedly in the first (and longest) letter of John – in the third chapter: “This is [God’s] commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” (1 John 3:23) And again in chapter 4: “ The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters* also.”
So by the time we come to today’s passage in chapter 5, we should be pretty clear that God’s command is to love and trust in God, and, most of all, to love one another: “We know that we love God’s children, when we love God and keep God’s commandments.” The second letter of John is only one short chapter long, but still this theme of the core commandment shows up again: “Dear lady, I ask you, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but one we have had from the beginning: Let us love one another.” (2 John 1:5)
If I were John’s editor, I would ask him to tidy up these texts a little. Sometimes “commandment” is singular, sometimes plural; sometimes loving God or trusting Jesus is part of the commandment too, but not always. But nevertheless there’s a solid, consistent theme: Jesus commands his followers to love one another.
There is overlap with the Great Commandment here, for sure: Love your neighbor as yourself. But it’s pretty clear that Jesus means “neighbor” quite expansively. Your neighbor isn’t just the person standing next to you, or the person who lives next door. Your neighbor is anyone whose path crosses yours. Anyone to whom you might show – or from whom you might receive – kindness and care.
The “love one another” command is more specific. Jesus is speaking to his gathered disciples. And the letters are addressed to churches, Christian fellowships. This commandment has to do with how we treat each other, within a faith community. If that’s not clear from words themselves, we can look at context. The first statement of this core commandment, in the thirteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, follows Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet – an action which, for John, is the core symbolic act of Jesus’ last evening with his friends. And it’s very clear that the action is a teaching about how Jesus’ friends should treat one another: “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Love each other. Serve each other. This is what Jesus commands.
I’d guess some of you feel some resistance to this idea. It sounds so inward-looking, and we want our faith to be other-oriented… rightly so. Many other Scriptures direct us to care for the wellbeing of our neighbors, expansively defined. Why does John’s Jesus, Jesus as the Johannine community remembers him and gives him voice, lean so hard into love within Christian community?
There are hints that conflict may have an issue in John’s community or other early Christian fellowships. Like this one from First John chapter 4: “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20; see also 2:7-10).
But John isn’t just pushing a love agenda to try to get people to be nicer to each other, to quit their infighting and get on with the work of the church. There’s more to it than that. This isn’t just about organizational stability and effectiveness. This is ecclesiological and theological, for John.
Ecclesiological means having to do with our understanding of the ekklesia, the church. Why did Jesus call Christians to do what they do in groups, not just follow his path individually? What is church for? You could be a Great Commandment Christian without a church – well, at least you could try. But John thinks church matters. John thinks our obedience to Christ begins with our capacity to extend faithful and generous love to one another. John sees Christian community as a practice field for mercy, kindness, repentance and righteousness.
And that rings true to me. I have seen it at work here – though we could go much further. The more we love each other, the more we tell each other our truths. And the more we tell each other our truths, the more we discover how much scope there is to grow in wisdom and compassion, right here, right among the people in this room.
I promise I won’t bring everything back to the capital campaign for the next six weeks, but there’s a very real sense in which that whole process has been an exercise in love and listening. I came to the conversation with my own list of stuff that bugged me about the building, like many others. Mostly the lack of storage space and the floor in this room!…
And then, through focus groups and surveys and casual conversations, I learned about more and more things that had never been a problem for me, but are problems for people I love – the loft stairs that fascinate crawling infants and terrify parents; the heavy front doors; the oppressively small bathroom stalls; the introvert-torturing coffee hour setup; the terrible acoustics in the meeting room; and so on. We named the campaign the Open Door Project because it really became focused on making it possible for all kinds of people to come and be present here in safety and comfort and joy.
Could talking and listening here, within this community, and coming to understand the importance of push-button doors – or gender-neutral bathrooms – or chairs with arms – or toddler-safe spaces – could carry over into our daily lives in the world? Could make us more mindful of, and compassionate towards, the comfort and safety of others whose needs may differ from our own? I think it could. I think it does.
And that’s just thinking about physical needs; the effect is so much bigger when we also talk and listen about hearts and minds and souls. Doubling down on loving one another isn’t insular or inward. It can be mind-opening and heart-changing.
This is kind of a crazy year for me and for St. Dunstan’s. If you get our church emails, you got one on Friday reminding you that I’m taking a sabbatical later this year, starting in August. That hasn’t been a secret or anything – we announced it to the parish when we first got the grant. But we haven’t talked about it much for a while because we were focusing on the capital campaign. It’s only three months now till my sabbatical begins, so it was clearly time to remind everyone that this is happening, but the Vestry and I worried about it a little bit – not, Will St. Dunstan’s be OK?, because St. Dunstan’s will be OK, but, Will this make anybody’s anxiety shoot through the roof? Having a parish capital campaign AND a rector’s sabbatical in the same six-month period? I mean, we’re Episcopalians. Consistency is kind of our deal.
I hope nobody’s anxiety is shooting through the roof. I see the Holy Spirit’s hand in how things are falling into place, with both of these big projects, and so I’m able to feel hopeful and curious instead of anxious. Mostly. But I’m not going to lie: it’s a lot to manage. Right now I’m trying to do all the normal church stuff I do,
Plus organize things for an extended absence, plus plan travel and study for my time away, plus help organize the parish’s renewal project, plus help run our capital campaign.
In the moments when it starts to spin out of control – when anxiety starts to overwhelm hope – tou know what keeps me grounded? What makes it all seem possible, and worthwhile?
Loving you. That’s what anchors me, and what drives me. Loving you.
I said earlier that this whole “love each other thing” is both ecclesiological and theological. Meaning it has to do with both the nature of the Church, and the nature of God. John or John’s Jesus says many times that when his followers are one with each other, they – we – also approach oneness with God through Jesus Christ. The best-known example is probably from the 17th chapter of John, when Jesus prays that all his followers may be one, just as Jesus and God the Father are one. But there are lots of passages that point towards this vision of a mystical fulfillment that is achieved when our love for each other within Christian community draws us into union with the Divine. And that this is somehow the goal of the whole endeavor.
I have no idea what that means. I can repeat John’s words – they are beautiful – but John is talking about levels of reality that are beyond our human perception and comprehension, here.
But maybe we glimpse it, now and then. In those moments when our care for each other makes our differences into strengths instead of weaknesses. In those moments when someone walking a new road finds a companion here who’s been that way before. In those moments when simple acts of kindness lift someone’s spirit or lighten their load. In those moments when the Spirit gives us words of peace, comfort, or encouragement, for one another. In those moments when we love each other, and God fills the space between us.