Law and love. Duty and charity. Order and spontaneity. Are each of these mutually exclusive? Can the twain ever meet?
I want to focus my Maundy Thursday message to you, in preparation for Holy Communion, upon two verses in the larger context of the foot washing narrative. Hear the Word of God:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”” (John 13:34-35).
It is difficult to imagine the world without Jesus Christ. His life created a wake in the vast ocean of humanity. In that way, nourished by his very person, we have seen the emergence of his beautiful life in every area of human endeavor. And yet, the world, that is, both the system of this present age that opposes Jesus Christ, along with the people in that system, often taught the church for not looking like the one we claim to follow. Indeed, there are those who use this as an excuse for not following Jesus themselves. While this is a logical fallacy, that because a follower has failed, therefore the leader is fallible, the impulse persists.
You and I both know that there people today who do not go to church because of some bad experience with a Christian. Or, they have felt that the church, institutionally, has failed them. In the #MeToo society in which we live, such feelings are understandable. It is not logical to base your entire outlook upon the sins of one. But logic does not rule. Love rules. Logic is a poor opponent of love in the ring of life. And this gets to our passage today.
The Lord Jesus Christ, on the eve before his crucifixion, gave two great commandments, two “mandates,” if you prefer. The first of those is what I want to focus on tonight. And I want to link it to the second commandment. His first commandment was, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34 – 35). The Lord Jesus also, in that same evening, gave his commandment to “do this in remembrance of me.” The Passover meal became the opportunity for Jesus to teach that he is the Mediator of the New Covenant. Salvation is no longer through the type of a lamb’s blood shed on the doorpost; it is through Jesus’ own blood. The body eaten is no longer that of a little lamb without blemish, but the Lamb of God without sin. What I want to say to you is that in the presence of so much doubt, so much confusion, and, undeniably, so much hurt and pain, Maundy Thursday is an opportunity for us to be recalibrated to Jesus and his commandments. This becomes a renewing agent for the Church in today’s often understandably skeptical culture. And at the heart of these commandments on that Thursday, which is still at the heart of our faith, is what I would call, “the duty of love.”
The two words “duty” and “love” seem to mix like oil and water. To do something for duty does not have to have any sense of emotion or love ascribed. On the other hand, love seems to carry no duty. We love because, well, we might say, “we just do.” “Sir, why do you love your wife?” “Madam, why do you love your children? They have been nothing but trouble to you! Yet, you say, Ma’am, that you would die for them? What is this about?” She answers, “I love them. That’s all.”
But a commandment requires the one receiving the command to assume a new duty. This is what I mean about the duty of love. You and I have that duty. Yet, the duty itself is altogether tethered to love. This is what we will see.
In verses 34 and 35 let’s consider the duty of love. There are three very simple statements to make about the duty of love.
The first statement to make about the duty of love is this:
- The duty of the love is reflective. This calls for us to have experienced His life in our own lives.
When Jesus gave the commandment to love one another, he anchored that commandment to a known context. The context was very intimate and personal. Jesus said, “just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” This kind of love is reflective of his love.
I have heard it said that there are some people in the church you are so hard to love you need to love them from “afar.” While that seems quite practical, it does not seem completely biblical. Peter was not a particularly likable person at this point in his sanctification. In fact, I am certain from reading the Scriptures that he probably was not altogether liked by the others. Blustering, boastful, self-inflating, and self-aggrandizing Peter seemed to have been committed to leadership that is all about brute strength or dogged determination. “How did that work out for you, Peter?” Just read the Epistles. But read all the way to the Petrine epistles. You will see a new man who operates out of love, a new kind of duty. For the love of God dissolves these unlikable qualities. When Jesus says, “you also should love one another,” he is pushing our boats out to sail on what can be a very rough sea. Our own temperament, the temperaments of others, and the general stresses and pressures of the world can make us quite disagreeable and most unlovable people.
There are some people who have difficulty loving themselves, that is, seeing themselves as image-bearers of God, worthy of the dignity and honor that is inherent with all humanity. Such sad people must be reached. Such despondent persons certainly cannot love others in a wholesome way. And if there is anything we need more of in this old world, it is a love that is reflecting Jesus’ love. And that is the key. We are to love like Jesus loved us. We could probably take the rest of this article and longer to talk together about what that love looks like. We immediately think of a love that is sacrificial, a love that is unconditional, and a love that is deeply personal. But we could also focus on the fact that Jesus’s love was expressed by his presence with the disciples.
Love and presence go together. Jesus also loves the disciples by telling them the truth, even when the truth was difficult. Because the truth will set you free, Jesus loved the disciples by giving them the truth. Perhaps, most importantly, Jesus Christ did not leave the disciples without knowing his identity and his role. He let them know that he was in fact God-in-the-flesh. He let them know that he was the Messiah they had been waiting for. To love one another is to reflect this trait of self-revelation of one’s self. Maybe, one of the greatest things we can do for another is to share who we are. It is true that the Gospel is not your testimony. But your testimony of Jesus Christ will contain the gospel. And when we share who we really are, we have an opportunity to demonstrate the love of Jesus. For when I tell you who I really am, I’ve got to tell you that I am a sinner saved by grace and called to preach the gospel that I once blasphemed. I must tell you that everything that you see is not all that is there.
Some of what is unrevealed has a little bit of virtue. Much of what you can’t see you wouldn’t want to see! I don’t reveal it because I am ashamed of my thoughts, the turmoil of the flesh and the spirit and the oft-neglect of the means of grace that give preeminence to the flesh. But I disclose this to you, to a degree, so that you can know that I am a sinner in need of a Savior. And I have been called of Jesus to follow Him. He is my Savior and my Lord. With Paul, I say that I am not what I used to be, and certainly not what I will become. The same is to be said of all of Christ’s disciples.
So, I am a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ as imperfect as I am. We love by reflecting Jesus’s love in so many ways. But on this night when he will say, “this bread is my body,” and “this cup is the blood of the New Covenant in this blood is mine.”
How do you reflect God’s love to your family? How do you reflect God’s love to other Christians? How do you reflect the love of Jesus Christ to others?
There is a second way we understand the duty of love from this beautiful text.
- The duty of love is responsive. Such love calls for us to do something. The events of that night leave us with some very important choices to make.
To say this is to reemphasize the statement of Jesus you are to love one another. The life and ministry of Jesus always calls for a response. We must respond to the person of Jesus in history. We must respond to his own claims to be the Messiah, the son of God, God in the flesh. He said that he and the Father are one. If we believe that the only sane response is to bow and worship our Creator. Jesus Christ went to the cross, and he rose again on the third day. He was seen by over 500 at one time. What is your response to this? Will you believe? And if you believe what does is it mean for your life? It is in this very same view that we must ask the question, “What will we do with the commandment of Jesus to love one another?” Surely, this is more than a metaphysical, theoretical, or conceptual love. Jesus had washed the feet of Peter. This was an extraordinarily practical expression of love. What are we to do? If we have a foot-washing service here, does that mean that we fulfill this commandment? Or is it something deeper? Does it mean that our love is a reflective love that moves us to a heart’s response?
We act out of the impulse of the love of Jesus Christ in our own lives. It is this very response that has created hospitals, nursing homes, chaplains, medical schools, law schools, universities, modern technology, and so much more. More importantly, it is this love which has united man and woman in marriage. It is this love which has created a Christian home in which a child or children may be reared in the love and the admonition of the Lord. This means there is a veritable reproduction of this response of love that passes through the generations.
I remember that one of our parishioners in a former church came from a family in which the great-great-grandfather in Scotland had covenanted with God based on God’s love and grace in his own life. The boy was 18 years old at the time. He said that the love of God had compelled him to do something great for other people. He set sail for America to adventure out of this sacred prayer with Almighty God. He left home and native land to seek a new country, a true ideal for what was going on deep inside of his heart. He formed an insurance company that became one of the largest disability insurance companies in the world. The love of Christ constrained him, and his response reverberated down through the generations to today, blessing and innumerable group of people. I wonder how many people will be in heaven because of the response of this one 18-year-old boy in Scotland?
So, this is my question for you: how will you respond to the love of God in a tangible, practical, real way? What if all of us did this? How would we impact the world? We have only to look at the disciples in the first century to answer this question.
Finally, let us see what I believe is one of the most poignant and glorious treatments in the word of God. It is this:
- The duty of love is relatable. Jesus said that by this love, a love reflecting his own, responding to his love, other people would know we were the family of God. So, love is the greatest apologetic for the Church’s use in the world. Love is relatable. Love is the carrier for our theology, for our faith, for our convictions, for our mission. The mission of God is established when a community of Christ demonstrates His love in perceptible expressions.
The Apostle John recorded that the Lord Jesus Christ said that love would not only be the great operating principle — the live yeast in the dough, if you will— but would become the single most persuasive virtue that draws and enfolds needy unbelievers into the life of Jesus Christ. This is a remarkable revelation. But we all know it, right? This is Sunday School stuff. “Jesus loves me this I know . . .” So, is it so evident in your life today? If it is so easy, why don’t we see much more of it? Could it be that the simple things are the strong things? Could it be that the easiest things to say are the hardest to do? Could it be that these little Bible truths like, “love one another,” are the most poignant and sometimes the most perplexing things?
They shall know us not by our theology, not by our worship style, not by our influence, but they shall know us — that is they shall know the life of Jesus in us — by our love.
So, when you approach the table for communion, let do so remembering that the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ speak forever to his love. And to receive the sacrament by faith, to discern his body and blood, his passion and pathos, his seals of redemption, is to receive his love, is to recommit yourself to love the Lord Jesus Christ, reflecting his love to others, and relating that love in tangible ways. This is the law of grace. This is the duty of love.