A sermon on John 13:31-35 delivered to LaSalle Street Church on 5/15/22. The manuscript is edited below for reading, and you can find it in the full service via this YouTube video.
If you’re keeping up with the church calendar, you know that we’re in a season that has traditionally been called “Eastertide.” In the weeks leading up to Easter, we participated in Lent—a season of reflecting on our mortality and our human-ness, preparing us for Easter. And then Easter arrived! So this is a season of celebration and life – I hope that we’re especially aware right now that Jesus is alive in our midst, and we get to discover together what that means for us.
One of the best ways to do that is to explore what Jesus did in his life on earth. This week’s lectionary text from the gospel takes us back a few days before the crucifixion and the resurrection. John 13:31-35 invites us into a pivotal moment in the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus has lived a full, albeit short, life—teaching and doing miracles and attracting all kinds of attention—but all that is about to change. So Jesus sets aside special time with his core group of friends. This is the Last Supper. The disciples don’t totally understand, but it’s almost like a farewell dinner.
Jesus does what leaders or matriarchs or retirees or anyone else does in these circumstances: He talks about what really matters. He offers a kind of last will and testament. It’s a long discourse, covering many chapters of the gospel of John. We’re going to eavesdrop on just a few of those verses.
What we’re going to find is a surprising, concise distillation of so much of what Jesus has been teaching his disciples all along the way. We’ll find three words that almost sum up Jesus’ entire vision for the church across time and space. And we’re going to try and believe together in this moment that what Jesus says is true.
Let’s listen in to the Last Supper with Jesus and the disciples. Jesus leans in and says, “Little children.” It’s a tender and affectionate phrase. This is the only place in the gospel of John where Jesus calls his disciples that. The phrase suggests that Jesus knows the disciples are afraid. They’re feeling that particular kind of fear that makes you feel small, the kind of fear that taps into your inner child. It’s that deep fear of the unknown.
This is a fear I recognize. On Monday, just a few blocks from my apartment, two men were shot, fatally, in Humboldt Park in the middle of the afternoon. It was near the tennis courts, where I walk my dog nearly every day of the year. After I heard the awful news, I started noticing nervous tendencies in myself that I sure don’t like: Locking my door more quickly when I get inside. Almost reflexively avoiding eye contact with strangers on the street.
I think Jesus knows how destructive that kind of fear can be, how quickly it can corrode community.
So Jesus greets the disciples tenderly where they are, calling them little children, and instructs them: “I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you…”
Let’s pause right here. We know what Jesus is about to say, but Jesus could have said anything, right? It’s worth considering all the commands that Jesus didn’t mention here. We know that one of the most common commands in all of Scripture is: “Do not fear.” If I didn’t know this story already, I might have expected Jesus to say that: “Don’t be afraid!”
There are other commands Jesus could have issued. Right after this story, Jesus has a painful conversation with Peter in which he warns him that Peter will deny Jesus three times that night. Effectively, our Gospel story today is bookended by betrayals. Judas just left to betray Jesus. And Peter doesn’t know it, but he’s about to betray Jesus, too. So maybe Jesus should have brought up the elephant in the room, something like: “Hey, things are about to get bad. Whatever you do, don’t betray me. Stay faithful to me.”
No, at this moment when Jesus knows he has the disciples’ complete attention, he tells them, “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.” He essentially says it three times in as many sentences, just to make sure they catch it: “Love one another.”
This is really striking, right? Think about it—this spring, our church has been hosting an ongoing Bible study in the gospel of John, and those of us who have been participating know that John is a book that contains a lot of long, complicated speeches and long, complicated arguments about esoteric matters of the law. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a beautiful and stirring book, truly—but it’s not a book that lends itself to short, simple sayings.
Jesus knows the disciples are as scared as little children, and so he gives them a commandment that even a child could understand: “Love one another.” It sounds a little squishy, a little feelings-y. It’s not nearly as precise as the kind of instructions that I might give in a crisis.
And there’s a chance you’re sitting there wondering, “Love one another. That sounds familiar, but isn’t it worded differently elsewhere in the Bible?” And the answer is Yes!
I am going to invite you to follow me into the weeds for a few moments. Trust me—I think it will be worth it! All four of the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—portray a moment in which Jesus issues a specific, significant commandment to love. But there are differences. If you’ve studied the New Testament much, you know that the gospel of John is really distinct from the other three gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a lot in common with each other, and John has a lot of unique material.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus gives a two-part commandment that might sound more familiar: Each of those gospels gives some version of (1) Love the Lord your God, and (2) Love your neighbor as yourself. In those gospels, the commandment comes up during a conversation about which one of all the Jewish laws is greatest or most important.
Those gospels contain another commandment about love, too. Elsewhere in Matthew and Luke, Jesus tells the crowds: Love your enemies. (Thankfully I wasn’t asked to preach on that today!)
But none of those commandments appear in the gospel of John. At least not explicitly. In the gospel of John, “Love one another” is the closest thing we get. Here Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples that it’s necessarily the greatest or most important commandment. He tells them it is a new commandment, just right for this moment they face.
Stay with me in the weeds a little while longer! “One another” is called a reciprocal pronoun—it’s a word that moves like arms into a hug, looping around you and back to me. I’m scratching your back, and you’re scratching mine. All those other love commandments in Matthew, Mark, and Luke sound a little more one-directional. “Love your neighbor” means you love them. “Love your enemy” means you love them. But “Love one another” is reciprocal—it’s arms reaching around.
I don’t want to belabor the point: All of these commandments are about love, after all, and love is always outward, it’s always self-sacrificial. But John’s commandment here is unique in light of just how reciprocal it is.
So many of the commandments in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, are plural. When I took my first New Testament Greek class, our professor wanted to make sure we could tell the difference between singular and plural commands. So whenever we translated plural commands, we had to add the word “y’all.” (In case y’all didn’t know, I did attend seminary in Texas.)
This command another example of that: In the original Greek, “Love one another” is plural: “Y’all love one another.”
And of course this commandment doesn’t even make sense if we try to make it singular, right? If I tell you, “Reader, you should love your enemy,” you can think of that as a solitary task. “I have to love my enemy.” But it wouldn’t make sense for me to say, “Reader, you have to love one another.” The commandment only makes sense if we, all of us, receive it and follow it together.
Okay, we are out of the weeds. Thank you. Let’s regroup. Here’s what we know from the gospel of John: In the most pivotal, intimate conversation of his ministry, the thing Jesus emphasized above all else was that the disciples ought to love one another.
Just for today, just for the stretch of this sermon, I want us to use our imaginations to ask: What if that really were the most important thing?
Just for now, forget the loving your neighbors, forget the loving your enemies, all that. What if loving one another were the most important thing?
Let’s get a little more specific. How would you live this week if you believed that loving the other people in this church community, here and remote, if that were the most important thing?
Well, if you’re like me, you might immediately feel a certain kind of resistance to that: To me the commandment sounds a little too narrow. I feel resistant to this commandment because if the most important thing is for us to love each other, the folks within this community, that excludes….most of the people in the world! It sounds too sequestered, too narrow-minded, as if we can ignore the world outside, ignore the news, ignore the felt needs of the people around us.
Honestly, I don’t think Jesus was really worried that would happen. His entire life and ministry on earth modeled a kind of self-giving love that was always about loving others, serving the community, helping those we have the means to help. Jesus knew the disciples would go on to participate in that kind of outward-facing service. That part was already set. When we hear this commandment to “love one another,” I think we can safely assume that love is expansive, that the love we show for each other is not a finite resource in competition with the love we show to the world.
The truth is that there isn’t a lot I can do about most of what I see on the news. I can pray, and so many of us do, regularly, and that counts for a lot. I genuinely believe it does. I can give, financially. I can stay informed and keep others informed, which also counts for a lot. And in rare cases, I may have specific opportunities to volunteer or protest or advocate or give blood or anything else. But in most cases, there isn’t much that I can actually do to help.
There is something that is within my power: I can love you, or her, or him. And the amazing thing about a community like LaSalle Street Church is that we are never more than a few degrees of separation away from those huge, distant things we care so deeply about. Climate change. Teenage mental health. War in Ukraine. People here in this church are on the frontlines, or their sister is on the frontlines, or their college roommate is on the frontlines, and they are actively working to shape the world with all the beauty and justice and peace God desires for it.
I think Jesus knows that if we’re going to be people who go into the world, working for reconciliation and justice, we’re going to need a whole lotta love to do that. And that means the love we show to one another, here in this community, multiplies and multiplies and spreads and expands.
Well, I know this community well enough to know that so far, I may be preaching to the choir. So many of you already live this way all the time. Joining the staff here has given me so much more visibility to all the countless ways you all love each other. You do show up for each other tangibly. You encourage, you serve, you cook, you visit, you listen. You’ve done so for me.
So when we think about that question I asked: “How would you live this week if you believed that loving one another were the most important thing?” We don’t have to wonder, because some of you actually do live as if it is the most important thing.
So I want to ask that question a different way. Consider this: How would you live this week if you believed that everyone else in this community truly thought that loving one another were the most important thing?
Because it’s reciprocal, right? It’s plural – it’s “Y’all.” It’s not just a matter of believing that Jesus wants you to love others. It’s also a matter of believing that Jesus wants others to love you.
What if we believed that were true? Well, if you’re like me, you might start by grieving all the ways that Christians have failed to keep this commandment. It’s such a simple rule, remember? Three words. We can get caught up thinking it’s too narrow, too inward. And at the same time, we know that even if loving one another in this community were all that Jesus ever asked of us, we would still have a lot of failures to confess. We would need a lot of forgiveness for the ways we haven’t loved one another.
Can we stop to feel the weight of this for a moment? Jesus said that the way we love each other is how everyone will know that we follow him. But I think most of us know that’s not our situation. At least it isn’t our situation here in the United States at this moment in history. As far as I can tell, for most people, words like “Christian” or “evangelical” don’t exactly bring to mind the image of a community that is characterized by gracious harmony.
And many of us have not been loved well by other Christians. If that’s you, listen close: When Christians have failed to love you, no matter who they were or how important they were or how righteous they seemed, when Christians have failed to love you, they were disobeying Jesus. It really is that simple. Jesus had nothing to do with that. Jesus was hurting with you.
Well, whether or not you have been hurt by Christians, I think so many of us would be changed if we truly believed that this were a community in which loving one another was the most important thing. More than being right, more than making a point or having the best take on current events—if loving one another were the most important thing, I think that would change how we showed up.
Last Sunday in our service here, we heard amazing testimonies from five women about the way God is their shepherd. I don’t know about you, but as I listened to the stories, I found myself thinking: “I had no idea. I had no idea you were carrying that.”
To those women: Thank you for sharing. I hope that the reaction you found was one of love. I hope you discovered LaSalle to be a place where we believe the most important thing is love. And thank you for giving us an example of how it looks to trust this community by sharing with us. How might we all show up if we believed everyone else here loved us?
Try this: Think about someone who loves you unconditionally. Maybe it’s a certain friend, maybe it’s a therapist, maybe it’s a certain parent or grandparent. I hope someone comes to mind. Think about how you feel when you’re in their presence. I imagine there’s a way you relax and exhale. Imagine if you saw this church as that kind of place. Maybe you do.
If you did, it might make it easier for you to say uncomfortable things, things like, “Gosh, I have felt so lonely this week.” Or to say something like, “The way I handled that argument with my kid was so childish, and I feel really embarrassed about it.” Or, “Man, I am facing a tough dilemma, and I know what the right thing to do is, and for the life of me I don’t think I can do it.”
It might be easier for us to express our needs if we believe that this is a community that will love us by helping us meet those needs. It might be easier to confess our sins if we believe this is a community that will love us by taking those sins seriously—not dismissing them but forgiving them.
So, what if loving one another really were the most important thing for our church? Let your imagination wander. How might we structure our days? What sort of things would we just stop bothering with? What might our neighbors, even our enemies, notice?
After everything, we’re left with this simple commandment.
And our deepest values don’t mean anything unless we practice them. So humor me: This week I dare you—actually, I dare Y’ALL— to follow Jesus’ commandment by loving one another in tangible ways. Let’s make it easier on ourselves: Chop off that third word, “another,” and you’re left with: “Love one.” Start by loving one other person in this community in a tangible way: Maybe you give someone a phone call or send them a handwritten note. Maybe you offer to help someone with a specific need. Maybe you invite someone to share a meal. Once you’ve done that, once you “Love one,” you can graduate to the rest: “Love another.” “Love one, then another.” And maybe another. And maybe another. But start with one.
Maybe you’re sitting here right now with a need, or a hurt, or a problem. The good news is that I just dared everybody here to find a way to love someone else tangibly. If you express your need and give someone else a chance to help you, you’ll make their job easier for them. I know how hard it can be to trust Christians. And I dare you to take that risk this week.
As we sing together, let your imagination continue to wander. Is there someone who comes to mind—someone the Spirit is nudging you to love this week? Do you have a need that someone else could help you to fill this week? How is God inviting you to participate in this commandment?
Folks, whatever we do this week, we are completely surrounded by the love of Jesus. It woke us up this morning and will lay us down tonight. Let’s make that love of Jesus even more tangible to each other by doing what he told the disciples to do. Love one another.