On the night Jesus was betrayed, he washed the disciples’ feet, identified Judas as his betrayer, and gave them a new commandment about love. The command to love each other as he loved them comes at an interesting moment in the Gospel story. After washing their feet, Jesus’ betrayer leaves the room to sell him for money, and after giving the command, Peter’s forthcoming denial is revealed. The command to love each other with God’s unique kind of love is sandwiched between satanic betrayal and the denial that comes from well intentioned, but ultimately frail, humanity. Christ’s love is never seen so clearly as when the background is so dark.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (vs. 34-35)
In one sense, there is nothing new about this command. The Old Testament tells us that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:34). During his life with the disciples, Jesus repeated these commands in what we sometimes call the Greatest Commandment – we ought to love God with everything we have and love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mark 12:30-31). So, if there is nothing new about God commanding his people to be people of love, what is so new about this commandment to love?
First of all, the context becomes the standard. The cross is looming just ahead of Jesus: he is distressed and troubled by all that will befall him in the next 24 hours, including both the physical torture and the betrayal and denial of beloved friends. This is God in flesh being betrayed by a friend, and yet Jesus washed his feet and served him bread. Up to the last minute before Satan enters Judas and Judas leaves the room for good, Jesus reaches out to him in love. This is God in flesh surrounded by well-meaning disciples but frail humans who nonetheless are going to fall before they rise again to become his church. And in it all Jesus places his kingdom in their hands. When there seems to be no good reason for Jesus to love his disciples or command love one to another – on a night as dark as this – Jesus commands love. The cross becomes the standard.
Second, the person becomes the standard. This is not human love. This is not human love to the maximum sustained over a long period of time. This is not “true love.” This is nothing any human or any group of humans can muster or imitate, because it is a love that comes from the heart of God himself. Jesus is clear just hours before he will die on the cross for them that he alone is the standard for this love: “just as I have loved you.” Jesus must become our example of and source of love.
And finally, the disciples become the bearers of this love. John the disciple said in one of his epistles, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). Jesus has ascended into the heavens and we are now the love of God to this world and to each other. If we follow his example, we are marked by our love – we are distinguished and recognized by our love. We are not recognized just as good people or perpetual do-gooders. We are recognized as people who belong to this Jesus Christ.
This command to love is utterly unique in that the cross becomes the standard, the person Jesus becomes the standard, and we the disciples are becoming the examples here and now of this love.