In our previous sections (here and here), we looked at an obscure and often neglected scripture from the night before Jesus’ crucifixion and also that it demonstrated a model of friendship tied to loyalty and obedience that was not only common throughout the Bible but also well-recognized in ancient cultures and even contemporary monarchical cultures. The obvious follow-up question is, what is it that Jesus commanded of his disciples that would show their obedience and loyalty to Him and thus their friendship with Him? This can be a touchy matter. One of my readers commented this morning, after reading the first two parts of the essay: “So, perhaps in the third blog post the immediate context could be addressed, since Jesus Christ had just commanded: ‘Love one another.’ Thus, rather than being a general model of slavishly authoritarian relationships between autocrats and subjects, presumably the immediate context would define Christ’s statement as meaning ‘If you love one another, you are truly my friends.'” After all, as I noted previously, there are two aspects of the friendship spoken of in John 15:14 that are problematic to those of us who are like this writer in being relatively egalitarian Americans with a predisposition to be critical to claims of authority, namely the fact that the model of friendship is not egalitarian between God and humanity, and that this model, when seen in human relationships, tends to result in highly abusive relationships where the lower-ranked “friends” of monarchs feel constrained from showing what should be fairly obvious responses to the abusive behavior of royal “friends.”
How is the friendship of Jesus Christ then, being hierarchical in nature, a better model of friendship than being a friend with a fallible human ruler? A large part of the superiority of this biblical model consists in the commandments that are given. Over and over again in John 15, Jesus speaks of the importance of love. John 15:9-10 reads: “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” John 15:12-13 reads: “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” At the time Jesus Christ was saying this, He was just about to give His life for His friends, and would be arrested only a short time later and subject to humiliating and brutal trials and beatings before being crucified. And then, for good measure, Jesus repeats himself in verse 17, saying: “These things I command you, that you love one another.” Over and over again in this passage we read that we are to love one another, a message that is repeated for emphasis. Is it necessary that this message would be repeated?
Yes. This is not a commandment that we obey well. It is a much easier thing to intellectually know that we should love others as we love ourselves than it is to actually do it. Even more to the point, even if we love others, other people may not recognize it, and if they do recognize our love and respect they may not always appreciate it. There may be times where we feel we are giving others necessary tough love when they are looking for encouragement and support rather than rebuke and chastening. We may feel that we respect and love others in an agape Christian way and they are concerned about other kinds of love that we may feel for them that they do not appreciate or welcome. We may feel love that is combined with irritation or frustration or resentment, all of which hinders the recognition of that love we feel, or we may be so restrained in our expression and acts of love that they go unnoticed and unappreciated. And all of this assumes that we do indeed love others as we have been commanded to do, and often we do not. It is little wonder that Christ would feel it necessary to command us to love each other over and over again.
And it is not only this passage that discusses the need for us to love each other. John 17:11 expresses Jesus’ fervent hope for oneness among His people: “Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are.” Matthew 22-34-40 tells us: “But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”” These are, of course, familiar verses, but they are there for a reason. John himself clearly seems to have gotten the point about the importance of love among the brethren. 1 John 2:3-6 points to the importance of obeying the commandments: “ Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.” And lest we should misunderstand that these commandments involve loving our brethren, he says in verses nine through eleven: “He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” And among several other places where Jesus talks about love in 1 John, we have this reminder in 1 John 4:20-21: “If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.”
Nor are John’s writings alone in pointing out the connection between the love of the Father and of Christ for us and our love for them and for each other and the unity of the brethren as part of God’s family. For Ephesians 4:1-6 tells us: “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” Nor does this exhaust all the places one could go to read of this commandment to love others–we could go to 1 Corinthians 13, the famous love chapter, or parse the meaning of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, or look at Jesus’ reminder that how we treat the least of others is how we treat Him, or we can look at Jesus’ conversation with Peter tying love for Christ with a care for the brethren. For if a leader loves God, they will feed and tend the sheep, and not lord it over others or seek only after their own selfish well-being while being corrupt hirelings and authoritarian bullies. All of this ought to be obvious. It is said over and over and over again. And yet, as I have mentioned before, it is hard to do. Our love will be felt imperfectly; it will be shown imperfectly; it will be recognized and responded to imperfectly by others. And yet we are commanded to act with love towards even our enemies, even to those who curse us and hate us, much less to those who love us imperfectly but genuinely. And if we are not recognized as loving and gracious people, others will not see God in us, and will not respond to it in turn. And how will we grow in love if we do not practice it, however awkward our efforts will be to ourselves and others?