Read John 15:9-17
“I give you a new commandment,” Jesus tells his disciples in John, chapter 13, “that you love one another.” In case they didn’t get it the first time, he rephrases it. “Just as I have loved you,” he says, “you also should love one another.” What does he mean?
Scientists disagree on the nature of human nature. In his book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins puts it clearly. “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” Existence is nothing more or less than competition for survival—right down to the level of our genes. History, according to Dawkins, is not only written by the victors. It is created by the survivors.
Even so, Dawkins argues for love for others at the cultural level. “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism…,” he writes, “because we may then at least have the chance to upset [our genetic] designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.”
Why Dawkins thinks we should work against our natural design is a mystery to me. But he represents a large segment of our cultural narrative these days. Love for others, in this view, is a recent invention that requires us to overcome it on the basis of genetic self-interest.
Other scientists see humans able to love one another by nature. That altruism may well extend far into the non-human animal world. I would encourage you to read Frans De Waal’s book called Mama’s Last Hug.
The title is based on a reunion between Mama, an old chimpanzee, and Dr. Jan Van Hooff, a Dutch biologist. Mama was on her deathbed, crippled with arthritis, refusing food and drink, dying of old age. The meeting was so moving that the video overwhelmed the Internet. You can find it here: https://youtu.be/LFXTCGeAV9s.
De Waal and others in the field have demonstrated empathy and compassion in most higher sentient animals. “Our brains have been designed to blur the line between self and other,” he concludes. “It is an ancient neural circuitry that marks every mammal, from mouse to elephant.”
I’m with Frans de Waal on this. But we Christians go further. We believe humans are created specifically to love one another. As N. T. Wright says, “Love is not merely our duty. It is our destiny.” We are created by the source of all Love for the purpose of loving. We sin when we turn that love in toward ourselves rather than outward toward others.
“I give you a new commandment,” Jesus tells his disciples, “that you love one another.” Jesus calls us to be our truest selves. Love for others is what full and flourishing humanity looks like. If we want a clearer picture, we just need to look at Jesus. “Just as I have loved you,” he says, “you also should love one another.”
Now we get more specific. We begin in John thirteen. Earlier in the evening, Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet. Then he explains his actions. “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.” Humble, self-giving service is what love looks like. Even a chimpanzee can get it.
Love always costs the lover. Two disciples are clear about that. Judas doesn’t like what he hears. He goes out to hand Jesus over to the enemies. Peter doesn’t believe what he hears. He goes on to deny three times that he ever knew Jesus. When it comes to love, betrayal and denial are always the easy outs. But betrayal and denial turn us away from others and into ourselves.
Humble, self-giving service is what love looks like. Love always costs the lover. But refusing to pay the price is nothing short of a living death. I would like to quote C. S. Lewis on this every week. But once in a while will have to do. In his book, The Four Loves, he writes,
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
The heart that is defended is the heart that is dead. Yet, we live in an era when walling off our hearts is the order of the day. Altruism is for idiots. Love is for fools. Compassion is for clods. Others are enemies. We live in the world of Richard Dawkins—“robot vehicles blindly programmed” to preserve only ourselves.
If we follow Jesus, we cannot be part of such a world. “Just as I have loved you,” Jesus says, “you also should love one another.” Who are the others around me? Others are different from me—different in color, in ability, in language, in income, in orientation, in gender, in age, in politics, in ethnicity, in citizenship, in religion, in species. Loving another will cost me at least a part of my life. But not loving will cost me my humanity. Even a chimpanzee gets that.
“No one has greater love than this,” Jesus then continues in John 15:13, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus’ relationship with disciples as friends is not an example of the human phenomenon of friendship. Nor is it the prime or supreme or perfect example of that human experience. Friendship doesn’t define Jesus. Jesus defines friendship – for his disciples, including us. “For Jesus [at least in John’s Gospel],” Gail O’Day writes, “friendship is the ultimate relationship with God and one another”.
Jesus calls and invites his disciples to live as friends with Jesus, friends with one another, and friends with those whom they serve. “Jesus is our model of friendship – because he loved without limits,” O’Day writes, “and he makes it possible for us to live a life of friendship – because we have been transformed by everything he shared with us. Through friendship,” she continues, “we come to know God and through friendship we enact the love of God. We can risk,” she suggests, “being friends because Jesus has been a friend to us” (2008, page 27).
Our reading declares that Jesus calls his disciples “friends.” It does not focus, however, on the benefits of friendship with Jesus. Our text focuses much more, in fact, on the responsibilities that accrue to that friendship. “Jesus does not merely talk the language of friendship,” O’Day writes, “he lives out his life and death as a friend and he commands his followers to do the same” in verses 12 through 14 (2008, page 23).
We who are the branches draw our life from the Valid Vine. We have that promise in the foreground of today’s reading, and we dare not forget the source of our life. Without that life “we can do nothing,” as we read last week. With that life, we can love one another as Jesus loves us. “The commandment to love as Jesus has loved may be the most radical words of the Gospel,” O’Day argues, “because it claims that the love that enabled Jesus to lay down his life for his friends is not unique to him.”
O’Day is not arguing that Jesus’ friendship is one example of human friendship in general. In that regard, it is indeed unique. What she means is that Jesus’ friendship as a capacity to be a friend is something he shares with disciples. “This love can be replicated and embodies over and over again by his followers,” he notes. “To keep Jesus’ commandment is to enact his love in our own lives” (2008, 23).
What can it mean to lay down one’s life for one’s “friends?” Clearly, the “friends” Jesus means here are other disciples. That is perhaps too narrow a framework for understanding the whole of New Testament theology, but if we simply started by loving other Christians as an obedient, intentional, and concrete practice, our world might change a great deal.
For example, it is indisputable that some of my Christian co-religionists are Black, Brown, Native, AAPI, and of other ethnic heritages. They are, in terms of John 15, my “friends.” Will we white Christians be willing to give up our power and privilege, our wealth and property (or even some of it) in order to fight the racism that infects our churches and our lives?
Here is a website that lists a number of actions that white people can take to fight racism – “103 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice” (it used to be 75 things, but hey, we’re trainable, right?). If you can’t bring yourself to grapple with the systemic racism that exists in our country (and it does, not matter what some public figures would have us believe), then at least consider taking these actions because millions of your “friends” will benefit from those actions.
Working for justice always has a cost for those of us who are privileged, positioned, propertied and powerful. That’s the deal, so, white friends, let’s deal. I don’t believe the folks who think they can make real justice painless for the privileged. Loving our friends will cost us something that we experience as “life.” Otherwise, it’s probably not love.
Judas betrayed Jesus. Peter denied Jesus. But God’s love does not let go. Peter was restored to his vocation, as we heard a few weeks ago. Loving one another works that way. Let me close by praying these words from a favorite hymn:
O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
May it be so among us. Amen.