Toward the end of Martin Luther’s The Freedom of the Christian, Luther offers a section entitled “Concerning Works for the Neighbor.” Luther roots works of love for the neighbor in our trust in God because of Christ. Since we receive all that God has to offer for free, by grace, and accept that grace through faith, we are freed to do everything in love for God who loves us completely. “Therefore, I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor,” Luther writes, “just as Christ offered himself to me” (page 524).
This is the first of several expressions of “Luther’s Golden Rule.” While the more familiar form of the Golden Rule is something like “do to others as you would have them do to you,” Luther’s expression of the Golden rule is different. For me as a disciple, what I would wish done to me is not the standard for measuring and assessing my behavior. God’s grace makes it possible for me to de-center myself and put Jesus in the center of the frame as the standard of loving service.
Luther reminds his readers that “just as our neighbor has needs and lacks what we have in abundance, so also we had need before God and lacked God’s mercy. For this reason,” he continues, “our heavenly Father supported us freely in Christ, so also we ought to freely support our neighbor with our body and its actions, and each person ought to become to the other a kind of Christ, so that we may be Christs to one another and be the same Christ in all, that is, truly Christians” (page 525).
“Just as I have loved you,” Jesus tells the disciples in John 13:34b (NRSV), “you also should love one another.” The standard for the disciple life in the Johannine account is the active and embodied love that Jesus extends first to us as disciples. “We continue to love,” the writer of the First Letter of John says, “because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19, my translation). That love is to the end, the completion, the uttermost. It is both the means of and the model for our love for one another.
It is not that Luther diminishes the importance of what most people would consider to be “the Golden Rule.” Luther puts his esteem for that rule like this. “Look here!” he proclaims, “This should be the rule: that the good things we have from God may flow from one person to the other and become common property. In this way,” he continues, “each person may ‘put on’ his [or her] neighbor and conduct oneself toward him [or her] as if in the neighbor’s place” (page 530). That’s a pretty strong endorsement of “the Golden Rule” (and a nod toward Luther’s socialist tendencies, at least within the Christian community).
The rationale for this rule, however, (according to Luther) is not because it’s a wonderful general principle for human conduct – although it is certainly that. Instead, love for neighbor is rooted in Christ’s love for us. “Just as my faith and righteousness ought to be placed before God to cover and intercede for the neighbor’s sins, which I take upon myself,” Luther writes, “so also I labor under and am subject to them as if they were my very own. For this,” Luther concludes, “is what Christ did for us. For this is true love and the genuine rule of Christian life” (page 530).
Perhaps we are reminded at this point of Paul’s encouragement to the Galatian Christians. “Bear the burdens of one another, and this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, my translation). Luther brings the final section of is tract to an end in this way. “Therefore we conclude that the Christian individuals do not live in themselves but in Christ and their neighbor, or else they are not Christian. They live in Christ through faith,” Luther writes, “and in the neighbor through love” (page 530). This is, according to Luther, the definition of the “freedom of a Christian.”
Here and elsewhere in his work, Luther is clear that this rule of love is not something we disciples carry out on our own or to our credit. Instead, he argues, in the words of Tuomo Mannermaa, that Christ is present in each of us and all of us through faith. In Johannine terms, the disciples receive the model of this love in John 13, the foot-washing. But it is not until John 20 that they receive the means of this love, when Jesus breathes into them his Holy Spirit.
“Christ is, thus, the true agent of good works in the Christian,” Tuomo Mannermaa writes in Christ Present in Faith (Kindle Location 682). This loving presence of Christ in the disciple makes it possible for the disciple to fulfill the “law of Christ,” what in the Johannine account is now called a “new commandment.” Mannermaa quotes Luther, who puts it this way: “Thus he is a true doer of the Law who receives the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ and then begins to love God and to do good to his neighbor” (Kindle Location 712).
I think the context of our reading has a profound impact on how we understand and then embody this love for one another. As we have noted previously, the new commandment is sandwiched in between references to the betrayal by Judas and the denial by Peter. It is precisely these failed disciples that Jesus loves to the uttermost. Jesus does not love either Judas or Peter because they achieve some required behavioral standard. Jesus does not mandate that they conform to some model of being or behavior. As the First Letter of John reminds us, Christ loves us first.
This is the part that I can write but struggle to accept. Each of us has a story about the formative role of conditional love in our lives. I don’t consider myself exceptional in that regard. Nonetheless, my story is indeed my story. I was trained, as were those who came before me, to believe that loving care was always a reward for performance. That performance might be taking care of the needs of another, having the right answer to a question, or just getting out of the way and trying not to be a bother. In any event, loving care did not come first, but rather second.
And that loving care was conditioned upon my being assimilated to the needs and standards of another or of others. I didn’t suffer nearly as much trauma as many people, so I’m not making a case for some special victimhood here. Instead, I think I’m quite typical and ordinary of our human experience – systems that require us to become something we’re not in order to be embraced and included, at least for the present moment.
Temporary and conditional loving care is not the love that Jesus gives to his disciples (and God to the world). Jesus loves us first, as we are, where we are. We are not called to change in order to be loved. We are loved into the beautiful creations we were always meant by God to be. That is the love present in us by faith in Christ – who gives himself to us to the uttermost and without condition. And this is the love we are empowered to emulate as Jesus’ disciples.
Love one another as Christ loves you. It sounds so simple. But it has revolutionary implications. For example, in our anti-racism book study, we (White participants) continue to reflect on and wrestle with our individual and systemic behaviors that center our Whiteness in our awareness, our actions, and our worldview. That White-centering makes it impossible to love BIPOC folks for themselves. White supremacy means that BIPOC folks are objects to be appropriated into the White story of the world and of individual life. That’s the opposite of loving one another as Christ loves us.
If I am to bear another’s burdens and thus fulfill the Law of Christ, then I must become intimately familiar with those burdens before picking them up. That’s why it is so important to do the work of learning as much as we White people can about the experiences of our BIPOC sisters and brothers in our White-centric culture and churches. This learning requires humility, listening, self-awareness, self-reflection, and repentance. Until we’ve done that work – coming to terms with our White identity – we won’t be either safe or competent in bearing the burdens of others in this culture.
In another line of thought, my enemies are not God’s enemies – or at least are not punished for being anyone’s enemies. I’m leading a brief study on the Book of Jonah both online and in our local congregation. And this is one of the lessons of that little book. Loving as Jesus loves means that my enemies are still objects of God’s love. A preacher might point to the reading from the Book of Acts for Sunday to find additional support for this assertion.
So, my agenda in scapegoating and punishing others does not fit with God’s agenda of giving abundant life to all. If I have higher standards than God in this realm, I should probably re-examine my standards and adjust my thinking. Just as Christ has loved me (and loves me to the end), so I am called daily to love others.
And that’s the Good News…
References and Resources
Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Augsburg Fortress, 2006.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.
Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.
MOLONEY, FRANCIS J. “A Sacramental Reading of John 13:1-38.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 53, no. 2 (1991): 237–56. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43719525.
van der Merwe, Dirk G.. (2022). The concept and activity of ‘obedience’ in the Gospel of John. Verbum et Ecclesia, 43(1), 1-9. https://dx.doi.org/10.4102/ve.v43i1.2367.
Wengert, Timothy J. The Freedom of a Christian 1520 (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Fortress Press, 2016.
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