In his farewell discourse to his disciples in the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “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” (John 13:34–35).
Jesus creates community, not on the basis of purity codes, levels of holiness, or degrees of worthiness, but on the basis of a transcending, inclusive, loyal love.
The command to love is itself not new, but what is new is the emphasis and centrality Jesus brings to it. The duty of humankind toward God and toward each other can be gathered up in the command to love. If there is one virtue that is foundational to all other virtues, if there is one quality or attribute that stands above all the others and is the source of all the others it is love. This is the essential mark of Christian discipleship.
The commandment is also new in the way Jesus makes God’s love tangible, visible, and concrete. Theologically, the word we use to talk about this is incarnation. Jesus fleshed out God’s love in the nitty-gritty of life, through his words and deeds, through his attitudes and actions, through his conversation and conduct, through his reactions and responses. In his teachings, relationships, and interactions with others we see what divine love looks like, how it functions, how it relates to all kinds of people, and what its priorities are.
The context in which this teaching appears in John’s Gospel emphasizes the constancy of God’s love. It is a loyal, faithful, steadfast, enduring love.
Just before this instruction, Jesus takes a basin of water and a towel and washes and dries the feet of his disciples. This is a daring, extraordinary, audacious act. All Palestinian homes had basins of water for the washing of one’s feet; after all, they walked along dusty, dirt streets and walkways in open sandals. This was commonplace. However, not even servants of a household were assigned the task of washing someone else’s feet.
But Jesus is making a point. He washes their feet and then tells them to do likewise. This is how they are to express their love for one another—through simple, humble acts of service. When the divine love saturates the faith community, when the community is immersed in God’s love no task, no service, no ministry to another is beneath us. In God’s community everything is reversed and turned upside down. One leads by serving, and no task is to small or menial.
Yet, these very disciples will be the ones who deny, betray, and abandon him, leaving him alone to face his tormentors and killers.
But Jesus does not desert them. Even after their denial and desertion, after their betrayal and breach of covenant loyalty, Jesus refuses to withdraw his love; he remains loyal to them.
At the beginning of Jesus’ farewell instruction, John’s Gospel reads, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1). Then, in the very next verse we are told that Judas had already made his decision to betray Jesus (13:2). Jesus never withdrew his love; he loved Judas and the others to the uttermost, to the end, beyond their betrayal and failure.
Very few of us have the capacity to love this way. Loving someone beyond the breach, beyond the denials and betrayals takes a large, magnanimous, steadfast love.
But let’s be clear. Loving beyond the breach never means continued victimization. Everyone reading this should be aware of the toxic nature of co-dependency and enabling behavior that may, on the surface, look like steadfast love. But it is not real love at all. Steadfast love will involve letting go rather than hanging on to a relationship that enables addictive behavior or a dysfunctional relationship.
But letting go does not mean abandoning the person, though the relationship may take a completely different form. Jesus gave his disciples the complete freedom to choose. He did not cling to them. Yet, he did not dismiss them either. How this works out in the actual inner-workings of our relationships can be complicated, but disciples of Jesus never withdraw their love and commitment to the good of the other.
If we are to love the way Jesus loved, we will need to nurture a rich, deep experience of God’s love. Jesus was the perfect receiving station. He could say, “I and my Father are one.” They were on the same page; they were one in intent and purpose. His experience of divine love empowered him to love.
This kind of intimacy and intuitive, inner, spiritual knowing of God is available and accessible to all of us. One does not have to have any special gift or calling, or go through any special ceremony or ritual, or believe certain doctrines to be qualified to know God intimately and encounter Divine Love.
Jesus embodied God’s love. Now he says, “Just as I have loved you, so you are to love one another. Tag, you’re it. It’s your turn. As the Father sent me, so I send you to be channels of divine love.” It is a love large enough to include everyone and strong enough to withstand and endure all failures and betrayals. It is a love beyond all boundaries and breaches.