I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. If there’s anything we need now, it’s this. In a time when it feels like we’re very divided, when trust is low, when we’re unsure about what is true, and many things that would make a difference are hidden from us, here is this new commandment that Jesus gives his followers – love one another.
Jesus says this as he is anticipating his death. Judas had just left the room, gone out into the darkness to collect a handful of coins and then to betray him. Jesus knows they will be without him. He’s preparing them to carry on the mission without him. He knelt down and washed their feet, even though that was another awkward moment for Peter. It was a little show and tell. He showed them how to be servants by washing and drying their feet, an act of warm and gentle hospitality. And then he told them they were to love one another.
The writer of John’s Gospel tells us this story in chapter 13 about Jesus’ new commandment. It wasn’t actually new. Jesus had been showing and telling them about loving one another throughout his ministry. But apparently he thought they needed this reminder, and maybe needed it in a new way as he got ready to leave them.
A commandment may sound like a rule of law or something said with a pointed finger. It’s something we might expect to see carved in stone. Violate a commandment and you may feel like you’ve been slammed with a heavy stone. Commandments, at least in religious terms, are connected with a covenant. I make a covenant relationship in marriage between my life partner and God. I begin a covenant relationship with a church and all of the people connected to it when I make a commitment to join.
David Brooks, in his newly published book, “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life,” points out the difference between a contract and a covenant. A contract, he says, has to do with actions. Two parties agree to take these particular actions. One party does this work, the other party pays this amount after the action is satisfactorily completed. A covenant has to do with relationship. This is how we are connected. This is how we are bound to one another. Here’s how we will protect one another in relationship. A covenant is more enduring and flexible in the same way that relationships endure challenges, change and grow over time.
When Jesus speaks about a new commandment he is pointing to a new covenant for his followers. They are to be bound to each other in love. They are to go do the actions of love, offer the protections of love, and be servants in the name of love. When he is no longer with them and they are unsure about what to do, they are to love. They are to love one another. They are to be known by the Christian ethic of love. They are to serve other people in the name of love.
The Ten Commandments, which are often thought of as thou shalts and thou shalt nots, words we think of in the imperative, are not really rules demanded by an angry God. They are words given as a part of a covenant, a relationship. Here are the foundation stones of a good relationship with God and one another. The first four commandments are about a loving connection and commitment with God. The other six are about good relationships with parents, a spouse, children, neighbors, and our community.
What happens to us culturally when our level of trust has fallen, when we feel divided, when the sources we once turned to are described as unreliable, when only those within our social tribe are acceptable, and those outside it are thought of as enemies? We may decide only our side can be right no matter the shortcomings or violations of our own sense of what is ethical. What do we do?
Love, Jesus says. Love one another. He didn’t say that only to Peter. He didn’t say it only to Thomas or to the sons of Zebedee. He said it to all of them. Presumably, that included the women since they would be the ones to stay by his side as he met his death, would be the first to witness his resurrection, and the first to tell the others about it. Love one another; all of them. His followers would be known by how they loved one another, as well as other people.
This kind of commandment implies a relationship of covenant. Covenants cross boundaries, reach out to people we have disagreements with, beckon us toward enduring relationships. This kind of love challenges us, maybe even obligates us, to no longer be divided, to live with a sense of integrity calls us to recognize the value of someone who is different from us or who is outside our tribe. To practice this kind of love is to catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God. It’s supposed to look like love, here and now.
Lander Bethel is the minister of Grand Avenue Presbyterian Church in Sherman and First Presbyterian Church in Denison. He earned a doctoral degree in ministry from McCormick Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Genna, live in Sherman. They have three sons.