JOHN 13:31-35

JANUARY 3, 2010

Play Audio



           My parents divorced when I was in the first grade.  When I was in the fourth grade a man named “Nick” and his roommate “Abe” moved into the apartment next to ours.  We lived in a small, one story apartment complex, eight units in all.  In the sixth grade my mother married Nick.  The marriage was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  I had my own, personal “St. Nick.”  He was wonderful.  He was a huge sports fan like me and took me to Dodger games, and Laker games, and at the time, Los Angeles Rams games.  He especially loved the Rams.  He was a blue-collar -union member, a “quality control inspector.’  His primary responsibility was to inspect thermostats before they were shipped from the South Pasadena factory where he worked.  In a sense, that’s the purpose of this sermon series, to inspect, and hopefully improve, the quality of Christian fellowship in the church.  

            You see, anywhere people gather there will be problems.  Even Jesus’ little band of followers had problems.  Judas betrayed him.  The disciples were envious of one another.  They squabbled over seemingly little things.  In other words, there is no such thing as a perfect fellowship this side of heaven, and so in this sermon series we are going to go back to the basics.  We are going to go back to the “one another” passages in the Bible.  These “one another” phrases like “love one another,” and “pray for one another,” and “encourage one another,” and “bear one another’s burdens” were directives to Christians concerning their life together.  They are the building blocks of Christian community, of how we should relate one another within the Body of Christ.  Moreover, there are a number of them.  So many, that this series will take us all the way through the month of June, and we will begin with the best known of the “one another” directives ... love one another.

            One could write an entire book on the importance of love in the Old and New Testaments.  In fact, I have one in my library at home, entitled Testaments of Love: A Study of Love in the Bible, by Leon Morris.  The book is 298 pages long with fine print, footnotes, and no pictures!

            In 1929, Cole Porter wrote a hit song about love for one of his musicals in which he asks, "What is this thing called love?  Ask the Lord in heaven above, what is this thing called love?"  The song had feet. For the next fifty years or so, singers in nightclubs—Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and others—sang that song.  I think the reason it lasted so long was that it was asking a question that any thoughtful person in our culture would ask. Really—what is this thing called love?

            Well, one of the best places to find an answer to Cole Porter’s question is our passage from John’s gospel.  In the thirteenth chapter we get an idea of what Jesus meant by his call to love.

            Before reading the text, here is a reminder of the scene.  Jesus’ words here are his opening lines in the farewell address to his disciples.  They have gathered in the Upper Room.  They have shared much over the past three years.  They have laughed together, argued together, loved and cried together.  Now the remaining time is short. Judas has just left to betray Jesus. With him gone, Jesus turns to his disciples and says,


            Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.  If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.  Little children, I am with you only a little longer.  You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”  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 (NRSV).


            While reading these words, maybe the same question popped into your head, as popped into mind.  As I read these words I thought to myself, “Why would Jesus say this is a “new commandment?”  After all, we find similar words recorded in the Levitical law ... “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  So, since this commandment has been around for centuries, why would he call it new?  Well, the newness of the commandment lay not in the commandment itself, but in the descriptive clause attached to it: Love one another as I have loved you.

            In other words, a new, deeper dimension has been added.  The deeper dimension is Christ.  We are called to love one another as Jesus loved his disciples.  That, of course, leads us to our next question.  How did Jesus love his disciples?  What exactly characterized his love for them?   William Barclay, in his commentary on John from The Daily Study Bible Series, suggests that Jesus loved his disciples in four ways.  Let’s look at those four ways now.

            First, Barclay says that Jesus loved his disciples selflessly.  Now, that’s not always the case with us.  We often think of what we can get from love.  We think of the thrill we will receive, or the emptiness or loneliness we will suffer if love fails or is denied.  But Jesus, according to Barclay, never thought of himself.  His one desire was to give himself and all the had, even his life, for those he loved.

            An article in Fast Company magazine clarified this kind of love for me.  The article was about a very successful man whom you have probably never heard of: David Kelley.  Kelley is the founder of what many regard as the premier design firm in the country—Ideo—and a professor at Stanford University for more than 30 years.  He is a creative genius.  Unfortunately, at age 56, Kelley discovered a lump on his body, and the doctors told him he had cancer.

            Sheer hell ensued.  Chemo, surgery, radiation.  Mouth sores.  A throat so raw he could barely swallow.  Nausea so severe he couldn't concentrate enough to read or even watch TV.  "I spent nine months in a room trying not to throw up," he says.  He lost 40 pounds.

            Kelley is happily married and has one daughter.  As Kelley struggled through the difficult emotions that come with this kind of experience, he discovered his reason to live.  Kelley says about his daughter:


            At first, you think, "I don't want to miss her growing up."  That's motivating, but not that motivating.  It's when you manage to get out of yourself and start thinking of her that you get the resolve to continue.  When you think, "I don't want her not to have a father"—then you want to stay alive.[1]


            What gave Kelley a reason to endure the suffering of his treatment was not the pleasure he would get out of experiencing life with his daughter, as wonderful as that would be.  Kelley realized that what truly motivated him was the benefit he could bring to his daughter.  What motivated Kelley at the deepest level was selfless love for another.  The kind of love Jesus had for his disciples, and the kind of love he wants to typify our loving of one another.

            Second, Barclay reminds us that Jesus loved sacrificially.  Barclay says that we sometimes make a mistake.  We think that love is meant to give us happiness, and it most often does, but it may well be that love brings us pain, as evidenced by the cross.

            Trudy’s best friend’s cancer has returned.  You have been praying for her, and the most recent news is not good.  The doctor said when this type of cancer returns the average person lives another two years.  Two years ago she got the news she had cancer, just before Christmas.  Last year, just before Christmas she was told she had a benign tumor on her brain that needed to be removed, and she had it removed the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  This holiday season, she was told the cancer had returned.

            In a moment of honesty, she tearfully said to Trudy, “I feel so bad for Randy,” (That’s her husband).  She said, “He did not sign up for this.”  Actually, he did, when he married her.  He signed up for sacrificial love just as everyone who got married at one time in his or her life also signed up for it.  I take you to be my lawfully wedded spouse in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, for better for worse, until death do us part.”  We also signed up for that when we became a follower of Christ. 

            Third, Barclay reminds us that Jesus also loved his disciples understandingly.  Barclay says that Jesus knew all about them, and yet he still loved them. 

            You have heard the saying, “Love is blind.”  I disagree.  Real love is open-eyed.  It loves, not what it imagines a person to be, but it loves the person as he or she is. 

            I sometimes think of the church, and my relationships with the people in it, as a grassy field.  When I first became a Christian and entered the church all I saw in that field were beautiful flowers and trees and rolling hills.  And it remained that way for awhile, but then, maybe a few months of being a church member, I began to step in cow pies.  I stepped in sins and flaws and idiosyncrasies and weaknesses and annoying habits of the people around me.

            And I tried to forgive them and endure them with grace, but those things have a way of dominating relationships.  I know it’s not true, but sometimes, on some days in the church, it feels like that's all there is—cow pies.

            So what do we do with the cow pies?  Look for another field?  Some do that all the time.  They church hop, from church to church to church, but I think there’s a better way, a more “Christian” way, if you will.  One needs to exercise forbearance and understanding, and create a compost pile.  That's where you shovel the cow pies.

            You both look at yourself and you look at the people around you, go ahead look to your right and to your left, look at the people in front of you and in back of you, and simply admit that there are a lot of cow pies, including yourself.  After all, you know your own sins and idiosyncrasies most of all.  But then you say: You know, there is more to our relationship together than cow pies, and I can lose sight of that if I keep focusing on these cow pies.  Let's throw these cow pies all in the compost pile.   When we have to, we will go there and smell it and feel bad and deal with it the best we can.  And then we are going to walk away from that pile and set our eyes on the rest of our field.  We will pick some favorite paths and hills that we know are not strewn with cow pies.  And we will be thankful for the part of the field that is sweet.[2]

            That’s what Jesus did with his disciples and that’s what he does with us.  He loves us understandingly, cow pies and all.

            Fourthly, and finally, Barclay reminds us that Jesus not only loved the disciples selflessly, and sacrificially, and understandingly, he loved them forgivingly.  Think about it.  The leader of the group was about to deny him, and all of them would forsake him and flee in his hour of need.  They seldom, in the days of his earthly ministry, really understood him.  They were blind, and insensitive and slow to learn, and they were not all that understanding.  But Jesus did not hold this against them.  There was no failure that would not forgive. 

            Since we have been forgiven much, may we practice loving forgiveness as well.

            Let’s stand and sing and prepare ourselves to come to Christ’s table of hope and love.

[1] Linda Tischler, "Ideo's David Kelley on 'Design Thinking,'" Fast Company (Feb, 2009), p. 80

[2] Adapted, John Piper, This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence (Crossway Books, 2009), p. 59.