My grandma had a brother who was one of the most worthless and trifling human beings I ever met. He was mean to his wife, ignored his children, avoided honest work like the plague and was known far and wide as the biggest and most brazen liar in half a state.
One day Grandma and one of her many granddaughters were sitting on the front porch; rocking, shelling peas and gossiping about the brother. The young woman maintained that her uncle was beyond hope and a serious embarrassment to herself and every other member of the family. She filled Grandma in on his latest episodes of public sorriness.
Grandma just rocked and shelled and nodded and listened and finally she said, “I’m sure everything you say is true. Still, Jesus loves your Uncle.” The granddaughter turned red in the face and sputtered, “I doubt that, I don’t think even Jesus could love him.” “Yes child,” Grandma said, “Jesus loves everybody and Jesus loves your uncle too.
Then she stopped rocking and shelling and sat perfectly still, while she stared off across the hills. “’ Course”, she said, almost to herself, “that could be ‘cause Jesus don’t know your Uncle as good as we do”.
That’s the crux of the problem. How are we expected to love someone we don’t even like? How are we to love people we don’t even know? Why do we need to love people who are different, or destructive, or damaged? Why would Jesus ever put us in that postion in the first place?
And that brings us back to Jesus. The night before Jesus was executed, he was sharing a final meal with his closest friends. Tucked in-between Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial are a few verses with the message to love, love, love.
When he [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, ‘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.’ (John 13:31-35)
Jesus could have said a lot of things. He could have called out Judas in front of everyone. He could have avoided Peter’s denial. He could have told them to keep the faith and bring everyone to salvation when he was gone. Instead, he tells them to love one another.
What makes loving others so difficult in our culture is that we identify love as a feeling. The kind of love Jesus is talking about is an action. It’s not tied to any feelings. In fact, it calls us to put our feelings aside and consider what is best – what is the loving thing to do – for the other person. This kind of love is also practical and sometimes tough.
- A colleague at work is having a hard time meeting the project deadline. You offer to help him even though you won’t receive any credit or recognition for your sacrifice.
- A friend has said some hurtful things about you to a mutual friend. You resist the urge to retaliate and say some truthful, but damaging , things about this friend.
- An abrasive family member is unemployed and doesn’t seem to be doing anything about finding work. You invite her to dinner a couple of times a week and don’t ask any prying questions or deliver any advice not asked for.
- A neighbor in the neighborhood dresses differently and doesn’t speak your language very well. When the neighborhood block party comes around, you make sure that family is invited, introduced to everyone else, and welcomed … even if you are the only one who will sit with them.
Love isn’t determined by the worthiness of the person being loved (although all people are worthy of love), but by the character and intentionality of the one who loves. Love is what Jesus left behind to bind us together. Love is how others will know we are his followers. Love sets us apart from in a world that has forgotten how to treat others with mercy and grace. Love compels us to not give up on those hardest to love.
The astounding fact that the whole language of loving one another as disciples is wedged between these two encounters of betrayal and denial. Lifting these verses about loving one another out of this context of betrayal and denial makes it just another morality piece, an injunction to love with sweet feelings and kind sentiments. Keeping this command to love within this real-life context makes it a call to a radical kind of love. Are you up for it?