What is the mark of the followers of Jesus? We know the answer. It is found in this passage. Jesus said that followers of Jesus will be known by their love for each other. However, look at the way Christians act, the practices we engage in, and the ways we measure success, and we betray our true thinking on this matter. Jesus says the identity marker before the world is our love for each other. Our behavior falls short: Christians fight over doctrine, or practices, or the color of paint and break fellowship, and form new churches. If you don’t believe right or act right, the gospel becomes a weapon or a cause for division. And we have not yet talked about how the church engages in the world with a spirit of triumphalism, and judgement
These words in John 13 are the beginning of Jesus’ farewell discourse. This words culminating in the Lord’s Prayer in John 17 are some of the most gripping of Jesus’ teaching. In this section Jesus, following Daniel 7, proclaims who he is saying the son of man is being glorified. The Father’s plan is crashing towards fulfillment. These events are bringing glory to God.
Jesus senses that his time in earth is rapidly coming to a close. He will be leaving his disciples, his students, his friends. There is still so much to teach them. There is so little time. This discourse reveals the critical work of the Holy Spirit in the continuing teaching ministry of Jesus (John 14:25ff. 16:5ff.).
Jesus also gives his disciples a new commandment, actually an old commandment with a twist. Followers of Jesus are to love one another. That is stated in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18). The twist now is that followers of Jesus are to love one another as Jesus loved them.
Jesus is telling his ancient followers, and he is commanding us: copy me. In the way that you treat one another—copy me. This is a part of the extension of the mission of Jesus to the world. He will say in chapter 20, as the Father has sent me, now I am sending you. That sending must involve specific practices. These are practices of compassion, hospitality and embrace. These are not practices of division, judgment and exclusion. Jesus says, people will know that you are my follower by loving each other the same way I have loved you.
The notion of loving one anohter emerges from the the biblical narrative of God creating humanity to be the imago dei. We are the reflection of the divine character of love (1 John 4:8ff.). This imago dei is lived out in the church as the church lives into the reign of God. The people of God, being “in Christ,” live out the divine character of love. (See Stan Grenz, Renewing the Center). God is love and we are called to be people who love each other and who are sent into the world to be people of love. Imago dei and missio dei are intertwined.
Jesus calls his followers to a ruthless commitment to each other. The church is family. The church is the body of Christ. We are called to unity in the midst of diversity and even fraility and brokenness. Nothing is to stand in the way of fellowship and sacrifice and deference to the other. Somehow a drive towards sound doctrine and right practices must square with this command to love. The church must not endorse hypocrisy or soften on discipleship. Still we are called to love on another as Christ loves us. This is the art of being church. It is not always easy.
Jesus just demonstrated with a whisper what this love looks like as he humbled himself and washed his disciples feet (John 13:1ff.). He will demonstrate this love fully with a shout as he goes to the cross. This self-sacrificing, self-giving love is the type of love we are to demonstrate towards one another. Stop for a moment; ponder this command. How the church falls short.
The call to the community of faith beginning with local congregations is simply to love each other as Jesus loved the church. When Paul urged certain believers in Philippi to get along he appealed to the self-emptying work of Jesus (Philippians 2). When Paul calls husbands to honor their wives, he points to Jesus self-giving love for the church (Ephesians 5: 25ff.) John drove this message home to his community in 1 John (see Raymond Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves and Hates of an Individual Congregation in New Testament Times). Listen in to some of John’s teaching:
1John 2:7 Dear friends, I am not writing a new commandment, for it is an old one you have always had, right from the beginning. This commandment—to love one another—is the same message you heard before. 8 Yet it is also new. This commandment is true in Christ and is true among you, because the darkness is disappearing and the true light is already shining. 9 If anyone says, “I am living in the light,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is still living in darkness.
1John 3:14 If we love our Christian brothers and sisters, it proves that we have passed from death to eternal life. But a person who has no love is still dead. 15 Anyone who hates another Christian is really a murderer at heart. And you know that murderers don’t have eternal life within them. 16 We know what real love is because Christ gave up his life for us. And so we also ought to give up our lives for our Christian brothers and sisters. 17 But if anyone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help—how can God’s love be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us stop just saying we love each other; let us really show it by our actions.
1John 4:7 Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 But anyone who does not love does not know God—for God is love. 9 God showed how much he loved us by sending his only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. 10 This is real love. It is not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.11 Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love has been brought to full expression through us.
1John 4:20 If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we have not seen? 21 And God himself has commanded that we must love not only him but our Christian brothers and sisters, too. 5:1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God. And everyone who loves the Father loves his children, too. 2 We know we love God’s children if we love God and obey his commandments.
This is the call on the church. We are to copy Jesus. We are to love each other as Jesus has loved us. This is the mark of being part of the community of Jesus, one of the followers of Jesus. As we engage in the world, as the Father sends us into the world, this is our stance. This is Jesus command to us: copy me, love one another.