Summary: How do we love each other as Jesus loves us?
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
These are very familiar words – surely among the best known of Jesus’ sayings - and we have just heard them again in today’s Gospel reading.
There is a saying “love is blind” but that is not true. Blind love can only end in bitterness and disillusion. Real love is open eyed. It loves, not what it imagines a person to be, but what that person really is.
Jesus lived and worked and travelled with his disciples for 3 years; he knew them through and through. He knew their weaknesses and their faults but he loved them despite these. He carried on loving Peter even when Peter denied him when he most needed a friend. He carried on loving Thomas even though he doubted him. He carried on loving James and John even when their self-serving ambition showed just how thoroughly they had misunderstood the nature of God’s kingdom. During his earthly ministry, none of his disciples ever really understood him. They were blind, insensitive, slow to learn and lacking in understanding. In the end they were cowards, deserting Jesus in his hour of need. Jesus held nothing of this against them; there was no failure that he could not forgive.
This is how God loves us. It is a love that is both infinite and intimate. By that I mean that it is without limit, but at the same time personal. He knows us better than we know ourselves and loves each one of us for the unique individuals that we are. He loves us both because of who we are and despite who we are. He loves me because I am his own beloved child and he loves me still despite all the petty weaknesses and meannesses that I may succeed in hiding from you, and even from myself, but which I can never hide from him.
Often in our love of others there is an element of selfishness. We think, perhaps unconsciously, of what is in it for us - perhaps happiness or maybe the end of loneliness – but God’s love is not like that. He loves us from the beginning of our existence and continues to love us whether or not we return that love.
In Jesus we see the embodiment of that selfless, forgiving, understanding, self-sacrificing love. His one desire was to give himself and all he had for those he loved. There was no limit to what this love would give or where it would go. No demand that could be made upon it was too much. If love meant the Cross, then Jesus was prepared to go there.
And we are commanded to love one another in just this way! That, surely, is a pretty tall order. How DO we begin to obey this commandment?
Jesus also said that we should “love our neighbours as ourselves” and I suggest that this is one starting place – we must first learn to love ourselves. The full realisation of how much God loves us and values us should give us the confidence to overcome the self-hatred or self-dislike which some people really do suffer from. However, I believe that most of us are not like that.
Most of us probably think we are pretty OK. We look around at the world and see that we’re not as bad as many other people. We’re law-abiding, respectable and reasonably considerate of others. In other words a bit smug and complacent, a bit in danger of being like the Pharisee praying in the Temple who was so condemned by Jesus, “God I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
Our love of ourselves should be like God’s love for us; it should be based on a knowledge of what we are really like; it should recognise both our strengths and our weaknesses. True recognition of our weaknesses should lead neither to self-loathing nor the complacent acceptance that says, “It’s the way I am; I can’t help it; I can’t change.” Yes, God loves us knowing our weaknesses, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want better for us. He created each one of us in his image. He created within us the potential for perfection. It grieves him when that potential is marred by our sins and shortcomings. He wants each one of us to be the best we can possibly be. If we ask, he will reach out and through his grace enable us to change. He will free us from past hurts and unhelpful habits and allow us to grow into the mature, whole individuals he created us to be.