By Debie Thomas
What’s the weirdest commandment? Don’t make graven images? Remember the Sabbath? Avoid house envy? I’d like to propose that it’s the one Jesus gives his disciples in this week’s Gospel reading. “This is my commandment,” he tells them shortly before he’s arrested and crucified. “That you love one another as I have loved you.”
Why do I call this commandment weird? Well, think about it. Can we be ordered to love? Does love obey decrees? My guess is, most of us would say no. Shaped as we are by Hollywood, or Jane Austen novels, or romantic poetry, we usually think of love as spontaneous and free-flowing. We fall in love. Love is blind, it happens at first sight, it breaks our hearts, and its course never runs smooth.
Even if we put our culture’s hokey clichés aside, we know that authentic love can’t be manipulated, simulated, or rushed without suffering serious distortion. Those of us who have kids understand full well that commanding them to love each other never works. The most we can do is insist that our children behave as if they love each other: “Share your toys.” “Say sorry.” “Don’t hit.” “Use kind words.” But these actions — often performed with gritted teeth and rolling eyes — aren’t the same as what Jesus is talking about in John’s Gospel. Jesus doesn’t say, “Act as if you love.” He doesn’t give his disciples (or us) the easy “out” of doing nice things with clenched hearts. (Nor would I want him to; nothing feels as hollow as a “loving” act performed mechanically. Moreover, I doubt that the people who flocked to Jesus would have done so if they sensed that his compassion was thin or forced.) He says, “Love as I have loved you.” As in, for real. As in, the whole bona fide package. Authentic feeling, honest engagement, generous action. Honestly, doesn’t it sound like he’s asking for the impossible?
Maybe he is. G.K Chesterton once wrote that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Imagine what would happen to us, to the Church, to the world, if we took this commandment of Jesus’s seriously? What could Christendom look like if we obeyed orders and cultivated “impossible” love?
I ask these questions fearfully, because I don’t know how to answer them, even for myself. I mean, I know fairly well how to do things. I know how to make care packages for the homeless. Or bring dessert to the church potluck. Or send checks to my favorite charities. But do I know how to love as Jesus loved? To feel a depth of compassion that’s gut-punching? To experience a hunger for justice so fierce and so urgent that I rearrange my life in order to pursue it? To empathize until my heart breaks? Do I want to?
Most of the time — I’ll be honest — I don’t. I want to be safe. I want to keep my circle small and manageable. And I want to choose the people I love based on my own affinities and preferences — not on Jesus’s all-inclusive commandment. Charitable actions are easy. But cultivating my heart? Preparing and pruning it to love? Becoming vulnerable in authentic ways to the world’s pain? Those things are hard. Hard and costly.
So what can I do? Where must I begin? Jesus offers a single, straightforward answer: “Abide in my love.” Following on the heels of last week’s lectionary, Jesus extends the metaphor of the vine and branches and calls us once again to abide. To rest, to cling, to make ourselves at home. Not simply in him, but in his love.
My problem is that I often treat Jesus as a role model, and then despair when I can’t live up to his high standards. But abiding in something is not the same as emulating it. In the vine-and-branches metaphor, Jesus’s love is not our example; it’s our source. It’s where our love originates and deepens. Where it replenishes itself. In other words, if we don’t abide, we can’t love. Jesus’s commandment to us is not that we wear ourselves out, trying to conjure love from our own easily depleted resources. Rather, it’s that we abide in the holy place where human love becomes possible. That we make our home in Jesus’s love — the most abundant and inexhaustible love in existence.
As is so often the case in our lives as Christians, Jesus’s commandment leads us straight to paradox: we are called to action via rest. Called to become love as we abide in love. The commandment — or better yet, the invitation — is to drink our fill of the Source, which is Christ, spill over to bless the world, and then return to the Source for a fresh in-filling. This is our movement, our rhythm, our dance. Over and over again. This is where we begin and end and begin again.
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
“Abide in my love.”
These are finally not two separate actions. They are one and the same. One “impossible” commandment to save the world.
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