Sermon Text: John 13:31-35
Pastor Steven Pagels
In the name of Christ Jesus, dear friends:
When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once. My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
When Jesus announced to his disciples, “A new command I give you,”do you think they were sitting on the edge of their seats? Were they hanging on the next words that would come out of the Teacher’s mouth? After all, these men had been with Jesus for the better part of three years. They had listened to his sermons. They had learned lasting spiritual lessons from his parables. On more than one occasion the Lord had explained to his disciples who he was and why he had come into the world.
But on this sacred occasion, as they were gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, Jesus told them that he was about to tell them something new. And this is what he said: “Love one another.” Love one another? That command wasn’t new. God gave very similar instructions to his Old Testament people (Leviticus 19:18). And Jesus had uttered almost identical words earlier in his ministry (Matthew 22:39). So if the divine mandate to love is really thousands of years old, what did Jesus mean when he called this command new?
That’s a good question, a question that deserves our consideration because the answer will have implications for disciples of Jesus today. We will see that our Lord’s command is both ancient and relevant when he tells us to…
LOVE ONE ANOTHER
A love that is modeled by Christ
A love that is the mark of Christians
“When he was gone…” (31). The “he” was Judas, one of the twelve disciples, the only disciple who had been given a specific job: treasurer. The other disciples thought that he had gone out to buy food or make a donation to the poor, but Jesus knew better. Jesus knew that Judas had been plotting to betray Jesus…because he loved money more than he loved Jesus.
One of the seats at the Passover table was now empty. One of the disciples had been brought down by the devil’s temptations. But the rest of the disciples remained, and only Jesus knew what awaited them…and him. To prepare them for his impending passion, he explained: “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’” (33).
In a matter of hours Jesus would be arrested and separated from his closest followers. In a matter of weeks Jesus would ascend into the clouds after commissioning his disciples to preach the good news to all creation. He wanted them to understand that his time on earth was coming to an end, but he also wanted to remind them that after he left they would still have each other, to support each other, to encourage each other, to love one another.
That was Jesus’ new command. It wasn’t new in the sense that they had never heard words like those before. What was new about it was the phrase Jesus attached to it. As I have loved you. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (34).
Jesus had put his love on display earlier that evening, when he went around the room and one-by-one washed the disciples’ feet. Without saying a word, Jesus was teaching them a valuable lesson. People who love others put the needs of others before their own. People who love others are willing to make sacrifices. People who are motivated by love are eager to serve.
And if washing the disciples’ feet got their attention, if what Jesus did for them made them realize how much he loved them, imagine how they felt later that night when their Master was handcuffed and hauled away in the garden. Imagine how they felt the next morning when Jesus was accused of insurrection and sentenced to death by crucifixion. Imagine how they felt when their Lord was lifted up on a cross like a common criminal. And imagine how much differently they felt, image the joy they must have felt on Easter Sunday when their risen Savior appeared to them alive and brought them a message of peace.
Jesus didn’t just tell his disciples to love each another. He showed them how to love each other, by serving them, by sacrificing his life for them. And that selfless love, that perfect love, that amazing love that was modeled by Christ, the Lord calls for that same kind of love to be the distinguishing mark of Christians.
Jesus’ command made an impression on one of his disciples because decades later John (who referred to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved) wrote these words: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God” (1 John 4:7). And John’s words must have made a lasting impression on the Christian church because about a century after he wrote them we come across a quote by the church father Tertullian. It’s just a short passage tucked into a much longer work, in which Tertullian describes the ongoing conflict between pagans and Christians. In spite of the tension, in spite of the friction, in spite of their open hostility against the church, the unbelieving world couldn’t help but notice something that made these followers of Jesus stand out. They remarked: “See how they love one another.”
We are separated from Tertullian by thousands of miles and close to two thousand years, but is our situation today all that different? Believers are still surrounded by unbelievers. Christians are still confronted by an unchristian and increasingly anti-Christian culture. And this comparison leads to an interesting (and perhaps indicting) question:
What are all the unbelievers saying about us? What are your friends and neighbors and co-workers saying about you? When unchurched people talk about the people they know who call themselves Christians, do they say: “See how they love each other”? Or do they observe different behaviors, not-so-holy behaviors? Do believers stand out because we are so filled with care and compassion, or are there times when there isn’t much that distinguishes us from the unbelieving world at all?
Christ-like love may be a mark of Christians, but so is sin. And if someone makes the claim that Christians are just a bunch of hypocrites, my best response would be: “You are absolutely right!” Christians are no better than other people. Christians aren’t holier than other people. If you know people who go to church, and if you have been around them for any length of time, you know from personal experience how cold and uncaring we can be.
What makes us different, and what makes all the difference, is that we know Jesus. We know how much Jesus loves us. We know that Jesus has forgiven us. It’s not because of how good we are. It’s not because of how much good we do. It’s because of Jesus that we have hope. It’s because of Jesus that we have peace. It’s because of Jesus that we are headed to heaven.
We love because he first loved us. We love our Savior. We love our neighbor. And we want to stand out in this world…not like a sore thumb…like a shining beacon. We want other people to look at us and say: “See how much they love one another.” And we pray that God will turn those observations into opportunities for us to share the love of Jesus with people who so desperately need it.
It is standard practice for a pastor to choose a free text for his farewell sermon. Instead of preaching on one of the appointed Scripture lessons for the day, he picks a text that fits the occasion. I don’t know if you noticed, but I didn’t do that. I didn’t need to do that because the today’s lessons, especially the gospel lesson, couldn’t be more perfect. The theme of the day is love, and that love takes many different forms: Christ’s love for the church, the Christian’s love for God, the love Christians feel and show to each other…and the love between a pastor and his people.
The last few days I was able to spend some time reflecting on my time at St. Matthew’s. And it went by so fast. I look out and see the faces of couples I have married and the loved ones of members I have buried. I think of all the baptisms and confirmations and graduations and open houses and church picnics and vacation Bible schools and Live Nativities and meetings (lots and lots of meetings). And when I think back and recount everything that has happened here in the last six and a half years, I am filled with a profound sense of gratitude.
First, I thank God for using me to help move this ministry forward. And I thank you, the members of St. Matthew’s. On behalf of Shannon and our two girls, thank you for your friendship. Thank you for your support and encouragement. Most of all, thank you for your partnership in proclaiming the gospel. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve you and to serve with you.
Over the past couple weeks some of you have asked what you can do to help us during this time of transition. I think we are in pretty good shape, so we don’t need more boxes or more food. But if I may be so bold, there is one thing you can do. There is one thing you can all do for me. I don’t want you give more money or volunteer more of your time. My only request is that you do what your Savior asks you to do.
My dear Christian friends, take these words of Jesus to heart. Take them to heart and then put them into practice in your life. Love each another. As your Savior has loved you, love one another. All people will know that you are disciples of Jesus when you love one another. Amen.