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What's love got to do with it?

John 13:31-35

     I was reading through John 13-17 again this week.  Those are the five chapters of the Bible that report what Jesus taught his closest followers on the last day before he went to the cross.  As I read and re-read today’s text, John 13:31-35, it felt to me like something I experienced in jr. high school:

     I tried out for the basketball team in the 7th grade.  Before going into the tryouts, the coach had a rather long discussion of many things we would have to know if we made the team.  But then he said, “Now listen up:  If you’re going to make this team at all, this is what you’re going to have to do!”  I really, really wanted to make the team – so I listened carefully and tried to do what he said every minute of the tryouts.

     Our text today is a lot like that.  Jesus had just said, “I love you and will love you to the end (13:1).  I love you so much that I am ready to become a slave to you. I love you so much I will die for you (13:2-17). Soon, the glory of God is going to be seen in me in ways it has never been seen before (13:31-32). But, for that to happen, I must go – and you cannot now come where I am going (v.33).”

     So, Jesus says, “Listen up. I have a new command for you.  This is what must be at the very center of your lives if you will follow me: 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.

Two Big Questions:

     As beautiful as these words from Jesus are, they have always given rise to two questions that simply must be answered, i.e., what’s new and what’s love?

Question #1:  What’s new?

     Many teachers had said that people are to love people long before Jesus said this on that evening before he died.  And, of course, Jesus personally had said that all the commands in the Scriptures can be boiled down into two, i.e., love God and love all people.  So, what is Jesus calling for here that is new? 

  • The focusJesus is calling all who place their faith in him to love one another in a special way.  We saw in 13:1 that Jesus loves all people in the world.  But, at the same, he has a special and focused love on those who place our faith in him.  Now, the same applies to us.  In the two great commands, we first are to love God with our entire beings.  Second, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.  And, according to Jesus in Luke 10, our neighbor is any human being whom God brings across our path.  Now, in John 13, we are commanded to have a special and focused love directed toward our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Our love for one another is to be so beautiful and so thoroughgoing that the world will see it and believe.
  • The “one-anothersThose we love as members of the family of God include any people from any age, ethnicity or background who place their faith in Jesus and follow him as Lord.  Anyone can be a one-another. I call those we are to love “God’s unexpected family”.  Scot McKnight calls it “a fellowship of differents”!
  • The standard – The love we show to one another within the church family is to be “just as Jesus loves us”.  That’s a rather high standard, isn’t it?  We’ll come back to it in a moment.

Question #2:  What’s love?

     Let me make this clear:  When Jesus commands us to love one another, he’s think about love in a deeper way than our culture usually thinks about it.  We cannot simply take out a dictionary and get it.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines love as a noun as “an intense feeling of deep affection.”  As a verb, love is “to feel a deep affection for, a romantic or sexual attachment to something or someone.”

    What the dictionary correctly captures is our culture’s main definition of love an emotional experience characterized by pleasure or by satisfaction. Brain researchers point to dopamine, a neurochemical that, when it is released, gives us the sense of pleasure. Some argue that that sexual pleasure, satisfaction in a relationship, and the taste of chocolate all share the same kind of neurochemical experience. It seems to me that most people in our society have accepted that view of love.  Most seem to think of love as an emotional experience, by which they mean something that provides a dopamine-like rush. But dopamine rushes are not what the Bible means by love.

     Listen carefully here:  Because our culture — and many Christians — have embraced this understanding of love, we struggle with love in our marriages, in our families, in our relationships with close friends and with one another in church. We think of love as something that we feel one day and then not the next.  How many times have I heard it? “Pastor, I just don’t feel what I once felt toward her.  Now, I feel it toward someone else!”  And, relationships are thereby broken. I believe that most of us probably have our hearts wrapped around the wrong ideas about love. The Bible’s understanding of love does not begin with a dopamine rush?  It begins with something most people don’t know or want to ignore.

     What does Jesus mean by love when he commands it of us?  When you think of love according to the Bible, begin with the word commitment.  Love is a heartfelt and unrelenting commitment to others.  My friend, Scot McKnight calls it a rugged commitment.

     The Bible begins telling us what love is with the story of God making a covenant commitment to a man named Abraham and to all who will come in his line.  The main word translated “love” in the OT usually is the Hebrew word hesed.  It speaks of a covenantal commitment.  When God spoke of love, he did so by making a commitment to do what is best for his people, to direct them to a life of shalom, and to make them a blessing throughout the world. This is the kind of love that we see in the life of Jesus – and the kind of love that he commands us to engage in toward one another.  This kind of love is not primarily emotion or affection – though emotion and affection are often a part of it.  It is a commitment made to another person.

    Now, I know: This kind of love sounds great – until you actually are called upon to continue to be committed to love when you don’t want to -- like to the person who always takes the political view that you disagree with (and is belligerent abut it!).  Love is a great concept until you discover what your neighbors actually are like -- until the kids you know you should love are out of control.  And, this love for one another in church often sounds great until you see who sits next to you at church on Sunday.

     So, I think the really challenging thing in a message like this is looking at the beautiful ways Jesus carried out his loving commitment to us -- and then saying, "That's what our relationships should look like in church.”  So, what kind of love is Jesus asking of us today with this command?  In his book, Fellowship of Differents, Scot McKnight suggests that the “rugged commitment” Jesus commands us to make to one another can be understood by using some memorable pronouns.  I’ll follow his lead:

Loving as Jesus Loved Is:    

A Commitment to Be “With

     At our Christmas Eve services, I spoke to us about the power of “with”.  When I walked into my father’s room in intensive care last month, he greeted me and then told me that, for the first time in his 92 years, he was quite sure that he was going to die.  As you know, after being with him several days, I felt I needed to return home to be with you for the Christmas services.  So, when I was saying goodbye to him at the hospital, my Dad said to me, “Greg, these were precious days for me.  It was wonderful to be with you.” 

     I keep thinking about those words “precious” and “wonderful” that my Dad had used to describe the days we had together.  I don’t think most of us would have described his experience as precious or wonderful.  He was in constant pain.  Often, he could hardly breathe. Still, he was quite sincere in describing the days as precious and wonderful.  I know that the reason for his contentment is found in the words – “with you”.  He loved me – and that love always meant that he loved to be with me.  What a powerful word that word “with” is.  It can transform pain into precious and woe into wonderful.  I know without any doubt that biblical love is characterized by a commitment to be with the person you love.

     When you read the Bible through, you see how, again and again, God expresses his commitment to his people by saying he chooses to be with us.  In the Garden of Eden, in a pillar of cloud and fire through the wilderness, in a mobile edifice called a “tabernacle,” and then in a beautiful temple…  God always let people know that he is present with us.  God demonstrates his love through being present with his people. 

     But God’s deepest commitment to be “with” was expressed through Jesus being born into this world and, as John put it in John 1, “tabernacling” among us.  “We saw him!”  John marveled. Jesus was “Immanuel, God with us” (Matthew 1:23).  In John 13-17, on Jesus’ last day being with his followers physically, he wants them to know he will not leave them alone.  In ch.14, Jesus will say, “I will not leave you as orphans.  I will come to you through my Spirit.  He will be “with you” even when I am away.”  So, I ask: How did Jesus love his disciples?  One of the main ways was his commitment to be “with them.”

     Love cannot be love without presence – without being with people.  And the more you love, the more you long to be with the one you love!  This kind of love is commanded of all of us – and not just for for married people. I feel I have to say this because some married people cannot think of love in terms other than marriage. Love is a faithful commitment by one person, married or not, to another person, married or not.  

     And, Jesus is saying here in vv.33-35 that the world should see this kind of love among us in a church like LAC.  We begin to obey Jesus’ command when we make a commitment to be with one another.  The most basic way that this will be seen is by your regular commitment to worship with your church family.  A person who does not want to worship “with” his entire church family does not love as Jesus loved.  This relationship of love as Jesus loves’ that must grow in every church that wants to obey Jesus. Let me tell you that this kind of committed love will go through stormy times -- but love hangs on through the storm. It is the hanging on and continuing to walk with one another that shows the world what love is. In church, we say to one another: “I’m here with you through it all.  Count on me.”

Commitment to be for

        I am profoundly touched by the way Jesus in v.33 begins those who follow him.  He calls us “little children.”  Jesus is our creator in 1:3, our savior in 3:16-17, our lord and master in 13:14, and our friend in 15:14.  As a friend always acts for the best for a true friend or a parent always wants the best for his little child, Jesus always acts for those he loves.  As Jesus had said in John 10, he will die “for his sheep.”  A significant part of biblical love is that you can always know that Jesus is for you.

     I bask in Romans 8 when I think about my eternal condition.  God promises that he will make something beautiful out of our lives –he will conform us to the image of Christ.  And, if anyone says, “You?  What makes you so optimistic about your future?”  Here’s the answer in Rom 8:31-32:  If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

     That’s what our love is to be like?  “Just as Jesus loves us (and is with us and for us), so we are to love one another.”  Church is to be a place where people are “for” one another.

     Have you ever had a friend or colleague who, if you left the room for a while, when you returned, you knew that person would have spoken good thing about you?  You knew that, when you would return to the group, you would be more respected by the group– because that person was for you.  Do you have a friend like that?  Or, have you ever experienced the opposite?  When you got back to the group, you knew that people had been tearing you down?  Jesus is for us – and commands us to be a community of people who are for one another.

     The language we often is use is, “I’ve got your back” or “I’m on your side.” If the world sees a whole church like this, it will be astounded.  All people will know we are Christians.

      I have to back up and back off from this positive and hopeful sketch of love being “for” the one we love, and give voice to two things that I imagine all of you are thinking:

  1. Being for a person doesn’t mean that we only say sweet things to a person.  No, no.  Being “for” a person often means that we have to confront things in a person’s life that are sinful and destructive.  But, note this:  The reason we do so is not to tear down or to criticize.  We confront out of love.  We confront sin because we are “for” the other person.  It’s just as Jesus said to the woman taken in prostitution.  “I do not condemn you.  But, go and sin no more.”
  2. Many people have never experienced the church as being a community of people who are committed to be “for” one another. Sometimes a so-called “Christian” is abusive. When abuse happens, the commitment of love to that person has to be changed, if not ended. At other times, we will still have to deal with gossip and other destructive speech in a church.  But, whatever happens, do not forget that a part of Jesus’ love is that he offered grace to those who failed.  In my next message to you, I’ll show you how Peter, Thomas and Philip all failed.  The same continues to happen as God works on and in us.  In those three men’s situations, Jesus lovingly confronted them and eventually they were corrected and restored.  Of course, last week, we saw how Jesus offered a deeper relationship to another man named Judas.  And, Judas walked away from the Lord and into the night.

     Not all who profess to be Christians really are.  One sure mark of a true believer is that, when confronted with the commands of Jesus, there is repentance, forgiveness and change.  My basic point is this:  Jesus commands us to love one another.  One part of that is that we will be “for” one another.

Commitment to serve toward

     It’s clear to me that one characteristic of Jesus’ love is that it was purposeful.  It had a clear goal of helping the one he loved to move closer toward what God had created that person to be.  In John 10, Jesus knew that his friend Lazarus was very sick but chose not to go immediately to where Lazarus was.  Why?  Listen to Jesus’ words in 10:14-15:  Jesus told his disciples plainly,Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”

     Do you see it?  The loving choice that Jesus made flowed out of a commitment to do for them whatever would deepen their faith.  Let me put it this way: If “with” means the one who loves will be present in our lives, and “for” means he will advocate on our behalf, then toward-ness means the one who loves us will always be focused on the direction of our lives.  Jesus loves you, and Jesus’ kind of love has the goal of transforms you into a faithful, loving, holy, God-glorifying and others-oriented person.  Christian love has direction. It aims at one person helping another to become Christlike.

     How do we do this?  Will you consider being a spiritual mother or father to those in the church who are new in the faith – or to our children by teaching them or mentoring them?  It seems to me that Jesus is suggesting here that the single, most powerful influence of parents on children – and of one church member on another – is, 1) the dynamic of presence – of making a commitment to be with others.  Then, 2) letting those others know you are for them – that you have their backs.  And, then 3) always speaking and acting in ways that direct them to become like Christ.    

     Genuine friendships always change you.  We become like the ones we love. And, Christian love within the church is to be a love in which the main concern that each one of us has is that each other one in our church family will move toward becoming complete in Christ.  Col. 1:28-29 have become theme verses for us at LAC.  In the context of Jesus command, read it again:  We proclaim Christ, admonishing each one and teaching each one with all wisdom, so that we may present each one fully mature in Christ. 29 To this end we strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in us.


     There it is:  Jesus’ love as revealed in the Bible is an unrelenting commitment to be with you, to be for you, and always to be acting in ways that move you toward becoming what he created you to be.  And when you become a Christian he gives you a new command.  You are still to love all people.  But now, he says, you are to love God’s people just as he loves you.  Jesus says that, when we do, this is how people will know we are Christians.  Jesus is thereby saying that – more than strategic planning, more than training in witnessing, more than coming up with good arguments against those who oppose us – that a personal experience with him lived out in a community that loves as Jesus loves has the greatest impact in furthering the gospel than anything else!  This is how the world will know you are my disciples – when you love one another as I have loved you.

     To love another person as Jesus loves means we are committed to them even when it is demanding and difficult, if not seemingly impossible.  This kind of love is hard. It’s sometimes hard to love our own biological families!  (Anyone say amen to that?) I won’t even begin with how hard it can be to love the kinds of people Jesus welcomes into his church.  But, Jesus will help us – for he loves us.  And, just before he died for us, he said this:

My children, I will be with you only a little longer…  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 (John 13:33-35).”

To His glory,

Dr. Greg Waybright
Senior Pastor

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Greg Waybright • Copyright 2015, Lake Avenue Church