Whom are we commanded to love?

A Sermon for Fifth Easter

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love one for another.

Many years ago I was walking with my grandson in a meadow in New Hampshire. I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but I remember quoting this text to him: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.” This text raises two crucial questions, and my grandson, who was just a young boy at the time, asked one of them. He said, “Do Christians just love other Christians, or do they love everybody?” In other words, whom are we commanded to love?

It is the same question the lawyer asked Jesus, after Jesus had affirmed that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. The lawyer, seeking to justify himself as we all tend to do, asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus response was the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the answer was clear. We are called to act as neighbor to anyone who needs our help. (Luke 10:25-37) We saw some wonderful examples of this when the bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon. Strangers rushed to help strangers. It wasn’t just official first responders, although they were there and they were heroic, but so were ordinary men and women, both runners and spectators, who rushed to help people they didn’t know simply because the victims were human beings and they needed help. Surely this impulse is a God-given instinct.

Jesus reached out to Gentiles, and got in a lot of trouble for it. In Nazareth when he said, “there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman, the Syrian. (Luke 4:27-29), the congregation tried to push him off a cliff.

Jesus reached out to Gentiles, but he also paid attention to the marginalized of his own nation, those at the edges, those not fully accepted in polite society. Rob Bell describes Jesus ministry this way:

“Jesus touches lepers whom no one else would touch, and hears the cry of blind people who had been told to be quiet, and dines with tax collectors whom everybody hated, and talks with a thirsty, loose Samaritan woman he wasn’t supposed to talk with.” (1) I believe it was former Presiding Bishop, Edmund Browning, who said, “In this church there will be no outsiders.”

But sometimes it is easier to love strangers than to love the people we know, the people we work with, or worship with, or live with—people whose faults and virtues we know all too well. That brings us to the second important question arising from our Gospel text. What does it mean to love on command? It has been truly said that love is the most powerful of the potent four-letter words i.e. hate, fear, work, and life, and maybe love is the hardest to understand.(2)

We ordinarily think of love as an emotion—a warm positive feeling towards another, but emotions can’t be commanded. We can’t love someone in the emotional sense just because we are supposed to. So what is Jesus commanding? Emotion can’t be commanded, but action can. We think of love as an emotion from which loving actions emerge. Emotion first, and action following, but it can be the other way around, loving action first, and, more likely than not, positive emotion will follow. If you work for another’s welfare, and remember the other in prayer long enough, chances are you will grow to appreciate that person.

Frederick Buechner tells of meeting an elderly widow in a church where he was interim minister for a few months. She was on welfare and living in the one small apartment left inhabitable in a house that had been gutted by fire a few years earlier. Buechner knew he should visit her. He really didn’t want to, but he told himself “. . .After all, I was all she had by way of a minister just then, and I was not so literary and detached and specialized as not to know that every once in a while. . . Christians are supposed to be Christs to each other for Christ’s sweet sake.”(3) So he steeled himself, and went to visit her. He expected complaints and tears. He expected to be bored. He expected to feel trapped. None of that happened. He visited her many times after that, and treasured the time he spent with her. It is a perfect example of loving action first, and emotion to follow. Love is not always a delightful thing we feel. Sometimes it is a difficult thing that we choose to do.(4)

Margaret Guenther, in commenting on our Gospel text, says this: “If we love one another as Jesus loves us, we must be ready to put aside our grudges, hurts, and righteous anger.” She goes on, “I tend to love with my fingers crossed. I’m ready to love almost everyone, but surely I can’t be expected to love the person who has harmed me, or who does not wish me well. Or who seems hopelessly wrong-headed. Surely I’m allowed one holdout, one person whom I may judge unworthy of love. But the commandment has no loopholes; it demands that we let go of our pet hates, the ones we clutch and carry around like a child with a teddy bear.”(5) We are to love as Jesus loves us, and I’m so very thankful that God does not love us on the basis of our worthiness. None of us is worthy. God loves us on the basis of God’s worthiness.

It seems impossible for us to love each other as Jesus loves us, but by the power of God all things are possible. It helps to recognize that love can be a matter of will, of loving action, that may precede loving emotion We must claim the promise that God “by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think.”(Eph. 3:20)

In our present society it has become very necessary to have a means of identification. We are often asked for a “picture ID” when we cash a check, or use a credit card, or register our health insurance in a doctor’s office. Jesus has given us a Christian ID. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” By this standard we are all incognito Christians from time to time.

Jesus did not say, everyone will know that you are my disciples if you believe the right things, or wear a cross around your neck, or go to church every Sunday—all good things—but not the Christian ID that Jesus gave us. He said everyone will know that you are my disciples if you treat one another with love.

Let us pray:

Ever-loving God,
who having loved us
loves us still,
help us to hear again your word,
“By this shall they know you are my disciples:
That you love one another.”
Turn our hostility into hospitality
and our callousness into care.
Through Christ our Lord
we pray. Amen. (6)


1) Bell, Rob, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, p.141.

2) Guenther, Margaret Christian Century, May 3, 1995, p.479.

3) Buechner, Frederick, Listening To Your Life, p.45,46.

4) Douglas, Deborah Smith, Weavings, v.XXV111, #1, p.12.

5) Guenther ibid.

6) Job, Rueben, Weavings, v.XXV111, #3, p.48.

—Mary Young
April 28, 2013