Practical love

John 13: 31 – 35 

Mervyn Thomas

The lectionary can sometimes seem a little odd. We have been through Good Friday and Easter day, but suddenly the Gospel  reading has looped back to Holy Thursday and the Last Supper.  The Gospel reading is from that part of John’s Gospel which we  call the farewell discourse: Jesus’ last teaching to His disciples  before his arrest and passion. In a way that is no bad thing, because it reminds us that the passion and resurrection of the Lord are at the heart of the Christian faith. 

The passage contains perhaps the two best known verses in  the Gospels: 

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 for one another.” 

That theme runs through the entire discourse. It is picked up  again in Chapter 15 where we read: 

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 

And a little later in the chapter: 

I am giving you these commands so that you may love one  another. 

Of course this could be just a huge cliché – a ten minute sermon on  the theme of wouldn’t it be nice if everyone were nice. But the thing about clichés is that they often embody profound truths. The  difference between a cliché and a life changing insight usually boils  down to the way in which we engage with it. 

So it is with this. We can sing ‘All You need is Love’ with beery tears in a pub karaoke. We can agree that we must love one another and  experience a rosy feeling of affection – and then go on our self  centred way. This is the path of the worst of all clichés: the religious cliché. 

Or we can take it seriously. The context of this commandment is  really important. It comes at a horrifying time in Jesus’ life. He gives this command immediately after He has seen one of His disciples  leave to betray Him. He gives this command in the knowledge of  his imminent violent and agonising death. This is a deeply serious  moment, and we need to understand that, to understand the  seriousness of this command. 

We also need to consider just what Jesus meant by love. In John 15,  after repeating the commandment to `love one another as I have  loved you’, Jesus says: 

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for  one’s friends. 

John clearly links this understanding of love to Our Lord’s death.  This is the type of love into which Our Lord calls his disciples, not an emotion, not a transient feeling, but a total commitment to the  beloved, a commitment with a profound depth and seriousness, a  commitment which calls us to give our lives away. There is nothing  easy or comfortable in this call. 

Most of us will not be called physically to die for others. But there  are other, intensely practical ways in which we can give ourselves.  The command is immediately preceded by the drama of the foot  washing. Jesus takes on the role of a slave to serve His disciples. It  is a very real, very human service. There are no warm feelings  involved, there is no eloquent expression of sentiment. There is just  dirty feet, clean water and a towel.  

I know of one family, currently coping with caring for a very  severely handicapped baby. Their worshipping community has been assiduous in providing frozen meals and other practical household  help. I know that this helps both by providing a solution to practical challenges, and also by demonstrating the care of the community. I  know that they have drawn strength from this care. From time to  time, every family experiences illness or troubles. From time to  time, everyone needs support. This is the sort of practical love that  Jesus commands. Thoughts and prayers are great, but sometimes  casseroles are better. Sometimes making a casserole for the family  of a sick friend is an act of prayer.

Sometimes practical love is simply a matter of listening; sometimes  it is a gift of our attention to someone who is grieving, anxious or in pain. Being open to the pain of others, simply being there for them  is an act of love. 

Our lives are full of opportunities to love, opportunities to give  ourselves to our friends and neighbours. They don’t have to be  dramatic, they are usually extremely prosaic. They are rarely  associated with strong emotions.  

Sometimes we are not even aware that we are loving. I remember  returning to England after my mother died, to organise her funeral  and her estate. I was supported by my oldest friend, with whom I  was at primary school, and by her sisters. I don’t think she knew  how extraordinary her family’s many small kindnesses to me were. 

In a sense, practical love is like muscle memory. We practice the  task repeatedly, until it happens automatically, done without  thought. Like any skill, if we do not practice we do it badly, if at all. 

I love this section of John’s Gospel. I love it because it speaks to us  of community, of a community of faith that incarnates the love of  the Father to the Son, and the Son to the disciples. It speaks of a  community that is open and welcoming. It speaks of a community  without borders and without exclusion, a community in which all of  us have a place and all of us are honoured and loved. It shows us  that it is in a community like this that we meet and know the risen  Lord. 

And that is the sort of person I want to be. That is the sort of  community I want to live in, to give myself to. And though I know  that I often get it wrong, that Holy Mother Church herself often gets  it wrong, that together we fail to be what Jesus and John call us to  be, this is nevertheless, what Church is all about. I stand here, this  Eastertide, because I can be nowhere else.

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