Magazine article The Christian Century

No Exceptions Permitted

Magazine article The Christian Century

No Exceptions Permitted

Article excerpt

John 13:13-35

I READ THE ASSIGNED Gospel passage and thought, This message is clear. Jesus is talking about love. But as time went on, I was not so sure. I found myself wrestling with the passage and wrestling with the whole idea of love. I wondered if the disciples knew what Jesus was talking about. I wondered if I knew what he was talking about.

Love is the most powerful of the potent four-letter words--hate, fear, work, life. And maybe love is the hardest of all to understand. Jesus says, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another." This is absurd, if not impossible: how can anyone command love? I can hear my grandmother's voice enjoining my big brother--the only person I have ever bitten (but he had it coming!)--and me to love each another because God had given us to each other as brother and sister. We glared at each other and marveled at her naivete. The idea of loving somebody because we were supposed to boggled our minds.

The idea is still mind-boggling, at least if we believe that love has anything to do with how we feel. We have cheapened love by using the word carelessly. We have confused the sentimentality of the Hallmark card with the deep, dark mystery of love that is manifested for us in the incarnate Christ. Yes, love can be warm, enfolding and sheltering. Yes, love can feel good. But love can also be strong and difficult. It can be an impossible challenge.

What does it mean to love one another on command? What does it mean to love one another when we are tired, annoyed or angry? When we don't feel loving or lovable? And what does it mean to love one another as Christ has loved us--to love with an open hand without wanting anything in return, to love in contemplative appreciation of the other?

As our awareness of psychological issues grows, we are increasingly aware that there are wrong kinds of love, and false loves that smother and devour people. As we become more conscious of our frequently selfish or at least impure motives, we talk about "co-dependence" and "enabling." Surely Jesus is not commanding us to be doormats, to let ourselves be hooked into unhealthy and manipulative entanglements in the name of love.

It's important to look at the context of this passage. Jesus has gathered with his disciples for a last meal together. He has taken the role of servant, knelt before them and washed their feet. He has foretold his betrayal, and Judas has left the gathering. The chapter ends with Peter's vow that he will lay down his life for his teacher, and Jesus' response: "The cock will not crow until you have denied me three times. …

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