John 13:31-35

Family Talk

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John 13:31-35

Family Talk

By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
It isn’t odd that Jesus would tell his followers to love one another. What’s strange is that he told them this was his commandment. That’s a pretty strong word, “commandment.” It carries an imperative with it, leaving no room whatsoever for debate. “You will do this,” not unlike what a parent says to a child who needs to take his medicine. And that may be the way Jesus’ disciples took it, as if it were a bad-tasting medication.

In the Latin, the word is mandatum, from which we get our English word “mandate.” “You will love one another. I command it!” In fact, such a statement requires an exclamation point at the end.

Jesus doesn’t say they have to like one another. Which is good because, as we all know, some people are simply more likeable than others. It’s true here in this church, that’s the way it is in your family and mine, and it was certainly so in the ranks of Jesus’ disciples. Yes, it’s a good thing Jesus didn’t tell us we have to like one another, or we might be in real trouble.

We have discussed this before, that the John who wrote our fourth gospel was hardly fond of Judas Iscariot. He called Judas a liar and a thief, and leaves little doubt with his readers that he didn’t care one whit for the betrayer. John may not have gotten along with some of the others as well. And there’s enough evidence from other stories about their adventures with Jesus to leave us with the idea that the disciples had their share of squabbles.

If the John who wrote this gospel is the brother of James, the son of Zebedee, then we know that he and his brother attempted to gain the right and left seats of honor next to Jesus when he was to come into his glory in the kingdom of heaven. It seemed like such a good idea at the time, a very shrewd power move, in fact. But not only did they completely misunderstand the nature of the kingdom Jesus had come to introduce to them, it was totally uncharacteristic of the way Jesus wanted his followers to relate to one another.

Yes, it’s a good thing that Jesus did not command his disciples to like one another. What he did was require them to love each other. Otherwise, things could have gotten difficult in a hurry.

The followers of Jesus did have some obvious things in common with one another. They were all Galilean Jews. That means their dialects would have been similar, their world-view about the same. From a political perspective, they might have all been of one party and shared a number of common beliefs.

But don’t stretch that idea too far. One was a zealot and another a tax collector. That would have placed Simon the zealot and Matthew the IRS agent on the very opposite spectrum of how they thought you were to get along – or not get along – with the hated Romans. Some were fishermen, used to hard labor on the sea, while others wouldn’t have known what it was like to have a callous on their hands.

It may have been a good thing that Jesus commanded them to love one another, because otherwise this whole enterprise might have been dead in the water.

But why are we even talking about his now? It’s the fifth Sunday of Easter, and this conversation between Jesus and his disciples takes place in the upper room the night before he died. Shouldn’t this portion of John’s gospel be reserved for the Lenten season, before Easter? I’m glad you asked.

Of the four gospels, John spends more time giving us what are called “the farewell discourses.” The other gospels allude to some of Jesus’ final sayings, but John majors on them. This is a big, big deal to him. Jesus is preparing his followers for that time when he will no longer be with them in the flesh. He is establishing for them what their behavior is to be once he is gone.

On this fifth Sunday of Easter, Jesus, the resurrected Christ, is now gone and in retrospect we are attempting to do what his disciples found themselves doing after Jesus was gone from them. We are looking back at what he told them… for what he said to them he is now telling us. So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to set the stage for what Jesus said by describing it as I see it.

They have come in off the road, with sweat on their faces and dust on their feet. It was well nigh impossible to go anywhere in that part of the world without the sweat and the dust. And, they’ve been arguing along the way as to who was going to be the greatest in this coming kingdom Jesus is always talking about.

Jesus’ teaching, as well as his encounters with the religious authorities, has given the disciples the definite impression that things are about to come to a head. If they had all this figured right (which we now know they definitely did not), the kingdom was about to come. So, the major item on their personal agendas was to see what roles they would play in this kingdom. If they played their cards right, they could come out of this thing looking pretty good.

James and John, the Zebedee brothers, decide they will make sure Jesus knows where they stand. It was during this little journey that they tried to claim the favored seats of honor. And because they couldn’t keep such a thing a secret from their colleagues, when they get to their destination – the upper room – everybody knows what they’ve done and are quite upset about it, to say the least. And, they may be a bit aggravated for not having thought of something like that themselves.

Recognizing the prevailing mood, Jesus takes a basin of water and a towel and begins to wash his disciples’ feet. Suddenly, the mood in the room changes from anger to guilt. If there’s anybody who should not be on his knees washing the others’ feet, it is Jesus. But before they get a chance to wallow too long in their guilty feelings, Jesus informs them that one of them will betray him. Suddenly, paranoia is the name of the game. Once Judas has been identified as the betrayer and is gone to do his dirty work, it is then that Jesus gives the remainder of the disciples his mandate of love.

“I give you a new commandment,” he says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Has your family ever found itself in crisis? Of course you have. Every family goes through difficult times. It may be the death or extreme illness of one of your family members. You might have to make a decision about what to do with mom or dad now that they’ve gotten to the point in life that they can’t take care of themselves. Every family encounters this kind of crisis sooner or later.

So what do you do? You get together and talk earnestly about what you are going to do in dealing with the struggle that has come your way. If there are other differences among you, at that point at least, you lay them aside. Your personal desires are not important when it comes to dealing appropriately with the crisis at hand.

Well, this conversation between Jesus and his disciples is family talk.1 It’s time for him to lay it all out for his followers and let them know what it is he expects of them. The crisis is about to come to a head.

“I give you a new commandment,” he says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

And this is what I see as a result of his words. I imagine there was an incredible silence. Remember, Judas has left to go out into the darkness of betrayal. It’s almost as if the others are once again allowed to breathe. As long as they knew there was a betrayer in their midst, they had to hold everything in, if for no other reason than they wondered if they might be betrayers themselves. But now, they can breathe again.

But then, when Jesus says this – “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” – he’s once again taken all the oxygen out of the room and they find themselves gasping for air.

There is nothing left but this thick, dense silence. If it had been butter, you could have cut it with the proverbial knife. And instinctively, they know that if anyone is going to cut through the silence, it would have to be Jesus.

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There are different kinds of silence. There’s the awkward silence that comes when people just don’t have anything to say to one another. Sometimes silence is sweet because words simply can’t convey the good feelings that are overwhelming you at the moment. There are other times when anger creates silence. You don’t know what to say in response to whatever it is that has made you so mad, and even if you do you’re afraid to say it because nothing you say can be right for the present moment. You find yourself trying to settle down your emotions because if you don’t you think you might explode. I wonder if that’s not the kind of silence present in the upper room that night.

Whatever it may have been, Jesus breaks the silence by saying, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

But what’s so new about that? What is this “new” commandment Jesus talks about? What’s so new about love? “Just as I have loved you,” Jesus says, “you also should love one another. Just as I have loved you.”

Forgive me for reducing this to a comic strip, but I think it makes the point. In a Peanuts strip, Lucy says to Charlie Brown, “You know what I don’t understand? I don’t understand love!”

Charlie Brown says, “Who does?”

Lucy replies, “Explain love to me, Charlie Brown.”

He says, “You can’t explain love. I can recommend a book or a poem or a painting, but I can’t explain love.”

She says, “Well, try, Charlie Brown, try.”

So Charlie says, “Well, let’s say I see this beautiful, cute little girl walk by.”

Lucy interrupts—“Why does she have to be cute? Huh? Why can’t someone fall in love with someone with freckles and a big nose? Explain that!”

Charlie says, “Well, maybe you are right. Let’s just say I see this girl walk by with this great big nose…. “

Lucy shouts, “I didn’t say GREAT BIG NOSE.”

Hanging his head, which he often did when he dealt with Lucy, Charlie says, “Not only can you not explain love—you can’t even talk about it.”

Maybe so. Maybe you can’t talk about love. But that didn’t stop the Apostle Paul, did it? He described how Jesus modeled for his disciples the kind of love he wanted them to have for one another.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God
as something to be grasped (or held onto),
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

“Just as I have loved you,” Jesus says, “you also should love one another.” Just as I have loved you,” Then, he goes out and shows them what kind of love he means by yielding his life on a cross.

So the next time you wonder if you have it in you to love as Jesus loved, consider what he did for you. It is little enough that we respond to this by loving one another. Don’t you think?

Lord, may we love as Jesus loves us. It is as simple as that… and as hard. But find us faithful in trying to do it. We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.


1Fred B. Craddock, et. al., Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year C (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1994), p. 253.

Copyright 2007, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.