The New Commandment
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
May 6, 2007
Scripture: Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” –John 13:34
We are back with “love,” the word we Christians use so much and understand so little. Not all Christians find love central; when I was growing up in South Africa in the time of Apartheid one survey of preaching in the Dutch Reformed church there showed that preachers seldom treated the theme of love, preferring to preach about identity, truth, duty and things like that; but the Jesus of John calls love the new commandment and says that people will know that we are his followers by the love we show for one another. Therefore, John would have disagreed with those DRC preachers in Apartheid South Africa, and insisted that love be the central message of the faith.
So we know that love is central to discipleship, but we still don’t know what it is. I think it important to acknowledge that we start out not knowing what love is. Only that way can we adopt the attitude of humility before God, which is essential for learning love. Too many of us assume that the ability to love is a natural endowment that we all have and need not learn, but in fact love is not natural but supernatural and needs consciously to be accepted and learned from God, if we are truly to show it to our fellow human beings. We may be naturally proficient in erotic love, and even in the love of friendship, but our gospel uses that special word agape here, to name the divine love that comes in a special way from God and takes up eroticism and friendship to perfect them. Glancing aside at John’s companion teacher Paul, (1 Corinthians 13) we see that love lives in a triangle with faith and hope – no love without faith and hope, no point to faith and hope excepting love- and love is the goal and greatest of all three, because- returning now to John, God is love and to know God is to practice love (1 John 4).
I have run ahead of myself in the exposition so let me return to our present text and see how it unfolds into the teaching on love I have just given. Jesus says two things about the new commandment: that it is new, and that it is like his love for us. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another even as I have loved you.” Therefore, our love is to be both something new and an imitation. Is this a contradiction? To be new means to be original – there has never been anything like it before. To be an imitation is to be unoriginal, – there is by definition something prior to imitate. How do we understand this? Clearly it means that since the love we are to practice is like the love that Jesus shows, it is as new and unprecedented as Jesus the incarnate God is new and unprecedented, and that our imitation of it makes us new too, new in such a way that people can see that we are his disciples, that we are imitating him. So we must try to understand what is new about the love that Jesus commands, or more precisely, what makes this command to love new and different from all other commands to love.
Let me propose a description of love as the NT intends it: Love is the life of God in the lives of men and women. It takes the form of an imitation because all identity and all culture comes by imitation; culture is a fabric of imitation, institutions are regular, settled imitations (e.g. We all do the same thing at the same time, like coming to church at 2.30pm). Love is the life of God in us by means of imitation, that is, we love when we imitate the life of God revealed in Jesus Christ. The dynamics of this imitation is called the Holy Spirit, and he is precisely the Spirit of Love. Our imitating is not always conscious, indeed, it is mostly subliminal, but it is always real. Our souls are formed by the effect of whom or what we imitate, in our terms here, the Holy Spirit or the spirit of the Prince of this Age.
I presume we all already know the threefold distinction in the phenomenon of love in Western spiritual discourse. C.S. Lewis wrote famously of The Three Loves. They are respectively, friendship (philia), eroticism (eros) and spiritual love (agape). The last is the word in our present text, and it is clearly the Holy Spirit, Christ in us as we are in Christ. These distinctions are useful for the purpose of thought and discussion but of course they are simplifications, and they could turn ludicrous if not carefully handled. For instance, erotic activity should normally include friendship, and both forms of love can contain and be contained by the divine love. In the end the threefold distinction can only be provisional, until the former two mature into bearers of the divine third, and all of all our friendships, all the way from polite companionship to sexual relations are bearers of divine agape.
If there is one lesson I wish us to learn from our scripture passage it is that love is mostly a supernatural gift of divine grace and we should not assume that we know what is being talked about when the word is used. Indeed, love’s core is inexpressible, and the greatest love songs and love poems and love letters, the most selfless instances of what we call love find expression only in metaphor.
Let me close with a brief reflection on suicide bombers. John repeats our text in 15:12; “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you,” and adds, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” The Muslim suicide bombers seek martyrdom, which is a respectable status in our religion too. Do you think they are showing the love than which none is greater? Surely not! My take on this is that it shows how the form of a faithful act can betray its substance. What in the case of Jesus was an act of love, and what in our Christian martyrs is an imitation of that love, is in the case of the Jihadis an act of satanic hatred and an imitation of the Lord of the Flies.
Nevertheless, I bet you they claim it to be an act of love for their people and their God. That is why I say be careful when you think you know by nature what love is. Only those who confess their lovelessness and ignorance of what love truly is can begin to learn from Christ the Holy Spirit who he is who is also love incarnate.