“The Equality of Love” by Jay Forth

May 19, 2019

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” 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.’

– John 13:31-35

“Love one another.” This commandment sounds terribly simple, unspectacular, and banal. And yet, Jesus gives this commandment to his disciples. Moreover, he gives them this commandment after washing their feet and teaching them to do the same. He gives them this commandment on their last night together before his death. “I am going away and soon you will be on your own”, he tells them, “but in my absence please, above everything else, ‘love one another’.” But, why? Why is this important? What makes this commandment is remarkable?

The Gospel of John is a little different than the other Gospels in many respects. The author of John and the community for whom it was written probably did not draw on the same sources as the other Gospel. More to our point, in this Gospel, we do not hear the commandment to “love your neighbor.” We are not told in this passage or, if memory serves me well, anywhere else in the Gospel of John to “love our neighbors.” That’s the commandment we hear in the other ones–Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Instead, in John’s Gospel the commandment is to love one another. Jesus is speaking to his disciples before his departure and urges them: in my absence, remember to love one another. If you love one another, in the way I have loved you, then people will know that you are my disciples.

More so than the others, central to the Gospel of John is a vision of a close-knit Christian community. There is not so much in this Gospel about evangelism, or miracles, or any final judgement. Rather, the kernel of the Gospel is the community of believers and how they live together. I believe this is why the commandment is not “love your neighbor” [whomever that might be]; rather it is “love one another.” Believers, disciples, followers of Jesus–love each other. This love is the hallmark of belonging to Christ.

But, again, why this commandment? What is remarkable about this? If we recall, Jesus’s followers are all Jews from Galilee, in a small and despised corner in the vast Roman Empire. Most of the disciples did not know each other apart from following Jesus. And though their backgrounds varied, none were wealthy, powerful, influential, or well-educated. They were strangers living at the margins of an imperial power. And in this context, Jesus’s commandment to love one another takes on a particular hue.

Jesus calls this crew of strangers to love one another, in the same way Jesus had loved them. There are three things I want to highlight that make this commandment to love one another striking:

FIRST. If we recall, the disciples had left their lives behind to follow Jesus and to join this community. The command to love one another is a call out of our social arrangements. It is a call out of our social positions into a community rearranged by love.

In Alabama this week, we have witnessed people lose much of their reproductive rights by the decision of a majority male legislative body. And also this week, we have seen another child die after being detained by ICE in a detention center along the U.S. border. In our world, one’s gender, citizenship, race, family, wealth, one’s place in the vast taxonomy of social arrangement determines one’s life chances. This is what Michel Foucault calls “biopolitics”–that is, the way authorities manage populations by granting and denying access to life and resources. Biopolitics is the way power distributes life, and thereby distributes death, according to where one falls in the social arrangement.

“Love one another.” This a call to abandon the social arrangement; to leave it behind. In society, we might relate to one another according to the inequalities of race, gender, wealth, or citizenship but we should not do that in the community of believers. Here, among the followers of Jesus, we love one another. Societal relationships–husband and wife, parent and child, employer and employee, citizen and undocumented–are transformed. In Christ, these relationships are neutralized and are redefined as friendships in a community of equals. In the community of believers unlikely people meet and come to know one another as equals in Christ. And where there is no equality, there is no love.

The call to love one another is a call to abandon the familiar world of hierarchy, domination, and privilege. We see this abandonment of status again and again in Christian history.

  • In Jesus’s call to the rich young man “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor…. Then come, follow me.”
  • In the story of Barnabas who sold the land he owned and gave the proceeds to the community of believers.
  • In the witness of the desert fathers and mothers of the early church who left wealth, family, and society to live lives of devotion in community.\

The call to love one another is the call to abandon privilege, or, as one a friend of mine called, it’s a call to class betrayal. So until those who benefit from patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism–the politicians, the heads of state, the corporate big shots, and Wall Street–are ready to turn their backs on the current social arrangements, they have no place in the community of believers. They have no part in the new life among us or in God’s new creation. One might ask, can we actually expect those powerful people to practice such class betrayal? Probably not. Frankly, it’s probably easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a wealthy person to practice class betrayal.

In fact, who knows if the wealthy and the privileged will ever get around to being the Barnabases and St. Anthonys of today–that is, of abandoning their social privilege. But this brings me to the second point.

SECOND. The community of believers–the community of love–does not wait for the wealthy to be good. It does not wait for the privileged to gain a heart. It does not wait for the powerful to learn kindness.

Jesus commands his disciples–his uneducated and rough crew of rural workers and radicals–to love one another. And their love for each other is sufficient. That Jesus to call them to love each other should remind us that even those who live on the margins have agency to act, they have autonomy. There’s no waiting for philanthropy here. Even the poor community of disciples can and do offer love to one another and this is enough. In our nonprofit world, we forget that at the center of Christian community is NOT the kindness of the rich, but the autonomy of oppressed in building a new world. It is for them and by them that God’s new and eternal life is made known in society.

People often times recount black history in the U.S. as culminating in the Civil Rights Movement–the moment when black people marched and demanded rights. And, as the story goes, after enough marching and demanding, the white institutions–seeing the errors of their ways–grant black people their freedom. This story might make for a motion picture, but it overlooks the fact that black people never waited for the kindness of white people or the repentance of white supremacy. We built spiritual traditions, escaped slavery, led revolts, created economies, forged art, and took care of one another out of our own autonomy. Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Huey P. Newton, Stokely Carmichael, Barbara Smith, SNCC, the Black Panthers, the Harlem Renaissance, the Combahee River Collective–these are black figures and communities where black autonomy and agency were taken hold of. These are examples of where black people acted in their own power to foster communities of love, resilience, and life. They loved each other into liberation. And loving each other into liberation is what activists call “organizing.” Neither the Civil Rights Movement nor black history in general ever rose or fell on the good will of white people, but on the ability of black communities to love themselves enough to fight against the social arrangement. “Love one another.” This commandment is not a suggestion to the powerful, but an insurrectionary call to the powerless.

THIRD. But the last part I want to mention is Jesus’s passing comment. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Jesus gives the disciples this commandment after having washed their feet–a practice I like to believe he learned from Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who washed Jesus’s feet a two chapters earlier. And, I like to think Jesus learned to love from his mother–an unapologetic woman who sang songs of resistance to him in his youth.

But Jesus also learns this love from the God of the Hebrew Bible–as his mother likely taught him. After all, Jesus is not a Christian; he’s Jewish and faithfully Jewish. And the love that he taught us–this love at the heart of Christian faith–is a Jewish inheritance. This love is shaped and forged in the story of the God of Israel who is moved with compassion to liberate the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. And again, this liberation did not wait for the kindness of the Egypt’s ruler; but was accomplished through God and through the agency of the oppressed. This God–who freed the people of Israel from slavery and who raised up prophets to denounce injustice–is the same God who loves us in and through Jesus.

This is the love with which Jesus loved his disciples. An insurrectionary love. The love Jesus gives us overthrows social arrangements, hierarchies, and domination (this is why Jesus preferred to call his disciples “friends” instead of “servants”). The love Jesus gave his disciples–the love to which we are called–has nothing to do with being well-mannered, having good intentions, and a gentle disposition. It’s not about keeping your cool when someone cuts you off in traffic (even though, that is a good thing), or not getting worked up when someone steals your lunch from the break room refrigerator (even though, that is a good thing, too), or even philanthropy (sorry, Bill Gates).

Rather, loving each other is about living into the liberation that God is already stirring up among the oppressed. It’s about abandoning our social arrangements in favor of a new place in a community of equals. It’s about finding ourselves shoulder to shoulder with unlikely friends in a new fellowship. It’s about decentering the comfortable and centering those most directly impacted by injustice. After all, it’s among these that eternal life–the new creation–is being birthed in our world.

May the Spirit give us power to love one another into liberation.

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