The early Christians tell us that St John, disciple of Jesus who wrote the Gospel, lived to be about 100 years old, and was living in Ephesus at the time of his death. We are told that as he became a very old man, he had to be carried into church. The people would plead with him to say a few words. But he had only one thing he said to the people over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”
When they said “we know, you said that already” and asked for more, he would look at them again and say: “Little children, love one another.”
That was the message of John’s life, the message of the Beloved Disciple. In his first Epistle, John wrote, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Pretty strong language, isn’t it?
He is saying that it is not possible to know God – that is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ – without love. And this “love comes from God” he says. Why is that? Because God – the Christian God – is the three-in-one. Three persons in one, a constant and eternal relationship of mutual self-giving. This relationship is the basis of what we call love. Mutual self-giving. How can we know this triune God of eternal interpersonal relationship and yet not love one another?
This love is not just actions on behalf of others, but a giving of oneself, a participation together in life. In other words, it cannot be impersonal. Love is always interpersonal. So John says that we are called to a discipleship of love. Our churches are to be a people who love “one another”. This is a mutual giving of ourselves to each other. It is reciprocal.
This begins to paint a picture of Christian love. But we still wonder, don’t we, what exactly is this profound mystery called Christian love?
To answer that question, Jesus knelt down before the disciples and washed their feet, and then he said to them “love one another…as I have loved you.” He reveals the mystery of love – a love that is like the love of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the mystery is to love as he has loved us. He showed them this love in experience, not in theory. He showed them by personally washing their feet, a prefigure of his death on the cross. He showed them rather than telling them, because he wanted to show that love is interpersonal, self-giving, and attractional. And all of this flows from God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and is revealed to us through the person of Jesus Christ.
When someone encounters this kind of abandonment, this kind of self-giving love, they are immediately struck with wonder. Its only love when we have to get down on our knees and wash feet. Its love when we realize that we all get some dust on our feet and all our feet need to be washed. It’s a surprising and Christ-like love when we put up with each other and forgive each other and choose to over look each other’s faults. That’s a radical and tough love. And that’s exactly the kind of love that reveals that Christ is here.
Every one of us who follow Christ is a human being. We all fail other human beings. We are all the recipients of unlove and the givers of it. So Jesus says to us, “love one another.”
John was sitting right next to Jesus when he said “love one another”. He had seen Jesus wash the feet, and had his own feet washed. He had followed Jesus all the way to the cross and seen him die. He has seen the risen Christ and received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And then he had seen the Church grow and spread all over the known world. And decades later, after all of this, he wanted to take the people back to that upper room. He wanted his final message in life to be simple but powerful. He wanted to sum up discipleship and evangelism, the Christian life and the Christian ethic all at once. And so he simply said, over and over, “little children, love one another.”