The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE UNIQUELY CHRISTIAN COMMANDMENT

Delivered 3/24/05
Text: John 13:34-35
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Maundy Thursday. Strange term. One night when Erin was little, my wife was trying to tell her about Maundy Thursday. Erin said, "MONDAY Thursday."

"No," said Christie, "MAUNDY Thursday."

"Right," responded Erin, "MONDAY Thursday." Christie gave up.

The designation "Maundy Thursday" comes from an ancient Latin anthem traditionally sung at the commemoration of the Last Supper, "Mandatum Novum Do Vobis," which means, "I give you a new commandment," from the scripture lesson we just read. Indeed, another way of identifying this day might be COMMANDMENT Thursday. "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."

Have you ever felt uncomfortable with that? I have. To be honest, I would just as soon have no commandments at all - I have never liked being told what I could or could not do. I would prefer that the words from Mt. Sinai had been the Ten SUGGESTIONS or that the laws from Washington and Harrisburg be simply RECOMMENDATIONS, but I know rules are necessary for an orderly society, and I am willing to put up with them. All I ask is that the rules be defined clearly enough so I might know whether or not I am doing what I should. We all feel that way. The special problem I have with THIS commandment to "love one another" is that it sounds so OPEN-ENDED. It strikes me as a bit like a traffic law requiring that we DRIVE AT A SAFE SPEED without the law ever saying what the limits are. I would be uncomfortable with that too.

Perhaps there is help in the fact that Jesus calls this a NEW commandment. There is something different here from all the other instructions we have from the Old and New Testaments concerning our obligation to love our neighbor. Two things different, actually: 1) this command is directed especially TO those and FOR those within Christ's circle of friends (the church), and 2) there is now a specific standard against which to measure whether or not we are doing what we have been told - the speed limits, if you will - the standard of the Lord's own love for His own.

Why the special concern about church people loving other church people? Probably because we are so close, like a family. Anyone who has ever raised children knows that brothers and sisters can get into some terrible fights, and that they occasionally do things to one another that they would never consider doing to someone outside the family group. The words of the old song are surely true: "You always hurt the one you love, The one you shouldn't hurt at all." It is no different in the church. Some of the meanest battles ever fought have been waged beneath steeples.

A teenager came home from choir practice early one evening. His Dad asked, "What brings you back so soon?" "We had to call off choir practice this week," the youth replied. "The organist and the choir director got in a terrible argument about how to sing, `Let there be Peace on Earth,' so we quit for tonight." A new commandment...that you love one another. Hmmm.

One thing should be made clear here - the Lord's command is not that we LIKE one another. That would certainly be nice, but to like or not to like is rooted in our emotions, and emotions do not respond to commands. The love of which Jesus speaks is NOT an emotion. It is a way of acting toward one another that says, "No matter what, I want GOOD for you, and I will do whatever I can to insure that you get it." Christian love is not something the Lord wants us to FEEL for one another but rather something he wants us to DO for one another.

As to how this love should be measured, our standard comes from the clause, "as I have loved you." That is a broad and lofty standard indeed. The love that Jesus had for his disciples began with a willingness to ignore the limits of society. He did not content himself with a little group made up of only his "own kind" - he reached out to ALL kinds, and especially to those whom the rest of the world would shun. The love of Jesus enabled him to take on tasks that would have been thought to be beneath him - servant work like washing dusty feet, for example. The love of Jesus was able to encompass the hypocrisy of Peter, the self-serving ambition of James and John, the vicious self-righteousness of Paul. It was a love that knew no limit. He loved them so much that he was willing to die for them. That became our standard for obedience. "As I have loved you, so you must love one another."

Of course, the heart of this uniquely Christian commandment is not simply the prevention of internecine strife. Christ's instruction to love one another as he loved us is itself motivated by another love...love for the world outside the church. "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." The command to love is really a command to witness with our lives, to be so winsome in our own fellowship that those outside will want to come in. Indeed, love for one another - DOING for one another - may be the most effective evangelistic tool we have at our disposal.

As I said early on, this is a commandment with which it is easy to be uncomfortable. Even after the parameters are defined, the "speed limits" are set, the standard is so high as to be utterly intimidating. I do not know about you, but I do know about me, and what I know is that I will never be able to measure up...at least not on my own. The good news I have on this Maundy Thursday...Commandment Thursday...is that you and I are NOT on our own with this.

Years ago Henry Drummond preached a sermon about love called "The Greatest Thing in the World"(1) in which he suggested that if you put a piece of iron in the presence of an electrified body, that piece of iron becomes electrified. It is changed into a temporary magnet in the presence of a permanent magnet, and as long as you leave the two together, they will share this characteristic. It is no different with Christians and Christ - when we are close to him, we reproduce some of his characteristics which would be quite impossible if we merely attempted to obey his command or imitate his example.

Yes, his standard is high, but his power to help is even higher. This is why he invites us to come to his table, to have fellowship with him, communion, to be near him. He invites us to come near enough to his love that it becomes a part of us and enables us to show it and share it with the world. His invitation is, "Come, be magnetized."

Amen!

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