To love one another sounds easy enough in theory, but it gets a bit more tricky when you come to actually do it. Where are the limits? Even loving our families, friends and neighbours isn’t always easy. Rifts and arguments can happen in the closest families, and even best friends can fall out; and that’s before we get to the stories of problem neighbours, and shared drives, new extensions, noisy parties or Leylandii hedges.
What Jesus actually said was this: “As I have loved you, you also should love one another.” So we are to love in the way that Jesus loves, to be like him in our loving. Jesus was quite blunt about it. He told the people: “You’ve heard it said that you should love your neighbour and hate your enemy, but what I say to you is this: love your enemy, and do good to those who hate you.”
That widens the boundaries quite a lot. The list of people we should love includes the postman and the dustman and the girl who delivers the paper, the person on the till in Tesco, the guy who just took the parking space you were aiming for, the person who cheated on you or told lies about you, the person whose different language or colour or faith you find uncomfortable or even threatening, and even those who make themselves your enemy by the nasty things they do. It’s not easy, but Jesus loves all these people, so we should too. And we have also to love ourselves. That isn’t always easy, either.
In John chapter 14, Jesus calls himself the way. Thomas had said to him, “We don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?” and he replied, “I am the way; I am truth and life.” The very first Christians weren’t called Christians; they were called “Followers of the way”.
And to be true to Jesus, the Church isn’t a fixed thing so much as a movement: a movement of people doing their best to continue his work of transforming lives and changing the world for good. Jesus told the people that before anything else they should seek the kingdom of God.
And love is there at the heart of the kingdom. Think of the great chapter 13 of Paul’s First Letter to Corinth, which is all about love. This is what Paul wrote: “Love is patient and kind. “Love envies no-one, is never boastful, never conceited, never rude; love is never selfish, never quick to take offence. Love keeps no score of wrongs, takes no pleasure in the sins of others, but delights in the truth.” If you take the word “love” out of each place in that passage where you read it, and replace it with the name “Jesus”, you realise that Paul isn’t writing about the ideal of love, but the person of Jesus. What you can then do, of course, is to put your own name in, in place of the name of Jesus. That gives us something to aim at!
So maybe a true Christian is the person who dares to give a smile when others are all frowning, or the person who offers a helping hand to the guy everyone else is walking past. Jesus told people they should turn the other cheek, and walk the extra mile. The poet John Donne wrote: “No man is an island.” We human beings live in connection with one another - that’s part of what makes us who we are. And even little choices in life can have a real impact. Think of those grouchy days when everyone seems to be frowning and unhelpful; on days like that it’s hard not to do the same. So if we’re following the Way of Love by smiling we’ll be out of step with the rest of the world, or that’s how it may feel.
But we need to be out of step; that’s the challenge. For if we choose to smile, that starts a ball rolling, and if we join everyone else in frowning, that does too. What we choose to do has an impact beyond ourselves, whether for better or for worse.
Christ’s Way of Love imagines a future in which all have what they need, and commits us to work for it: for every one of our neighbours to have enough to eat, and safe shelter, and good and warm clothes to wear, and something to smile about.
The fact that most people in this country do have these things is testimony to people in past ages who worked to make that happen, many of them because they were following Christ, following Christ’s Way of Love. We have what we have because people before us dared to care beyond themselves. The fact that many in the world still don’t have these things shows there’s still a way to travel.
Last week we asked the question “Where do we go from here?”, and Mark and Lizzie Hackney talked to us about mission. In reply, they didn’t actually say, “All you need is love” - but that’s what they meant. They challenged us to think about how each one of our churches can be a blessing for the communities we serve. If we are blessed (and we are), we should aim to share that blessing, and God’s love, as widely as we can.
That’s what Jesus called his friends to do, when he said, “As I have loved you, you are to love one another.” We could love in a way that excludes others and turns us into a holy huddle, but that’s not how Jesus loved. To love like Jesus is to love without limit and to love without precondition. That’s the mark of the love divine we sing about: it’s love that makes a difference, that lifts up, that opens doors, that heals. And that’s what the apostle John had in mind when he wrote: “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” He’s calling the people of Jesus to live and to share the love we find in Jesus, and if we’re doing that, we’re doing mission.