A Reflection on “Love one another” (The Gospel of John 13: 34-35) from Malcolm Green
I recently came across this story which, coming as it does from a reliable source, I believe to be true.
This all took place in a small village in France in 1943. The village was occupied by the Germans, but the local people felt sorry for these enemy soldiers. They were young men, far from home, on short rations, and quite probably conscripts, so we could say that like some many others of the time: they were reluctant participants in a gruesome and horrific war.
In an attempt to try and help these young men, each day the local priest would go from door to door with two large baskets asking for food for them. The villagers responded with sharing what they could – a few eggs, perhaps, or some bread and vegetables.
Then one day the local resistance movement blew up a strategic bridge. The commander of the occupying forces demanded reprisals and ordered that every man in the village between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five be taken to the village square.
There, in front of family and friends – wives, mothers, girlfriends, sisters and their own children, they were shot.
Besides themselves with grief, anger and torment, the villagers turned on the priest: “If you come again asking for food for these murderers, we shall kill you.”
On the day of the funerals the little church was overflowing, because every family in the village had lost someone. The old priest stood up and read from John’s Gospel , “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.”
Later that day the priest stood in the village square – totally amazed and with tears in his eyes – as he watched the local people filling the baskets he had placed at his feet, with food to feed the enemy soldiers.
Now when I read that story of an event that took place in 1943, I couldn’t help but think of the atrocities happening in the small town of Bucha, and elsewhere in Ukraine today.
We read the stories, and we see the pictures, but I don’t think any of us have an idea of what it’s like witnessing the realities of these kind of situations.
If I’m totally honest, I can’t even begin to imagine how I would be able to start knowing how to love someone who had caused me such indescribable pain and hurt.
And for me it doesn’t even have to go to such extremes for me to be tested. People can say things, do things – or not do things – and they can grate. It’s not easy to love someone who rubs you up the wrong way!
“Love one another as I have loved you”
This most simple-sounding commandment is probably the most difficult to carry out.
Yes, it’s easy to just nod your head and agree it’s a very good commandment. It’s fairly easy to recognise the wisdom of it.
However, it requires a great deal of courage to put it into practice, and let’s not forget, it cost Christ his life.
Jesus died because he continued to remain true to this fundamental precept – this fundamental way of being – the very essence of what God is all about – to love each and every one of us, whoever we are, and no matter what we might or might not have done – regardless of how, or even if, we respond to him.
Jesus was hated and treated unjustly by his enemies and yet he still loved them.
Not an emotional or sentimental love, but a love that understands them. A love that is prepared to absorb the fear which made them react against him. He loved them out of his concern for their well-being, in spite of their actions.
He loved them by recognising the basic humanity of each one which makes them precious in God’s eyes.
And loving one another as Jesus loves us is the calling of the Christian. By the time the Apostles had begun the work of carrying on Jesus’ mission they had come to understand that Jesus is for everyone – not just a select few who believed they were the chosen ones.
It’s interesting that we tend to think of the Inclusive Church organisation as a fairly recent initiative. In fact, the early Church were inclusive from the very beginning!
Like those early Christians, we believe in a church that celebrates and affirms every person, and does not discriminate.
The enthusiasm of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles speaks of the generosity of those followers who dedicated their lives to spreading this universal message of love and forgiveness.
And if we have any concerns about not being good because we find it difficult to love everyone equally, no matter our best intentions and how much we try, we can be reassured in that Jesus did not say it would be easy.
Jesus simply set out how important and necessary it is for us to keep at the front of our minds the commandment to love, and to use our very best endeavours to try and achieve that. We should be praying for those we find it hardest to love, and we should be asking for God’s blessing on them as well as on us.
In loving each other in the same way that Jesus loves us, it is the only way in which the world can come to reflect the kingdom of God – and after all – isn’t that something we often pray for – thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven?
We may think that what we might consider to be our meagre efforts in showing Jesus’ inclusive love will make no difference, that it will pass by unnoticed.
But it is in the struggle to love that we draw closest to Jesus and, together with him, we may affect our world more than we think possible. Let’s not underestimate God!
Our present society would often have us believe that it is easy to love. But that is a different “brand” of love from Jesus’.
To love like Jesus is to surrender our own needs and desires to make space for, and to ensure that, the needs and desires of others are met, regardless of whether or not they are considered “worthy” by our own standards.
Remembering always that we too, despite our own failings, are precious to God, is a gift worth giving. For, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that we should have eternal life’.
As children of the same God, should we not also surrender ourselves in love to the needs of others?
This is the challenge of the Gospel, both simple and profound. It is as fresh a call today as it was when it came from the lips of Jesus: “Love one another… just as I have loved you.”
And let us not be concerned or fearful of the reaction we may receive, for remember – he’s always walking alongside us, to the end of the age.
The Revd Malcolm Green is a member of the Ministry Team at St. Mary-at-Latton, Harlow