"A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another." - John 13:34.
Charles E. Jefferson: Everything conspires to make these words impressive. They are from the lips of the world's greatest religious teacher - the man whose name is above every name, and who spake as no other man has ever spoken, and whose words will outlive the stars. He is speaking to his followers, the little company of men whom he has trained to carry on his work after he has gone. These men are to discipline the nations, teaching them to observe all the things which he had commanded. They are the nucleus of the church against which the gates of hades [death and the grave] will never more prevail.
He is speaking on the last night of his earthly life. Death is looking on. The shadow of the cross lies athwart his face. The time has arrived for him to go back to God. In the last hour, only the most momentous subjects can be touched on. He will now speak the word which is cardinal and final - whisper the secret of power and victory.
His language shows how deeply his own heart is moved. He calls these men "little children" (John 13:33). He had never called them that before. He had usually spoken as a teacher or as a friend. He will now speak as a father. He has always been near to them. He will now draw nearer. He has always been affectionate, but his affection will now take on a parental tenderness. He will speak as a father speaks to his children whom he is leaving to fight life's battles in the midst of a cold and unsympathetic world. Having awed their hearts by his looks and manner, he is now ready to bring his teaching to its climax: "A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another" (John 13:34).
No more important words are recorded in the Gospels. The disciple who wrote them came to prize them more and more highly as he grew in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ his Savior. At last the whole message of Jesus summed itself up for this disciple in the new commandment.
In his commentary on Paul's letter to the Galatians, St. Jerome reports a tradition current in his day, that when John, the beloved disciple, was very old and unable to walk, and was carried before the congregation in Ephesus, he was wont [accustomed] to repeat again and again the words of Jesus, "Little children, love one another." When asked why he said this so many times, his reply was, "It is the Lord's commandment, and if it only be fulfilled, it is enough." It is noteworthy that the man who came the nearest to Jesus' heart, came to feel that the new commandment was Jesus' crowning word.
John could never forget the Master's words - "By this shall all men know" (John 13:35). The disciples' love for one another is the badge of Christian discipleship, the crowning proof that men belong to Jesus. Jesus in his closing hour talks like a king. He does not give suggestions. He announces a law. Obedience to this law is the test of loyalty. It is the sole sufficient evidence of the divine origin of the Christian religion. It is the only orthodoxy recognized in heaven.
The tragedy of Christian history is that the new commandment has been continuously neglected. Millions of Christians have lived and died without knowing that there is a new commandment. The average congregation of today is largely indifferent to it. The ordinary church member does not keep this commandment in the front of his mind. When Christians confess their sins, they do not confess the sin of breaking the new commandment. When they cry to God for help, they do not ask for grace to keep the new commandment.
In a long ministry, I have never found a single applicant for church membership worried about his inability to keep the new commandment. I have found men and women hesitant to join the church because they could not give enough money, or because they could not attend certain meetings, or because they could not engage in church work, or because they could not pray in public, or because they did not believe in the deity of Jesus, or in the virgin birth, or in the resurrection of the body, or in the vicarious atonement, or in verbal inspiration, or in the miracles, or in everlasting punishment, but I have never found any one who held back from confessing Christ because of his fear that he might not be able to keep the new commandment.
So far as I have been able to see, the new commandment is not in all the thoughts of thousands who are reared in Christian homes. Young people do not include it in the list of things which they must do. They do not feel its divine authority. Older people do not meditate upon it day and night. They do not measure their fitness to become members of the Christian church by their willingness to obey this new commandment.
Every one knows the ten commandments. Many know the two commandments commended by our Lord. Alas, the new commandment lies in the shadow.
Here is a phenomenon worth thinking about. Why is the new commandment so persistently ignored? The answer is that ministers of the gospel do not press it upon the attention of their people. They do not often preach about it. Other subjects have prior claims upon their time and thought. I have recently looked through two hundred volumes of modern sermons, and have found only one sermon on the new commandment, and that one was preached by a preacher who has been dead over seventy years.
Why do preachers overlook the new commandment? Is it not because the theologians overlook it? The theologians have never been interested in this commandment. The Christian scholars most revered, have never taken time to explore the meaning of it. The theologians have busied themselves with the doctrines stated in the historic creeds, and the historic creeds know nothing of the new commandment. No congregations have been trained in any land to repeat Sunday after Sunday, "I believe in the new commandment. I believe in loving my fellow Christians, even as Christ has loved us." If the church through nineteen hundred years had only kept this commandment at the forefront of its teaching, what a different world we should have today.
Has not the time arrived when we ought to make a serious effort to understand it? It is not easily understood. One has only to turn the pages of the old commentaries to see how the ablest Christian scholars have again and again fumbled and blundered. Many of them have only understood it in part. Others have missed its meaning altogether. The verbal structure of the sentence is unfortunate. By placing a semicolon after "another," the sentence is broken in two, and the expression, "Even as I have loved you," seems to be an afterthought, something negligible added after the main thing has been said. It is better to read the sentence without punctuation marks at all. Fortunately punctuation marks are not an integral part of the New Testament. They are the invention of men who, by their works, have given indubitable evidence that they were not inspired.
Another difficulty lies in the ambiguity of the word "love." "Love" is one of the most indefinite and baffling of all our words. Love is sometimes a passion, sometimes an affection, sometimes a sentiment, sometimes a charity, sometimes a philanthropy, but love on the lips of Jesus was something different from all these. Fortunately for us, he did not attempt to define love. He illustrated it. By drawing a picture of it, he made it possible for us to see what it is.
He never left men at critical points to grope in the dark. When he told the scribe that he should love his neighbor as himself, he at once drew a picture of what he meant. The scribe saw the point at once, and so does everybody else. We all understand pictures. When Jesus commands his disciples to love one another, he does not leave them in darkness. He hangs up a lamp above the commandment, in the light of which they can read his idea. They are to love one another as he has loved them. To the scribe he gave a picture of a fictitious person. To the twelve he gave the portrait of himself. Nothing but his own self was adequate to explain the meaning of love. His conduct was the only sufficient interpretation of that great word. His career alone threw light into the fathomless depths of its meaning. Christians are to love one another after the style of Jesus.
Many Bible students have stumbled over the word "new. " One commentator translates it "illustrious," another one "ever new," still another "the renewed," another "renewing," another "unexpected," another "last." Many commentators try to prove that the new commandment is really old. If that be the case, why did Jesus call it new?
It is old, of course, if it means nothing more than the commandment recorded in Leviticus, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Lev. 19:18), but that is not the commandment which Jesus gave to his disciples on the last night. The commandment in Leviticus is a general commandment; it was intended for Israel. Our Lord makes it wide as mankind. But the new commandment is quite different. It is not for the world; it is for disciples - for professing Christians - for members of the Christian church. We lose the meaning of it when we make it general.
It is a special love for a limited set of people which our Lord has in his mind. We are ultimately to love the whole world, but we must begin by loving our fellow Christians. We are to learn to love all humanity by loving the members of the Christian family. Loving is a fine art, the most difficult of all the arts, and we are to master the art in the school of Christ. The whole human race is to be made a brotherhood, and we are to begin the stupendous work by making the church a brotherhood. The followers of Jesus must first be brothers to one another if other men are to become brothers also.
This, then, is indeed a new commandment. Never before had there been known a commandment like this. Never before had there been upon earth a society of men whose business it was to love one another because they were bound to Jesus Christ. Their bond to Jesus Christ created a new bond between them. They were knit together because they were knit first to him. A new standard of love was now set up - loving after the manner of Jesus. What patience, forbearance, forgiveness, long-suffering, generosity, devotion and sacrifice this love involves! Love on the lips of Jesus is a greater word than the world had ever spoken.
Christians are to love more than others. We are to love one another after the fashion of the Son of God. This is the only kind of love which will save the world. Loving one's neighbor after the fashion of the Good Samaritan will not save it, nor will the love commanded in the golden rule. It is only the love prescribed in the new commandment which will make a dent in the hard heart of the world. It is this exalted and purified love practiced by Christians toward one another, which is to bring a lost world to God.
How far we have wandered from the viewpoint of Jesus is shown by the customs and conventions of Christendom. Our churches are commonly measured by numbers or by wealth or by prestige. Sometimes they are measured by sacraments, or by clerical orders, or by creeds. Men speak of the "true" church, and of "a valid ministry" and of "orthodoxy" without any reference to the new commandment. How strange that a church should imagine itself to be the true church while it excommunicates and ostracizes millions of the followers of Jesus, even refusing to pray with them. How pathetic that a church should bend its energies to persuade men to accept a certain form of church government, instead of manifesting to all the followers of Jesus the love which he himself showed to all his disciples - the love of fellowship and co-operation!
What folly to discuss the definitions of the creeds when we are indifferent to the only article in the creed which is fundamental, "Love one another after the fashion of Christ." The discussions about orders and sacraments are bootless so long as we do not endeavor to keep the new commandment. How can we hope to convince the world that our religion comes from heaven if we refuse to obey the supreme law imposed upon us by our Master? The Savior of the world did not place the primary emphasis upon forms of worship, or upon sacraments, or upon clerical orders, or upon church government, or upon creeds. These are not the notes of the true church. There is only one note of the true church, and that is the love of Christians for one another after the fashion of Christ.
It is not by celebrating the Lord's supper, or by the recitation of a creed, or by obedience to an ecclesiastical superior, that we show we are disciples in the school of Christ. It is only by our love for one another that we give evidence that we belong to him. We are his friends only as we keep his commandments, and his greatest commandment to his followers is, "Love one another as I have loved you."
It is because of our neglect of the new commandment that we find ourselves face to face with problems which are insoluble, and with tasks which are beyond our strength. The world is full of idealism. Men are dreaming everywhere of brotherhood and reunion and co-operation and peace, but up to the present hour all suggested schemes have broken down. All dreams have failed of fulfillment. We see what ought to be, but we cannot bring it to pass. For instance, we cannot bring the nations together. We cannot induce them to lay down their arms. We cannot do this because we cannot bring the churches together. If all Christians were together, the time would be within sight when nations would learn war no more.
We cannot bring the great branches of the church together, because Christians have not been brought close enough together in the local congregation. It is in the local congregation that the primary and all-important work is to be initiated. It is here that Christians are to be taught the art of loving one another after the manner of Jesus. It is here that they are to be trained to love one another across social lines, and economic lines, and cultural lines, and racial lines. Every church is to be a melting pot in, which heterogeneous human elements are to be fused.
It is in the local church that the heart is to be broadened and sweetened. It is here that broader breadths of love than those created in the home must be woven. It is in the church that all sorts and conditions of men are to meet and mingle and learn how to live and work together in love. The spirit of sympathy and good will and co-operation developed in the local church will overflow into wider fields, and little by little separated groups of the Lord's followers will come into fellowship with one another, and work together to advance the kingdom of love.
Most of the work done for the reunion of Christendom has been expended at the wrong point. We have looked to the ecclesiastical leaders to show us the way, and they have invariably begun with ceremonies and sacraments and creeds, but there is no progress possible in that direction until a preliminary work has been accomplished. Church union will come about through love, and this love has not yet been born in the hearts of the masses of Christians.
Even members of the local congregations do not in many cases love one another. In multitudes of cases they do not even know one another, and what is worse, they do not want to know one another. The result is we have many pagan hearts worshiping in Christian temples. We have a host of professed disciples who have no regard for the new commandment. Loving their fellow church members is not a vital factor in their conduct. But the Christian church, if it be a church after the mind of Christ, is a band of lovers, a brotherhood, a family, in whose life the heart is trained to come close to other hearts. This is insisted on by all the New Testament writers.
What the world most needs is the spirit of friendliness. It is full of rancor and strife and bitterness. It needs a fountain flowing love. That is what every Christian church should be. One often hears voices clamoring for applied Christianity. There are many who cannot understand why Christianity is not more widely applied. The explanation is that the stock of Christianity is low. There is not enough of it to go around. We cannot apply what has not yet been created. We cannot impart a friendliness we do not possess. We are rich in members and in money, but we are poor in love. The world is waiting for a great society of men and women who will love across all dividing social, political, ecclesiastical, and racial lines. The church must give itself to its one supreme task - that of developing a more loving type of human being.
The average Christian is not pre-eminent in love. The virulence and bitterness of doctrinal controversies among Christians are proof that a large part of current Christianity is formalism, and that hearts may boast of allegiance to Jesus and still remain untouched by his spirit. A theological controversy sometimes lights up as by a flash of lightning the whole moral situation. We suddenly discover that instead of being rich, we are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked (Rev. 3:17).
Since the various branches of the universal church have trained their communicants only half-heartedly and imperfectly to love one another, it is not surprising that these various communions find it difficult or impossible to work in harmony together. The type of character built up in the modern church is not one which the spirit of friendliness can readily use in cooperative enterprises for the common good.
In numberless communities the different denominations hold aloof from one another, often envying one another, sometimes slandering one another, and finding it difficult even to exercise what is known as "church comity." It is because of this lack of fellowship that the spiritual life languishes, and that dispositions grow rank which the religion of Jesus is expected to kill. It is because of this division of the army of the Lord that so many battles are lost.
It is an appalling fact that it seems easier for anarchists and socialists and communists and agnostics and skeptics and atheists to co-operate than for Roman Catholics and Greek Catholics [Orthodox] and Protestants to work together for the extension of the kingdom of good will. It is because Protestants are not taught from their cradle to think kindly of the Roman Catholic church, and because Roman Catholics are not instructed from babyhood to have friendly feelings toward Protestant churches, that the union in worship and work of these two great bodies of Christians is relegated by the prophets to a future incalculably far off.
Neither the Protestant nor the Roman church is orthodox. They are both heretical on the supreme Christian doctrine. We do not love after the fashion of Christ, nor do we try to do so. We are content to battle valiantly for what we call the truth, forgetting that the supreme truth is love. No truth is worth having which is bought by the surrender of love. Christ was a friend, a brother, a fellow-worker.
We Roman Catholics and Greek Catholics and Protestants, Presbyterians and Methodists, Baptists and Lutherans, Episcopalians and Congregationalists, Unitarians and Quakers, and all the rest of us, no matter what our name, must be friends, comrades, brothers and fellow-workers. It is not necessary that we use the same forms of worship, or the same forms of government, or the same forms of theological opinion, but it is indispensable that we be friends, comrades, brothers and fellow-workers. We must trust one another, and help one another, and sacrifice for one another. That much is certain. If we are not willing to fight side by side on the great battlefield against falsehood and wrong or to work side by side in the same vineyard for the cultivation of the same fruits of the spirit, or to combine our forces in the same town for the pulling down of the strongholds of evil, we present to the world a spectacle which is a scandal.
We need to take lessons from our Lord and Savior, and also from the apostle Paul, who knew the Master's mind as few have ever known it. To Paul the church is a temple. In the temple all the stones are fitted together and one stone supports another. To Paul the church is a body, the body of Christ. In that body every member is knit to every other member by vital bonds. Every joint - or as we would say, every social contact - contributes to the vital force by means of which the whole body is built up. To Paul the church is a family, and all the followers of Jesus are brothers and sisters, living their life under the law of love.
Let the pope and the patriarchs and the cardinals and the archbishops and the bishops and the ministers and the priests and the elders and deacons, all set themselves to the work of finding out what Christian love really is. Why leave that word vague when it is the keystone of the Christian arch? Why ignore, "As I have loved you," when such love is the test of discipleship and the proof of the divinity of our religion? If every Christian pulpit throughout the world should once a month in every year expound and glorify the principle of life set forth in the New Commandment, these sermons would be so many leaves from the tree of life for the healing of the nations.
"Love one another as I have loved you." This is the passionate desire of our Lord. It is his deepest desire. It was his dominant longing in the last hour of his life in the flesh, and it is his dominant longing still. He is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8).
His last word in the upper chamber was not an exhortation or a command, but a prayer. Before starting for the garden of Gethsemane he poured out his heart unto God. In this prayer there was one supreme and often repeated petition, "That they all may be one even as we are one" (John 17:22). In his prayer as in his conversation, he was still dwelling on the conviction that the one and only way in which the world can be persuaded that God has indeed sent his Son, is the spectacle of his followers loving one another.
His prayer was not for the entire human race. It was for the men who were with him in that room, and also for the innumerable company who should believe on his name. He prayed, therefore, for us, and his prayer is now, as it was then, "That they may be perfected into one" (John 17:23 ASV), for only as we are perfected into one will it be possible for us to be with him where he is and behold his glory.
Sermon preached by Charles E. Jefferson, New York, 1925. From "The American Pulpit", Charles Clayton Morrison (Ed.). New York: MacMillan, 1925.