The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved
Four times John refers to himself as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." You could also call John the disciple of love. John uses a form of the word love' 6 times prior to the Passion of Christ and more than 25 times during and after. In addition, he uses love' more than 48 times in the rest of his New Testament writings. By contrast, Matthew uses the word a total of 12 times, Luke 14 and Mark 6.
John focuses on love, but there are different Greek words for love. John doesn't focus at all on sensual or erotic love. This was the love focused on by the poets and philosophers of John's day. The Greeks goddess of love was Eros; the Romans knew her as Cupid. As in our day, these were very popular.
John refers to another kind of love, but still doesn't focus on it. This is the love of affection, feeling, friendship. John records Jesus saying the Father has this type of love for Him and for the disciples. It is the love we have for our own life and the kind Peter professed to have for Jesus. This is a love of the heart more than the head. But as I said, John doesn't focus on it. In fact, outside of His Gospel, he only uses it 3 times and 2 of them are in a negative way. He speaks of a disciple "who loves to have the preeminence." And in Revelation John records Jesus speaking of those who "love falsehood."
The love John focuses on is agape. This is a love of the head, of intelligence and purpose. Today we might call it "tough love." It's almost exclusively a Biblical and Christian word. It's rarely found outside of Christianity and never focused on or praised. Erotic love was powerful to the ancients; the love of friendship was noble. Agape was condescending love, a weak sort. Not to John. He was the disciple whom Jesus agaped. God so agaped the world. We are commanded to agape one another. God is agape; therefore those born of Him agape. In fact, the person that lacks agape says John doesn't know God at all.
John focuses on agape not the "love, love, love" of the Beatles, not the love the world needs now, or the love of romantic comedies. But on whose agape does John, or more accurately, Jesus focus on? On Jesus' love for the Father? No, only one time does Jesus refer to His love for the Father.
Well, then is Jesus' focus on how we are to love Him? You find this a lot in contemporary praise songs. Repeatedly, in a rhythmic sort of way, the congregation swings and swells to O how they love Jesus. In fact, some of these songs have the character of romantic or sensual love. They sound like how spouses might talk to each other. Expressions of love that are fine and fitting between husband and wife aren't fitting between us and Jesus.
John sure doesn't use them. In fact, John doesn't focus on our love for Jesus at all. Only 6 times does John's Gospel refer to us loving Jesus. 3 of them are when Jesus questions Peter on the Sea of Galilee, and there the whole point is that Peter can't be saved by his loving of Jesus because it is inadequate, wavering, and wilts when examined closely. John, in his first Epistle, puts our love for God in its proper place, out of the spotlight, way, way behind God's love for us. He says, "Here is love not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the wrath removing sacrifice for our sins."
Neither Jesus nor John focus us on our love for Jesus. They both focus us on our love for one another as our text says. Jesus says, "A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another." Note carefully to whom Jesus speaks. In the upper room there are only His disciples. Later in I John, John makes the test for whether a person loves God not whether he loves the poor, the sick, the lame, or an enemy but whether he loves his brother. The 2nd century church father, Tertullian reports that the pagan's noted not how Christians loved those outside of the faith but those inside: "Look how they love one another; and how they are ready to die for each other." Our Collect after Communion has the same focus. We pray that God "would strengthen usin fervent love toward one another.
The litmus test John uses for whether we have passed out of death into life is not how much we love Jesus, not how much we love our enemies or the needy, but whether or not we love the brethren. "We know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren. He that loves not his brother remains in death."
What am I saying? Is there is no Christian duty to love one's enemies, to love the poor and needy? Of course there is, and the Scripture speaks about them elsewhere. But the focus, the emphasis of Jesus in John is Christians loving their brothers and sisters in Christ, and it is here that our sinfulness, our evilness, our wretchedness are seen. It is much easier to love that person over there that we can't see, then our brother or sister in Christ we can see. In fact the world is virtually gone nuts with loving people in poverty, in sickness, and in tragedy. It is the "in" thing to have benefits, do projects, and take offerings for someone you can't see. TV shows do it, movie stars promote it, rock singers hype it. And in the doing of these good works before men, community is found. Hand in hand, heart to heart we stand not only with but very much in the world. The very world Jesus promised would hate us.
And what's wrong with that? What's wrong with making health kits? What's wrong with sending money to Lutheran World Relief? What's wrong with helping people you don't know caught by tragedy? Nothing. Don't repent of doing it, but beware of finding your community, your love in the world. The Lord directs us to each other for that. He focuses us on our love for each other. As St. Paul says we're to do good first to the household of faith.
The problem is we're easily made to feel guilty for the poverty, sickness, and tragedy in the world even though these always have and always will be in the fallen world. It will always be in the sinful world as the song "Everyday People" bemoans: "There is a yellow one that won't/ Accept the black one/ That won't accept the red one/ That won't accept the white one." What we ought to repent of is this song describing how it is among us children of the heavenly Father, us siblings of the Lord Jesus.
It's a tall order to love one another. We know each other's failings and sins, and whether we know it or not our sins and failings are greatest of all. Out of our hearts, love for each other doesn't naturally flow, hatred, lies, and envy does. Normally, what enables people to get beyond their own sinful hearts is similar tastes, hobbies, or politics. But these can't bond us because we don't share these. Our common bond is only the Body and Blood of Christ. So our focus is to begin and end with Him.
Jesus directs our attention to the Father's love for the Son. 6 times Jesus refers to this in John. More amazing still Jesus twice uses the word for love that refers to affection and feeling. If you have a son or a daughter you know this type of love. It's that Bobby Goldsboro song, "Me and God watching Scotty Grow." Luke reports this saying, "Jesus grew in wisdom, stature and favor with God." So don't have a stiff, formal, English propriety about the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. There was delight, joy, a love that pulled at the strings of the heart.
But God the Father's love for the world was greater. "God loved the world so that He gave His only begotten Son." There is a choice here. God gave up His only beloved Son choosing to save instead the miserable, fallen world that lives and breathes hatred against God and man. God was justifiably angry at the world. It deserved plagues, earthquakes, floods, devastation. The question when tragedy strikes is not, "How could God let this happen?" But, "Why didn't this happen sooner and more frequently?" Our fallen world doesn't deserve God's love but His judgment. God carried out His judgment against His Son instead. Rather than whipping, torturing, or crucifying the world, He did so to His Son. Rather than bleed a world dry or punish it till it cried, God the Father did it to His Son.
Don't leave this, however, between God and the world. That love is far away. It's immense love, but it's impersonal. John makes it personal. He calls himself the disciple whom Jesus loved,' but he never links that description with his own name. John doesn't do it, so that you can. You are the disciple whom Jesus loved. This truth hitting home will elevate you, soothe you, empower you,. Make this truth personal as feminist poet Alice Cary did. In 1871 she lay dying a miserable, painful death. Her biographer tells us that only when she heard those portions of the Gospel which tell of Christ's love for women was she comforted in her suffering.
You are the disciple whom Jesus loves. You are to see your sins gladly carried away by Him; you are to see your debt of sin canceled by His death. With every sin that comes to your mind you are to hear Him say, "I carried it away; it's paid for, forgiven." Think of someone you genuinely love: spouse, child, mother, father, friend,; now multiply that by divinity. That's how much God in Christ loves you. With that sort of love there is no place for fear. John says, "Perfect love casts out fear." God loves you perfectly. We only love imperfectly, yet we don't want those we love living in fear of what we might do to them, do we? How much more so doesn't the God who loves us perfectly.
But what about Alice Cary? What about tragedy, sickness, and affliction in our lives. The one time Jesus says He loves us with affection, with feeling, with tenderness is when He says, "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten." So when you're feeling rebuked and chasten, that is one time you are to conclude that you certainly are dearly loved by Jesus.
Being firmly convinced you are the disciple whom Jesus loves is what leads to loving brothers and sisters in Christ. It is from the disciple whom Jesus loved in the Gospel that we get the Epistles dedicated to the challenge and joy of loving one another. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifth Sunday of Easter (20070506); John 13: 31-35