Last words are important. In moments when my brothers or I left home to return to college, one of the last things my dad would say to us was, “Get all As.” He could say this because we were already good students, and we knew that a B would still be met with praise. My dad just set the expectation of As. It was an achievable goal.
John 13 is a part of what has become known as Jesus’ last discourses. Here Jesus is giving his final instructions. The discourse begins with John 13 and ends with Jesus’ prayer in John 17. This final discourse operates much like the other final discourses in scripture. (Jacob’s words to his Sons in Genesis 9; Moses’ final blessing in Deuteronomy 33; Joshua’s final words in Joshua 23-24; and David’s last words in 1 Chronicles 28-29). Final discourses work on two levels: they are first directed to the people within the history who do not know what is coming next, and yet they also speak directly to the reader who knows the story.
John 13 speaks excellently on both levels. In it, Judas has just left the Passover meal. Knowing that the betrayal is coming soon, Jesus gives instructions to those who are most intimate to him. Within the narrative they are probably confused with Jesus words. Or perhaps they do not want to hear them. Even though, five days before the Passover, Jesus had said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a s single grain: but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” They probably did not connect his glorification with his death. Perhaps some have caught that Judas’ departure signals His death, but in John’s Gospel the apostles rarely understand the significance of Jesus’ actions. Jesus, however, knows that His moment to be glorified has come. His “vocation rushes towards its conclusion,” so He is eager to share with them that which is essential to being His disciple.
We continue inside the story to hear Jesus offering a new command: ”That you love one another just as I have loved you.” The command to love is not new. We can find that in Leviticus 19:18. But this new command is that they love as Jesus has loved them. Jesus has loved them by creating a new family. He has welcomed them as His disciples. He has loved them by healing, feeding, and most recently, by washing their feet. “Love one another as I have loved you” can mean that they are to follow His example of being servants to one another.
Working on a larger level, however, this discourse ought to remind us that Jesus has laid down His life for the disciples. As those who know how Jesus is going to be glorified, we know that Jesus’ love and humility do not stop at servanthood. His love and humility reach to the point of death, even death on a cross. When Jesus tells the disciples they are to love one another as He has loved them, the early hearers should know that they are to love one another by laying their lives down for one another.
What is more, Jesus’ command contains a missional implication. He says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Why should the disciples have concern that others know that they are his disciples except that they are to continue His mission?
This passage is one of the most well-known in scripture, but often it is also one of the least followed. The contemporary church does not necessarily have a reputation of love. Individual churches may, but collectively that is not always true. We are known to be judgmental, political, and hypocritical. We are slow to listen, quick to speak, and quick to become angry.
At local levels, individuals can broker power and hold grudges for years. Many in the church resemble Ivan in The Brother’s Karamazov. “It is just one’s neighbors, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those at a distance… For any one to love a man, he must be hidden, for as soon as he shows his face, love is gone.” We think we know each other’s stories. Our proximity creates within us expectations. We easily get upset at a brother because “he knows better.” We don’t talk to a sister because “she’s only going to hurt me.” We will not share a meal together because “one time ten years ago, he betrayed me.” And that is just with people who still attend church.
Many Christians maintain that the government should be a reflection of our Christian values. So in the name of Christ they demean their political opponents. They support the “Christian” candidate or the “Christian” law. But during an election cycle we ought to be particularly aware of our need to love one another. As those who are known for our love, we should be incredibly careful of any sarcastic or antagonistic social media posts. Our digital voice often reaches further than we can know.
This Sunday is an opportunity to remind the congregation who we ought to be. Jesus has given us the expectation, that we are to love one another as He has loved us. My dad’s command to “Get all As” was an encouraging word meant to inspire us to high GPAs and scholarships. Jesus’ words “love one another” should also encourage us. Despite all the evidence, we can and ought to love one another. We would do well to embody sibling love which, as Bonhoeffer says,
Will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sin is there no apology whatsoever. therefore my sin is the worst. He who would serve his brother in the fellowship must sink all the way does to these depths of humility. How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own?
As Wesleyans we believe that God does not merely cover our sin. We believe that God cleanses us from our sins. We may have qualms with how people define entire sanctification or Christian perfection. At the very least it ought to mean that those who are “continuing on to perfection” or those who have been “entirely sanctified” live lives loving their sisters and brothers as Christ has loved us. After all
We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that we may proclaim the might acts of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people. Once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy.
 John 12:23-24
 N. T. Wright, John For Everyone Part 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 55.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (New York, NY Lowell Press) 296.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1954) 96-97
 1 Peter 2:9-10