Like an innocent child wandering by itself into the kitchen and pressing the switches that will set the house on fire, some biblical texts have been taken out of their original setting and used in ways that would have horrified the original speaker or writer. Here in this passage we have one with exactly that history.
‘No one’, said Jesus, ‘has a love greater than this, to lay down your life for your friends’. That is true, gloriously true. Indeed, Jesus was on his way to his own execution as the most dramatic example of the point. The cross is clearly in in view here, when Jesus says that laying down your life for your friends is the highest form of love, and then says ‘and you, of course are my friends.’ But during the First World War, this text was used again and again, in sermons and lectures, set to music and sung by great choirs, with one single meaning: therefore you, young man – they were mostly young men – must go off to the front line, do what you are told and if necessary die for your country.
They did, in their tens of thousands. God honours, I believe, the self-sacrifice and dedication of those who sincerely and devoutly believed they were doing their duty. But i also believe God judges those who use texts like this as a convenient rhetorical trick to put moral pressure on other people, when what they needed was a bit of moral pressure on themselves to ask: Why are we doing this at all? If we must have a war, is this really the best way of fighting it? Are these sacrifices which is another convenient religious word; people spoke of ‘the final sacrifice’, forgetting that in the bible human sacrifice was condemned over and over again the best way both of winning the war and of preparing ourselves for the world that will need rebuilding after it’s all over?
The easy identification of ‘our’ side with God’s side has been a major problem ever since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman state in the fourth century. Ironically, as Western Europe has become less and less Christian in terms of its practise, its leaders seem to have made this identification more and more, so that both sides in major world wars of the twentieth were staffed, as we have already noted, by Christian chaplains praying for victory.
This sits uneasily alongside a passage like this one in John’s Gospel, where the talk is of love, not war. In a world of danger and wickedness, It won’t do for everyone to pretend there are no hard decisions to be made. But precisely one of the great dangers, and great wickedness, of the world is the very common belief that fighting is a fine thing, that war is a useful way of settling disputes, and that to, to put it crudely, might is right. One of the reasons human civilisation has struggled to promote justice is the recognition that things aren’t that easy. And justice, at its best, knows that it has only a negative function: to clear the decks and leave the world open for people to love one another.
You can’t legislate for love; but God, through Jesus, can command you to love. Discovering the difference between what law cannot achieve and what God can and does achieve is one of the greatest arts of being human, and of being Christian. In the present passage we are brought in on the secret of it all.
The command to love is given by one who has himself done everything that love can do. When a mother loves a child, she creates the context in which a child is free to love her in return. When a ruler really does love his or her subjects, and when this becomes clear by generous and warm-hearted actions, he or she creates a context in which the subjects can and will love them in return. The parody of this, seen with awesome clarity in George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four, is when the totalitarian ruler (‘Big Brother’), who has done nothing but oppress and terrify his subjects, nevertheless orders them to love him. And the devastating climax, after the initially resisting subjects have been brainwashed, is that it works. At the end of the book, the hero is, in a sense, happy. ‘He loved Big Brother.’ And the reader knows that at this moment the hero has ceased to be truly human.
Jesus though, issues the command that we are to love one another, and so to remain in his love, because he has acted out, and will act out, the greatest thing that love can do. He has come to make us more human, not less. He has come to give us freedom and joy, not slavery and a semi-human stupor. He has come so that we can bear fruit that will last, whether in terms of a single life changed because we loved somebody as Jesus loved us, or in terms of a single decision that we had to take, a single task we had to perform, through which, though we couldn’t see it at the time, the world became a different place. Love makes both the lover and the beloved more truly human.
At the heart of it all is the humility that comes from knowing who’s in charge. ‘You didn’t choose me; I chose you’. I was once asked, on the radio, which religion I would choose if I could. I pointed out that the idea of ‘choosing your religion’ was a mistake in the first place. Religions are not items on the supermarket shelf that we can pick and choose – though many today try to live their lives that way. Or, if they are, you’d have to say that following Jesus wasn’t a ‘religion’. It is a personal relationship of love and loyalty to the one who has loved us more than we can begin to imagine. And the test of that love and loyalty remains the simple, profound, dangerous and difficult command: love one another.