Alison Joyce Rector of St Bride's Church Fleet Street London

The Commandment to Love

Written by
The Revd Canon Dr Alison Joyce
Rector of St Bride's
Sunday 15th May, 2022

Some of the best-known sayings of Jesus are so familiar to us these days, that we can easily forget quite how challenging they really are. We heard a very good example of precisely that in our Gospel reading a moment ago, which is taken from St John’s account of the Last Supper. As Jesus prepares to bid a final farewell to his disciples, he says this to them:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Has it ever occurred to you what an odd notion it is to command someone to love? To give you a parallel example – I could certainly command you to eat a plate of tripe and onions, but could I realistically command you to enjoy the experience?

Perhaps the reason why the commandment to love can seem rather bizarre and perplexing is because we tend to regard loving as being something that is not really under our control – but rather as something that ‘sort of happens to us’, whether we like it or not: love is something that simply wells up within us, often catching us completely unawares – or alternatively, it simply doesn’t – if we don’t feel love, then we just … don’t. Interesting, isn’t it, that we speak of ‘falling’ in love as if love were a very large pothole in the pavement that we stumble into quite accidentally on our way back from the pub.

And if we perceive love in that kind of way – as something that happens to us and is largely outside our control – then surely to try to command someone to love makes no sense at all – particularly when it involves someone whom we really don’t like very much. Surely the very best that might be achieved in such circumstances is pretence – going through the motions in a way that might appear to be actively dishonest.

But let’s think about this more deeply. Yes, it is undoubtedly true that feelings are feelings, and that feelings are things that we cannot conjure up or dismiss at well. But, nevertheless, there is an interesting relationship between what we feel and how we act – and strange though it may seem, not only do our feelings influence our actions, but it can work the other way round, too: our actions can in fact have quite a profound influence on what we feel.

A very wise and insightful Roman Catholic nun whom I know, used to rail against what she described as ‘soap opera morality,’ which was characterised, in her view, by the phrase: ‘I can’t help how I feel’ – which was usually said by one soap opera character to another in self-justification – often because their infidelity had just come to light. ‘I can’t help how I feel.’ Her objection to this was that, although feelings do indeed well up within us completely unbidden, what we choose to do in response to those feelings remains very much within our control.

Hence, for example, I may well feel overwhelming hostility to a traffic warden who has just given me a parking ticket, but that in itself is no justification at all for my then kicking him in the shins. Because there is a very important distinction between the feelings we have, and the actions we choose to take, as a result of those feelings.

But we can very easily forget, or overlook the fact that it works the other way round, too. I can remember hearing a school teacher describe how she discovered that if she entered a classroom with a positive attitude and a smile on her face – acting as if she was delighted to see the pupils in her charge that morning (regardless of what she was actually feeling about them) – it really did have an impact on the start of that lesson, to the way in which the children responded to her, and to the mood of the classroom. And more interestingly still, it also had an impact on her. Over time she genuinely began to start feeling more positive towards her class, eventually even about the individuals whom she found most challenging. So her actions turned out to have the capacity to shape her feelings – it can work both ways.

I am reminded of some of the very wise observations about human nature made by the Classical philosopher Aristotle. Firstly, he was of the view that, if you really want to know the truth about a human being, don’t look at what they say – look at how they behave – look at what they do. And secondly, that if you want to cultivate a particular virtue, the way to do so is by doing it. Because the more you strive to live out that virtue, the more it starts to become second nature to you – and in the end you do it naturally; it becomes part of who you are.

What we do really can reveal who we are, and it can also shape who we are. And how we act can also shape the relationships we have with other people – and sometimes, eventually, even begin to have an impact on them, too.

Now let’s turn back to our Gospel reading. I suspect that when we hear the word ‘Commandment’ most of us immediately think of a rule that is imposed on us by some external authority – probably accompanied by the threat of punishment if it is not obeyed. But the commandment that Jesus gives his disciples in our Gospel reading – the commandment to love one another – is a very different kind of commandment altogether. Here we need to remember that Jesus was saying this in the context of an intimate meal he was sharing with his closest companions. And he issued this commandment to them accompanied by a strange and very memorable example: because this is a man who had just removed his robe and knelt before them, and washed their feet, just as the most menial of domestic slaves would have done.

In commanding them to love, Jesus is not speaking primarily about feelings but about actions. He is talking about the way in which we conduct ourselves to one another – meaning here not merely those who are already close to us, but much more importantly, those with whom we struggle most. And do please remember, and this is really important, that when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, he does so before Judas leaves to betray him to the authorities. Jesus issues the commandment to love having moments before washed the feet of Judas and watched him depart into the night to set the wheels in motion that will lead to his own torture and death – and only then does he give them this teaching.

The remarkable thing is, as I know from personal experience, that when you do strive to act lovingly towards another person – especially when it is someone whom you struggle to like, in time your actions can have a very extraordinary and unexpected effect. Striving to act lovingly, however much it goes against the grain, can at a very deep level begin to change us from the inside. It can begin to change the way in which we relate to the world and to other people. And when we start to relate differently to the world, the world can begin to relate differently to us – and alongside all of this, and perhaps strangest of all, eventually our feelings begin to change as well.

Our second reading today from the Book of Acts describes a huge row that was going on in the early Church that was all about who was allowed to be a member of the Church and who wasn’t. There were those who firmly believed that in order to become a follower of Christ you first had to become Jewish – and adopt all the trappings of Jewish observance – food laws, and circumcision, and the observance of holy days, and everything else. (After all, Jesus himself and all the disciples had been Jewish!)

But the answer that emerged for the early Church, which has shaped the Christian faith ever since, was that through his death and resurrection Jesus completely redefined the boundaries of belonging. Hence the true followers of Christ are not those who tick the external boxes of religious observance – but rather those who proclaim Christ’s saving love in the way they live, and in the people they become through striving to live out that love.

We are all fallen creatures, of course – hence our constant need for renewal; our constant need to be reminded of God’s love, and grace, and forgiveness when we fall short. And over time we discover that the commandment that we must love one another is not an order that we assent to – rather, it is a truth that we grow into.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.


congregation sitting for service


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