May 19; 5th Sunday of Easter; Year C

5th EasterA New Commandment, A New Standard

One frequent objection to Christianity is that, it isn’t very original. Now, this is not targeted at the historical ties between Christianity and the Hebrew-Judeo faith, which we Christians make no apology for. Rather, the argument is that the teachings of Christianity comprise of stitched-together parts of other religions. The Golden Rule is a prime and important example. The rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is found in many religions and philosophies. The Golden Rule is a maxim of the law of reciprocity that essentially holds that people ought to treat others how they themselves want to be treated. Ultimately, self-interest or self-preservation is the yardstick for such a rule.

But the argument that Christianity merely restates the Golden Rule and therefore does not offer anything new falls apart in the light of what our Lord proposes in today’s gospel passage. In fact, our Lord insists that He has something supremely novel to offer. We are brought back to the scene of the Last Supper, just after the Lord had washed the feet of His disciples. In fact, it is this very statement which gives Holy Thursday its traditional name, Maundy Thursday or Mandatum Thursday – from the Latin word for “commandment.” “I give you a new commandment: love one another, just as I have loved you!” To underline the importance He will repeat this two more times during the Last Supper. He speaks like someone who wants to leave an inheritance: “I give you … I bequeath you”.

Technically, loving others is not a new command per se. It was already there in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”) and our Lord reiterated the same in His formulation of the Great Commandment recorded in the Synoptic gospels. In a way, this commandment is an adaptation of the Golden Rule, with love as its motivation. “Do good to others as you want others to do good to you” now becomes “love others as you want to be loved.” But there is still an element of reciprocity. You only love others because you wish for them to love you in return. Such love remains self-serving. It is not spontaneous for people to love those who do not deserve it or cannot reciprocate.

In Christ’s new command, the significant words are “as I have loved you.” The novelty introduced by this commandment – perhaps justifying its designation as New – is that our Lord introduces Himself as a standard for love. The commandment isn’t new; but the extent of love, the standard of love is new. The usual criterion had been “as you love yourself”. However, the New Commandment goes beyond the ethic of reciprocity and states “as I have loved you”, using the Love of Christ for His disciples as the new model. Pope Emeritus Benedict sheds light on the mystery: “This commandment has become new because Jesus makes a very important addition to it: “just as I have loved you, you must also love one another.” What is new is precisely this “loving as Jesus loved.” All our living is preceded by His love and refers to this love, it fits into this love and is achieved precisely through this love… “Jesus gave Himself to us as a model and source of love, a boundless, universal love that could transform all negative circumstances and all obstacles into opportunities to progress in love.”

In this New Commandment Our Lord makes Himself the pattern we live by. Now, one need only look at Him to know and carry out the single, all-sufficient commandment He gives. In Christ we discover the grandeur, the height, the depth and the perfection of love. Our Lord did not replace or change the commandment, “Love your neighbour, as you love yourself.” Rather, He filled it out and gave it the best illustration ever – not just by washing the feet of His disciples, but more importantly by dying on the cross. The model of true love is Christ crucified and the commandment of love is finally actualised and perfected on the cross. This depth of love takes the Christian to a whole new way of expressing love for others. Self-love no longer becomes the criterion, but Jesus’ love for us is. The Lord sets Himself as the new norm and measure of Christian love. Our Lord demonstrates His love by showing what it means to love His own ‘perfectly - He loved them ‘to the end’. Therefore, to love one another as He loved is to give oneself wholly and fully to the other. It is in this totality of self-sacrifice and self-giving that the new element in the commandment of love is to be found.

The disciples’ love must therefore not depend on the worthiness of the ones who are loved since Jesus did not love His disciples because they were lovely or loveable. Therefore, what is required of us is not just about getting from giving, the basis of the Golden Rule. Our Lord loved His own without expecting anything in return. He loved them despite their faults and failures. He loved even Judas, who was going to betray Him and Peter who would deny Him and the others who would turn their backs on Him. Likewise, we are called to love even those who may have failed or wronged us before, and to love even those who are our enemies.

We must recognise that all human beings despite their fallen state are capable of showing ordinary love and care for the needy and impoverished. In times of disaster like famine, tsunamis and earthquakes, secular organisations will rally to provide aid and humanitarian support within a short time. And philanthropists will give of their billions to ease the sufferings of their fellow man. But if all that we do as Christians is merely to emulate this love we would be no different from non-Christians who love one another. The love that is required of us in the new commandment is meant to distinguish us from others. It is living out this commandment which makes us recognisable as Christ's disciples because it exhibits the love of Christ Himself. This commandment would be the epitome of Christianity: “By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

Therefore, the second reading reminds us that heaven, depicted in the Holy City which descends from heaven to earth, is nothing other than the realisation of this love between God and man, “Here God lives among men.” Men can never establish this perfect dwelling by themselves. They can never erect a paradise on earth even with their most altruistic efforts.

But here on earth, we can already make this paradise visible in a somewhat imperfect manner. No other characteristic of the Church can convince the world of the rightness and necessity of Christ’s person and teaching. Radiant love lived by Christians is the proof of all teaching, dogmas, and moral precepts of the Church of Christ. This was the kind of love that the first-century Christians became known for (Acts 2:44-47) or as Tertullian (who lived in the 2nd century AD) records what the pagans of his time were saying about the Christians: “See how they love one another and are ready to lay down their lives for each other.” This is the kind of testimony that has caused many to turn to Christ for salvation. The most powerful and convincing apologetic for the Christian faith is the love among Christians, and of Christians for others.

Christianity does not claim to be the first religion to use the Golden Rule, but it is fair to say that Christians have (or at least should have) a superior appreciation of it and something new to say about it. The value of Christianity is not novelty. The value of Christianity is the Incarnation – God became man so that men may become gods. The golden standard of men will no longer be the benchmark. It would be a supremely higher one. Man’s standard would now be pegged against God’s. To Love as He did, that would be the ultimate yardstick of love.