A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. John 13:34-35How do we know when someone is a disciple of Jesus? Here Jesus says we should be able to tell by their love. What does He mean? First, He calls the command to love one another new. Is Jesus unaware of the Old Testament? It says love your neighbor. Jesus explained what that meant when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. So what makes this command new? The difference is He offers Himself as the model for love. He says this right before he is to be crucified. Love each other like I love you and you will soon see what that kind of love can cost.
So Jesus is not talking about some sentimental feeling. There is nothing remarkable about a community having some positive feeling for each other that we refer to as love. That will never prove we belong to Christ. People have gone there. Frustrated by doctrinal disagreements they have tried to reduce Christianity to simple love. Using texts like this one they say all the Christian teaching on doctrine and morals are really irrelevant. What we need to focus on is loving each other.
This is a classic case of a heresy using one truth to destroy other truths. It is also very appealing because, as Pope Benedict pointed out, love can become an empty shell to be filled in an arbitrary way. What used to be sin now becomes another kind of difference to celebrate. Uncertainty about doctrine becomes an excuse to ignore hard teachings.
So if that is not what this passage means then what does it mean? What could this love look like. There are about 2,300,000,000 Christians in the world. How can we love them in a way that will convince people that it must come from Jesus? The average person can't sustain warm feeling of affection for more than 40 people. Jesus must be talking about something that would scale up bigger than that. Remember the context of the crucifixion. So the willingness to suffer and die for each other is in view. Jn 13:1 talks about Jesus loving His own until the end. How do we love our own until the end?
The concept only makes sense in the context of a visible church. We can't love individuals but we can love a visible community. We can do it in a way that impresses people. The early church did it. People were willing to die for the church. Even though they have little in common with many of the people there. They were willing to give accept the most horrible deaths not because Jesus demanded it as a condition of salvation but because their suffering and death would gain a spiritual benefit for others. This inspired people to become Christian themselves. So much so that Tertullian wrote that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
So what happens to all this when you dismiss the idea of a visible church? The church becomes a human organization that serves its members. You choose it based on whether it suits you. Are you inspired? Do you like the people? Does it have good programs for you children? Is it located close to where you live? The question of whether you are willing to suffer and die for this community never comes up. Who is going to see that and be amazed at the love they have for each other? Sure there is love there but people who drink together are just as likely to grow close as people who worship together. That is not going to amaze anyone.