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A New Mitzvah

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, May 19

Text: John 13:31-35



I wonder. If you had the opportunity to gather around you those you love most—family or friends in whom you place your hope and trust—what would you say to them? What words of wisdom or kindness might you wish to share? Is there something you have you have discovered in the course of your life thus far that is of true and enduring value, something precious you would want to impart?


Through our reading of John’s gospel today, we are reminded that love is what Jesus most wanted to impart to his followers—through the way he lived his life, and also through the words he spoke toward the very end of his life. In a week of betrayal, as Jesus predicted his own suffering and death, he spoke to his disciples about love. After he had washed the disciples’ feet and shared a final meal with them, Jesus spoke about love. “I give you a new commandment,” he said, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”


These words are precious—not yet Jesus’ last words, but nonetheless, deep wisdom he wants to convey to his followers. He speaks to them in an intimate way—“Little children, I am with you only a little while longer…” and gives instructions for how they are to live. “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”


Here, Jesus is speaking to his intimates, and his words seems to apply to life within the community of his followers. Early guidance for what will soon become the church, wisdom for life in community. First of all, love each other.


How timely, to read these words on this day of baptism and covenant! For we are a community founded in Christ’s love. Today we say yes. Yes to little Angelo and his family. Yes to Ingeborg, Katherine, Curt, Marieke and their families. Yes to baptism, yes to covenant, yes to love.


This love which we promise is not fragile or sentimental, but rather, bold, courageous and strong. It is a love that says, we’ve got you—not just when things are sweet and easy—but when things get tough. We’ve got you. Through adorable infant and toddler years—sure! But also through rebellious teen years, in old age, through times of decline or failure, through divorce or job loss, through illness and mental health struggles, through charged political situations and differences of opinion, in both hope and disappointment. In all of life’s ups and downs, we promise our love and care for one another.


How are we doing with this strong, resilient, insistent love, I wonder? Is there room for us to live more fully into Jesus’ commandment to love one another—here within the congregation of First Church? What would it be like if we truly loved one another in all of these ways? Would it mean, as John’s gospel suggests, that we would be known as a Jesus-community? Known by our love to be his followers? What would this mean for our presence here in Cambridge and our outreach to the community around us? 


Our Puritan forebears knew they would get it wrong some of the time, as they sought to live into this commandment to love one another. And they wrote this beautiful line into their covenant: “so near as God shall give us grace.” I wonder if you’ve noticed that line and if it delights you as much as it does me. Our covenant states, “we do promise and bind ourselves to walk in all our ways according to the rule of the Gospel…and in mutual love and respect, each to other, so near as God shall give us grace.” They knew they would get this love thing wrong some of the time and they probably knew that we would, too.



The historic covenant we share this morning as we welcome new members, was used in 1630 by the church gathered at Charlestown, Massachusetts. According to our archivists, “the first few generations of members of First Church may well have used such a covenant, but the original covenant of the congregation is unknown. This one was adopted in 1872, around the same time as our current meeting house was completed.”[That is--this sanctuary and part of the building in which we are worshipping today.]


Loving one another is complicated—even among the members of a small congregation. Our forebears knew it and we know it. But there is so much more than an insular love in Jesus’ commandment! We cannot hear the love commandment (as these words from John’s gospel are called) without hearing echoes of the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.


For Jesus’ commandment is not, in fact, new—in the sense of never having been heard before. Rather, it is rooted deeply in Jesus’ own Jewish tradition and in a bold ethic of justice and respect. To understand the fullness of this commandment, we must look to Jewish wisdom and law, which requires not simply kindness or affection, but a serious commitment to human flourishing. It is a robust love that leads us to strive for justice, fairness, and the well-being of our neighbors near and far.


We must hear Jesus’ new commandment in the context of the two cornerstones of our faith—love of God and neighbor. We must even hear in it resonances from Leviticus, who declares, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 19:33-34)


The love commandment is ancient wisdom of love for one another—within a close community, love of neighbors—near and far—and even care for strangers. It is an enduring ethic for our time.


And it is made new in each sacramental act, each covenantal moment and each new day. This the fullness of life to which we are invited, the beauty of a life devoted to God and to the love of Jesus.


We call this the “love commandment,” for this is the most common translation from the Greek. But Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine suggests that another word for commandment in this context is mitzvah, or blessing. [like bar or bat mitzvah.]


So, perhaps today our brother Jesus gives us a new mitzvah—a new blessing—and calls us to a new way of life. It is for us to say, “yes” and open our hearts to this gift of blessing. Amen.





































iFrom the First Church web site: https://www.firstchurchcambridge.org/about-us/our-living-and-historic-covenants





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