A New (Old) Commandment

Depiction of Christ washing Peter's feet at the Last Supper by Giotto di Bondone, circa 1304-1306. Photo by Jose Luiz.

Depiction of Christ washing Peter’s feet at the Last Supper by Giotto di Bondone, circa 1304-1306. Photo by Jose Luiz.

This is the ninth in a series of article on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

I sincerely hope by this point that the biblical imperative regarding reconciliation has been well established and that it has been made clear just how vital of an issue this is: the most vital, really, for within the concept of reconciliation all the things that pertain to salvation are encompassed along with our purpose on this earth. We have also taken a look at the underlying heart attitudes that can make or break reconciliation. The conversation has for the most part centered on relationships between two individuals, or between the individual and God. By focusing on big concepts rather than specific circumstances, it is possible that I have even made it this far without seriously offending you. Well, as they say, all good things must come to an end.

It is necessary that we move beyond this limited scope and begin to examine reconciliation on a corporate level. Here it is worth noting that every Christian has relationships with two kinds of people: those who are Christians and those who are not. Reconciliation is needed in both areas, but I am going to begin by examining reconciliation among Christians themselves, for if we cannot get our own house in order, we have little hope outside the walls, so to speak.

Perhaps it is not yet apparent why the subject of Christian reconciliation would be controversial, or why what I have to say might offend you. If that is the case, then it is probably because you are not aware of all the people I am including when I refer to Christians. By Christians, I mean all members of the Church in the universal or catholic sense of the word.[1] Now, as it is often difficult to determine where a person’s heart is, and only God knows perfectly which sheep are his and which are not, we must focus on things that are more external when we determine who is part of the Church. Therefore, when I refer to the Church, I am including all those who hold to orthodoxy – that is, the set of essential doctrines commonly accepted throughout history – and more than all, those who hold to the gospel.[2]

Let me make myself even more abundantly clear: the universal Church is not limited to any of the three major branches of Christianity – Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant. Moreover, it is the will of God that we should seek Christian unity between these three branches, and Jesus Christ never taught anything other than a single, united Church. Within each of the three branches, we find some people who hold to the gospel and some who do not. We find some whose beliefs are orthodox and some whose are not. Some are true believers, and others merely nominal. Many of the most esteemed theologians of all time have observed this divide between the “visible” and “invisible” Church and noted the insufficiency of looking merely at externals.

Have I made you uncomfortable yet? If so, I beg you give me a chance to make my case and not dismiss my argument out of hand, for I am not attempting to throw doctrinal truth under the bus. I realize that in our 21st century world, the mere discussion of reconciliation between the far flung branches of Christianity, the million and one denominations, seems a pipe dream. I too am a realistic person and I understand your concern. I know that before I can discuss the means of achieving Christian unity, I must first convince you that it is necessary at all. That is where we stand as Christians today, and I submit that it is a real tragedy. But I am not giving up hope, and I will make my appeal from the scriptures first and foremost, and secondarily from a few of the greatest and most respected minds in Christian history.

Let us start then at the very beginning, which The Sound of Music assures us is “a very good place to start”. (A musical with nuns as the heroes – see how ecumenical I am being already!) When Jesus Christ came to this earth and by his life and death purchased our redemption, He did not do so merely to have millions of personal relationships with separate individuals. That there is an essential individual component to Christianity, I do not deny, but it was the will of God to also establish the Church. It was the will of God from before the foundation of the world that we who believe in His name would be bound together as one: live together, learn together, work together, love together.

Remember, as we have previously discussed, God is relational. Throughout the scriptures, when He makes a covenant, even if it is with a single individual, it has a corporate reach. He works not only with me or you, but also with us. Therefore, it was always His intention to create not a group of separated believers, but a united Church that would be His body on earth even after He ascended. Consider the first time that one of the apostles made a definite confession of faith in Jesus as the Christ.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.’

Matthew 16:13-18

Statue of the Apostle Peter outside St. Peter's Basilica in Rome (author photo)

Statue of the Apostle Peter outside St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (author photo)

Discussion of this passage almost inevitably starts to focus on the person of Peter and whether or not Christ was establishing the papacy. I do not want us to become distracted by that at this point, which is why I did not include the next verse about the “keys of the kingdom of heaven”. Such discussions have their place, but not here. The point is that Peter comes out and says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” which for a first century Jew was a phenomenal statement. He not only identified Jesus with the prophesied Messiah who would save Israel, but he attributed to Him divinity – this coming from someone who grew up chanting, “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”

Here is what I do want us to focus on: Jesus takes that individual statement of belief and immediately expands upon it to make a corporate prophecy. “Upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” Therefore, He makes clear both that 1) His plan for us is corporate as well as individual, and 2) the Church that He is about to inaugurate will not be overcome even by sin and death.

The disciples would not have been perplexed by Christ’s suggestion that there is such a thing as a corporate people of God. After all, the Lord had been working with the nation of Israel for thousands of years, had made a covenant with them as a people, and had bestowed both blessings and punishments on a corporate scale. However, I do not believe in that moment that the disciples truly grasped what He meant when He talked about “My church”…not even Peter. Just a few verses later, after Christ predicts that He will be killed and raised to life on the third day, Peter rebukes Him with the words, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” (Matthew 16:22b) Peter didn’t get it: he was looking for the Messiah as he understood it, a conquering king and not a suffering servant. Despite his statement of belief, he did not understand just what it meant that Jesus was the Christ, nor did he understand what the Church would be.

Let us fast forward then to the night before Jesus was to give His life on our behalf. He and His disciples were having one last Passover meal together, commonly known as the Last Supper. I think it’s safe to say that a person’s last words are pretty important. I am reminded of the dying word “rosebud” that set off the plot of the classic film Citizen Kane (Spoiler alert: it’s a sled!), the guilt-inducing phrase “Earn this.” at the end of Saving Private Ryan, or the unfortunate utterance “Blue…no yellow!” that did in Sir Galahad in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But more than any of those fictional characters, Jesus knew well in advance when He was to die, and thus we can assume the words were chosen with special care.

With His final words before dying, Christ chose to prepare His disciples for what would happen when He was gone, both in the immediate sense of the three days He spent in the grave and the more permanent sense of His ascension into Heaven. He began by washing the feet of His disciples to teach them that, “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” (John 13:14-15) What He was getting at was not just a matter of personal hygiene, but a heart for service and self-sacrifice. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

Having established the importance of service and informed the disciples that He would be betrayed and taken away from them, Jesus then said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

"The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1495-1498

“The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1495-1498

Here the purpose of Christ’s discourse is made clear: He is preparing His disciples for the inauguration of the Church. This is confirmed later on when He prophesies about the coming of the Holy Spirit and speaks of Himself as the vine and the believers as the branches. This is why the commandment is “new”, even though God had made clear to humanity from the beginning that we ought to love one another. Having already received the general command “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31 repeating Old Testament teaching) and the even more radical “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44), Christ now talks specifically about the love that believers ought to have for one another.

Let us examine the “how” and the “why” of Jesus’ command. How ought we to love one another? The answer: “Even as I have loved you…” He goes on to expand on this later in the discourse when he says, “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12-14) The implication is that our love for each other ought to mirror Christ’s love by being self-sacrificing. That was the model Christ set by washing His disciples’ feet at the beginning of the conversation, and it was about to be made complete when He made Himself the sacrifice for sin.

We must also consider the “why” of the command. Why was it important for Christ’s disciples to love one another? The answer: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples…” Therefore, our love for one another is not simply a fulfillment of the divine command, but it actually marks us out as Christians, both to each other and to the world as a whole. Jesus is essentially saying, “I want people to look at how much you love one another and say, ‘They must be Christians.’” We could equally add, “I want other Christians to know you are one of them because of how much you love.” Those are not the Lord’s actual words, but I think it is a good explanation of what He meant.

We must never doubt the importance of our love for one another. It is not only desirable – it is commanded. Loving one another is not optional. It is the first and most important mark of true Christianity. If you are a believer, you will love other believers. If you are part of the Church, you will love the Church. This is not some nice ideal that we may or may not get to some day if everybody else cleans up their act. It is the beginning – the foundation on which the Church is built. Without it, everything else will crumble.

We must not doubt the truth of this principle. This was exactly what the Apostle John, who wrote the Gospel of John, took away from the Last Supper. We know this by what he wrote in his first epistle, which makes perhaps the strongest case in scripture for the absolute necessity of loving our fellow Christians.

The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now. The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

1 John 2:9-11

That’s a strong statement, but John was prepared to go even further.

If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.

1 John 4:20-21

The words of scripture could not be more clear: all true Christians will love one another, and anyone who says they are a Christian but hates their brother (or sister) is still in the darkness, is a liar, and cannot really love God. For John, love of the brethren is one of the chief marks of a believer, and he took that directly from Jesus Christ.

"The Agony in the Garden" by William Blake, circa 1799-1800

“The Agony in the Garden” by William Blake, circa 1799-1800

After Jesus had spoken at the Last Supper, He went on to the Garden of Gethsemane, where He earnestly prayed to His Father in the final moments before He was to be betrayed. This was a time when any of us would have been thinking a lot about ourselves, and naturally so. Yet, He was still thinking about the Church that would soon come into being. “Holy Father,” he prayed, “Keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are.” (John 17:11b)

What Christ very clearly wanted for the Church was the same kind of oneness He enjoys with the Father: a complete oneness of purpose and spirit. He went on to say, “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” (John 17:22-23) We cannot fully comprehend the level of unity that exists between the three persons of the Godhead, but Christ indicates that this is the sort of oneness toward which we should be striving. The true Church is not many, but one: one with each other and one with Christ, who is the eternal Head of the Church. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth,

For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many.

1 Corinthians 12:12-14

He furthermore wrote the church in Ephesus,

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1-6

We must never doubt that Christian unity is not only a goal, but a requirement. As I said before, Jesus Christ never taught anything other than a single, united Church. It is also important to note Paul’s reference that the same Spirit is given to all, “whether Jews or Greeks, whether slave or free”. This is a much wider concept of the people of God than what the disciples knew under the Mosaic Law. Read what Paul, formerly the most orthodox of orthodox Jews, wrote to the church in Galatia:

But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.

Galatians 3:23-29

When Peter made his statement of faith at Caesarea Philippi and Christ followed it up with a promise concerning the Church, neither he nor the other disciples could have scarcely imagined just what the Church would include or how far the grace of God was able to reach.

Even after the resurrection and ascension of Christ, when the Holy Spirit had indwelt the believers and the Apostle Peter was boldly preaching the gospel, he was still limited in his vision of what the Church would entail. He received a vision of a number of animals that were all unclean according to the Mosaic Law. “A voice came to him, ‘Get up, Peter, kill and eat!’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.’ Again a voice came to him a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’” (Acts 10:13-15)

The purpose of this odd vision soon became apparent when men showed up at Peter’s door. “They said, ‘Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you.’” (Acts 10:22) We see that Cornelius was a Gentile – he was not a member of God’s chosen people under the Mosaic Law. Yet, Peter understood from the vision that “God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.” (Acts 10:34b-35) He preached the gospel message to Cornelius and his family, and they too became Christians. Thus, the Church would not be limited by race, gender, or social status.

This was not an easy lesson for many believers to learn. The first Church council held at Jerusalem during the lifetime of the apostles centered on the question of what to do about Gentile converts. In the New Testament epistles and the Book of Acts, we see how Christians had to struggle with this new definition of God’s people. Most Jews had been raised to not even like Gentiles. Now they were expected to love them sacrificially. Yes, this new command of Christ, this new vision for His people called by His name, was most difficult to grasp. In many ways, we are still working to grasp it today.

I would suggest that, much like Peter, we have not yet understood just how far the grace of God can reach for those who truly repent and believe. We have not felt keenly enough the need to love one another after the manner of Christ – to honor the oneness and unity of the Church. Yet, the universality – nay, the catholicity – of the Church is written right into our founding creeds.

"Twelve article of faith set out by twelve apostles", a depiction of the Apostle's Creed from a 14th century illuminated manuscript

“Twelve articles of faith set out by twelve apostles”, a depiction of the Apostle’s Creed from a 14th century illuminated manuscript

Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

Nicene Creed: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

Athanasian Creed: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith.

Regardless of which of the three major branches of Christianity you belong to, your church (with a small “c”) almost assuredly accepts these three creeds, excerpts of which I have provided. Yes, scripture is of first importance, but the creeds provide excellent summaries of orthodox belief. They take scriptural truth and crystallize it in a way that is simple to remember. And as we have already seen, the words I quoted from these creeds are very much in line with scripture.

Love of the brethren, fellowship with one another, and the living ministry of the Church are as essential as essential gets, therefore we must be held together in unity. The belief in the oneness of the church is not a “Catholic idea” or an “Orthodox idea”, nor even a “Protestant idea”. It is biblical truth straight from the lips of Jesus Christ, commended to us by the apostles, and codified in our creeds. If I have not convinced you, perhaps you will trust a few real theologians.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer devoted much of his all-too-short career to the study of Christian community. He wrote a seminal work, Life Together, in which he reminds us of some very important truths, such as the following.

It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed…It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.[3]

Bonhoeffer, a member of the German Lutheran tradition, knew all too well what it meant to lose true Christian community, having watched many of his countrymen capitulate in the face of Nazi tyranny and abandon the truth of the gospel. But he remained firm in his belief and dedication to the cause of Christian fellowship, and he reminds us, “He who looks upon his brother should know that he will be eternally united with him in Jesus Christ.”[4] If the thought of being united with some particular believer eternally disturbs you, you may not like Heaven and you may not have grasped the purpose of the Church.

Let us not stop with the Lutherans but continue on in the spirit of Christian unity. Let us examine the writings of John Calvin, to whom the Reformed movement owes so much.

It is a tremendous privilege for the Church to have been chosen and set apart by Christ as his bride, ‘without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish’ (Ephesians 5:27), and ‘his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way’ (Ephesians 1:23). It follows then, that revolt from the Church is a denial of God and Christ. So it is all the more vital to beware of such a disastrous rebellion: it is tantamount to trying to destroy God’s truth, for which we deserve to feel the full force of his anger. There could be no worse crime than blasphemously and shamefully breaking the sacred marriage bond, which the only begotten Son of God has condescended to make with us.[5]

Here in his famed Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin underscores the need for us to remain united with the Church, comparing it to the covenant bond of marriage. This metaphor is scriptural (Ephesians 5:22-33) and has been picked up by many great Christians over the centuries. Calvin equates destroying Christian unity with destroying God’s truth, and vice versa. “There could be no worse crime,” he writes.

Calvin was hardly the first theologian to suggest such a thing. Consider this powerful statement from an early Christian theologian, Cyprian of Carthage.

The Lord warns, saying, ‘He who is not with me is against me, and he who gathers not with me scatters.’ (Matthew 12:30) He who breaks the peace and the concord of Christ, does so in opposition to Christ; he who gathers elsewhere than in the Church, scatters the Church of Christ. The Lord says, ‘I and the Father are one;’ (John 10:30) and again it is written of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, ‘And these three are one.’ (1 John 5:7) And does any one believe that this unity which thus comes from the divine strength and coheres in celestial sacraments, can be divided in the Church, and can be separated by the parting asunder of opposing wills? He who does not hold this unity does not hold God’s law, does not hold the faith of the Father and the Son, does not hold life and salvation.’[6]

Cyprian is more a favorite of Catholics, but he existed long before the three branches of Christianity split, and I believe he has something to say to us all, even as Bonhoeffer and Calvin do on this point. But do not think that I have forgotten you, my Orthodox friends! In fact, I found a truly wonderful passage in the work of the 20th century Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky.

The Church is completeness itself; it is the continuation and the fulfilment of the theanthropic union. The Church is transfigured and regenerated mankind. The meaning of this regeneration and transfiguration is that in the Church mankind becomes one unity, ‘in one body.’ The life of the Church is unity and union. The body is ‘knit together’ and ‘increaseth’ in unity of Spirit, in unity of love. The realm of the Church is unity. And of course this unity is no outward one, but is inner, intimate, organic. It is the unity of the living body, the unity of the organism. The Church is a unity not only in the sense that it is one and unique; it is a unity, first of all, because its very being consists in reuniting separated and divided mankind. It is this unity which is the ‘sobornost’ or catholicity of the Church. In the Church humanity passes over into another plane, begins a new manner of existence. A new life becomes possible, a true, whole and complete life, a catholic life, ‘in the unity of the Spirit, in the bond of peace.’ A new existence begins, a new principle of life, ‘even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us…that they may be one even as We are one.’[7]

So you see that all orthodox Christians hold to the truth of catholicity, or the universal Church. We all believe in the need for Christian unity and fellowship. Past that point, our paths admittedly diverge. As is so common with human beings, we can agree on the problem but not the solution. The purpose of this essay is merely to set out the need for Christian reconciliation and the importance placed on it by Christ Himself. At a later date, I will explore this issue more in depth, but for now let us simply remember that commandment and the vision put forth by Christ in those final hours: “Love one another.”

All scripture verses are taken from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation

[1] Please note that the simple adjective “catholic” is not the same as the proper noun “Catholic”. I will try to be careful in how I use them. It should also be noted, however, that my differentiation of the terms is somewhat symptomatic of my Protestant beliefs, and that many Roman Catholics are likely to see less difference between “catholic” and “Catholic”, for they believe the true Church has its center in Rome and all others have broken away.

[2] A further semantic riddle: the simple adjective “orthodox” is not one and the same with the proper noun “Orthodox”, the latter referring specifically to the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity. However, one again, the Orthodox themselves may see less of a difference between the terms, as they hold that they are the true ancient faith.

[3] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. Translated by John Doberstein, (New York: HarperOne, 1954), page 20.

[4] Bonhoeffer, page 24

[5] Calvin, John (or Jean…yes, he was French!). The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1987), pg. 235.

[6] Saint Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church, Translated by Robert Ernest Wallis. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050701.htm>

[7] Florovsky, Georges. Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View. Volume 1. (Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Company, 1972), pg. 39.

Previous articles in this series:

#1 – Wars and Rumors of Wars

#2 – Discord

#3 – A Scriptural Imperative

#4 – The Cross of Hate

#5 – The Age of Sacrifice

#6 – The First Step

#7 – Impossible Questions

#8 – True Love

#10 – Truth with a Capital ‘T’

#11 – Christ is All in All

#12 – Awaken!

#13 – Another Path to Reconciliation?

#14 – Humble Rebellion

#15 – Those Who Live by Faith are Just