Today's gospel reading is an excerpt from what St John tells us that Jesus said to his disciples just before he went out into the night to be arrested and crucified. It is such a famous passage that it is easy for us to switch off when it begins to be read in church, because we all think that we know it already. Yet if any passages in the Bible should trouble Christians, surely they are this passage from St John's gospel and the reading that precedes it, from the first of St John's letters.
After all, in one form or another for nearly two thousand years, Christians have been telling each other and anybody else who would listen to them that it's love that makes the world go round. But how much better is the world as a result of this? The first letter of St John tells us:
Anyone who fails to love can never have known God, because God is love.
And in this Sunday's gospel reading, Jesus is saying:
This is my commandment: Love one another, as I have loved you.
Yet we are so accustomed to seeing failures in love, so accustomed to seeing the very opposite of love, even in Christians, that we do not even bother to shrug our shoulders when we hear these words again. Most of us treat what we hear as just a wonderful but impossible ideal that has no place in the everyday world.
In fact, though, St John's gospel is a very down-to-earth book written in a church that had more than its share of human problems. It is not the product of a dreamy idealist out of touch with the real world. What is important for us to realise is that for the gospel writer ,the word 'love' - agape in Greek -- rarely means a private emotion, but something much more profound.
'Loving somebody' means 'caring for somebody' (so 'a man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends'), and 'loving God' means doing what God wants us to do. In other words, it means making the world around us aware of God's presence, God's power. And this is not quite such a difficult thing to do as it sounds. I'll try and explain.
When we read in today's gospel that the Father 'loves' the Son, what this means is that he lives for the Son - that everything he is is for the Son. And when we read that the Son 'loves' the people whom he has called to be his friends - and that includes you and me! - it means that he lives for us. And when he tells us to love each other as he loves us, that means that we are being called to live for each other. For love is only real, it only lasts, if it produces more love - as any married couple knows.
Basically, Jesus' commandment to us to love is a summons to share in his work - his campaign to bring all human beings back into friendship with God. And it sounds at first as if we are being asked to do something impossible. For he tells us that the love with which we are supposed to love one another is the love with which he has loved us ... in other words, love of the kind which can bring great pain to the lover, judging from what happened to Jesus.
It is, on the other hand, a love stronger than death. When we say 'Yes' in our hearts to Christ's call to help spread God's love around, we are not being expected to do this relying on our own strength but by the power of God, the same power that raised Christ from the grave.
In fact, if ever we say 'Yes' to God, we are never really alone. For, as Jesus said to his disciples at his Ascension (which we will be celebrating next Thursday):
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.