When Jesus gave the new commandment in John 13, he was speaking to a small group of disciples. He is not simply restating the command to love our neighbour; this is a 'new' commandment, a commandment specifically to disciples to seek to imitate Christ in our love for other followers.
How should we love one another? In the same way as Christ does. I find it helpful to look at teaching about human love, especially in marriage, and to see whether it can apply to Christ's love for us, and to our love for other believers.
David & Teresa Ferguson and Chris & Holly Thurman identify four ingredients of a loving relationship in their course, 'Marriage and Family Intimacy':
1) Affectionate Caring. 'Love' which is only practical does not meet our needs.
2) Mutual Giving - seeking to meet the other person's needs. The authors identify ten top emotional needs:
acceptance - 'You're O.K.'
affection - 'I like you'
appreciation - 'Thank you'
approval - 'That's good'
attention - 'What you're saying matters'
comfort - 'I want to share your pain'
encouragement - 'You can do it'
respect - 'You are important to me'
security - 'You are safe with me'
support - 'I am with you'.
Each of us may put this list in a different order. The important thing is to learn to recognise what the other person's needs are, and to seek to meet them. If the giving is mutual, all needs are met.
3) Vulnerable communication - not just facts or thoughts, but including feelings and emotional needs.
4) Joint achievement - doing things together.
Christian love ('agape' in the Greek) is loving even if the other does not love in return. We love, because God has loved us (1 John 4:19).
1) God affectionately cares for us, so we can care for others.
2) God has promised to meet our needs, and that includes our emotional needs; so we can seek to meet the needs of others. This is where spiritual gifts help: the gifts the Spirit gives us are to help the whole body to grow - see Ephesians 4:11-16.
3) God communicates with us, at the risk of huge misunderstanding or our refusal to listen; we too can take risks in communicating with other Christians. This includes the 'teaching one another', 'encouraging one another', 'rebuking one another' of which Paul often speaks in his letters; they are often left unsaid because we dare not risk saying them. We need to be prepared to be vulnerable, and that means we may get hurt.
4) God wants there to be joint achievement; that's why he likes to act through human means rather than directly. We too need to do as much as possible with other Christians rather than alone. Obviously joint achievement is only possible when both parties want it; nevertheless God want us to try.
Jesus commands us to love one another. If we want to obey, we will want to develop all these ingredients. Exactly how our love is expressed will depend on the person and the situation - sometimes love needs to rebuke, other times to bear patiently. See also 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. God wants our love for other human beings to be reciprocated; but Christan love, like God's love, is not conditional upon receiving love in return.
How can we do this? What happens if we don't like some other Christian? Can we pick and choose? Not if Christ has anything to do with it! The answer is to do as C.S.Lewis suggests in 'Mere Christianity': 'Do not waste time bothering about whether you love your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you love someone, you will presently come to love him.' We 'act as if'. More accurately, we 'act because' - for if we belong to Jesus, the love of Jesus is poured into our hearts, and he is loving that person through us.
ISSUES AND QUESTIONS
1. What makes it easy to love one another in the church?
2. What makes it difficult?
3. What do we mean when we talk about loving our fellow Christians?
4. Is it only really possible to love those we like?
5. How can we love in action not only in words?
IDEAS FOR MEETINGS
Say a little about a family which you admire or have admired.
(This may best be done in a kitchen!)
Choose a simple all-in-one recipe for a cake or biscuits, and share the ingredients out to members of the group.
Say a simple thank-you prayer for the ingredients, and for the people holding them.
Read the recipe, and as each ingredient is mentioned, the person holding it adds it to the mixture.
Put it into an appropriate tin and place in the hot oven (set the timer so you don't forget it!)
Continue with the meeting until the cake is cooked, then take it out and share it between you - first giving thanks to God for the cake, and how everyone contributed.