Love and Fear and the Pathway Home (John 13:31–38)

Read John 13:31–38.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a breathtaking world filled with powerful magic, tremendous beasts, and epic battles. Yet there is a scene in The Lord of the Rings trilogy that’s so ordinary and mundane, it always brings a smile to my face. Frodo, Gandalf, and the rest of the fellowship have journeyed to Khazad-dûm, a dwarvish kingdom underneath the Misty Mountains, but they are barred from entering the caverns by a charmed door that will not open for them.

Above the outline of the door in the rock face is a message revealed by moonlight, “The Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak, friend, and enter.” Since no one knows what words to speak, the group has no choice but to sit and wait. In a series that captures the imagination at nearly every turn, our heroes suddenly find themselves in the same boat as anyone who’s ever had to go to the DMV.

After a good, long while but just in the nick of time (for a monster has been stirred in the nearby waters), Gandalf realizes the answer to their problem has been staring him in the face the whole time. The message itself contains the answer. They need only to speak the word friend in Elvish. Satisfied by the simplicity and cleverness of the ancient dwarves who devised this riddle, Gandalf smiles and then proclaims, “Mellon!” A moment later, the magical stone double doors begin to swing open (but not before poor Frodo feels a terrible tentacle close around his ankle).

I bring up this scene because it reminds me of the conversation Jesus has with His disciples in John 13. Judas has left the building, off to make the biggest mistake of his life. He’s going to set in motion the murder of the Son of God. Jesus knows His hour has come at last. It’s the hour He has waited for His entire earthly life, the hour for which He set aside the glories of heaven. And so, He gives His friends a word of preparation.

First, He tells them, somewhat cryptically, what will happen: “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come” (John 13:33). Then, He gives them instructions for life lived without His physical presence: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (v. 34).

The disciples are troubled, and so they seem to skip right past this love business. They want to go wherever Jesus is going. They want to stay with Him, to continue on as they have for the past three years or so. As if for the whole group, Peter speaks up, “Lord, where are you going?” (v. 36). Peter wants to follow Jesus, but how can he?

Like that door of Durin’s at the entrance to Moria, Jesus’ words contain the answer Peter is seeking. Jesus tells His disciples plainly what they must do to follow Him, but for the time being, they miss it.

Love. Love is the answer. Love is what puts us on the path of Jesus.

Jesus tells His disciples to love each other. What makes the command “new,” despite love being central to the laws of the Old Testament, is that Jesus’ friends are to love as He loved. Jesus’ love was such that He willingly laid down His life for His friends.

As we love each other the way Jesus loved us, we will have to live with our crosses slung over our backs. That’s because true love requires sacrifice and sets us at odds with the ways of this world. In this way, the love Jesus describes here serves as a testimony to the watching world: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (v. 35). Our love for the world means nothing if our love for one another doesn’t shine brightly; we only reveal ourselves to be hypocrites (1 John 4:20–21).

But with the love of Christ flowing in and through us, we are strengthened and empowered to live out our calling as brothers and sisters, and that love cannot—and will not—stay contained. Others will be drawn into God’s family as our lives and voices share the gospel. And at the end of this road of obedience is the embrace of the Father. The path of love brings us home.

Jesus tells Peter, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later” (John 13:36). In the future, Peter will follow Jesus, because Peter will love his brothers and sisters—and the Lord Himself—to the point where the unseen powers of this world think it best to nail him to a cross upside-down. But he’s not ready yet, as Jesus discloses: “Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!” (v. 38).

It seems that fear and love vie to occupy the same space in the human heart. Where there is fear, there cannot be love. The good news is, “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). Jesus knows Peter’s heart is still prone to the fear of man, so the fisherman-turned-disciple will lie when asked about his connection to Jesus; he will deny ever knowing Him to save his own skin. But when Peter meets the resurrected Christ, he will know, deep down in his soul, that there’s nothing to be afraid of. Nothing will be able to separate him from the love of God (Romans 8:38–39); he’ll be free to love like Jesus.

“Love one another.” It’s not just a command; it’s also an invitation to freedom like we’ve never known, and it’s how we follow Jesus.

What’s this all about?

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