Jesus said it was a new commandment (John 13:34-35). New? Wasn’t it part of the “Great Commandment” the first part of which was to love God? So, how could this one be new if it was featured so prominently in the Great Commandment: love your neighbor as yourself?
There is key difference between the “Great” and the “New.” It is the Greek word allelon (al-lay’-lone) that is, “one another.” The inclusion of this word means the commandment is given to a group. You can love your neighbor by yourself, but you cannot love one another by yourself. It is a joint enterprise that is to reflect in its practice the Lord who gave it: as I have loved you, love one another.
Furthermore, by it our identity as disciples of the Son of God will be known. It is the badge, the mark, the honor of the Christian. May we suggest that this command is at the core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus? That is why membership* in a community of followers is so vital. You cannot obey Christ’s command without it.
Note that Jesus calls loving one another a command, not a suggestion or a good idea. He called it a command. That requires an intentional response. It doesn’t happen accidentally or as a matter of convenience. Neither does it happen when it feels good. It happens when a member of the community needs love, not when I feel like loving. The response to the command is not a feeling, but a doing.
That says something about the nature of loving one another: it is practical. In other words, it is something we do in response someone’s need—a practical response. To respond to the command is to “do love” when love needs doing. That isn’t to say that we aren’t to feel affection for other disciples—we can rejoice when we do—but affection, that warm regard for a brother or sister, is not required for us to do for others what they need in order to be loved. We are to act in love whether or not we feel it.
It is that quality of loving intentionally and practically that makes fellowship evident. Such outward expressions of love make Christ visible. “All that Jesus began to do and teach while he was with us” (Acts 1) are to be continued by his body, the church, as she loves intentionally, practically and visibly like he did.
Furthermore, the body matures in that environment. When Jesus prayed that his followers would be one and perfected in unity (John 17) he was praying that the conviction of unity (call it a covenant) would cause his disciples to grow as they bumped up against one another and smoothed their rough edges. People get good at togetherness and grow in grace by refusing to abandon a relationship when things get hard.
That is why it is so important to choose our comrades in faith wisely and well. Moreover, if we expect to love intentionally, practically and visibly, and be loved in the same way, it will be in a “one another fellowship” where the members* are known—we call it, “a church of the heart”. This is the heart of fellowship. It is choosing to live in a community that is small enough so its members are not lost to each other, or so distantly known that they aren’t challenged in their love. That isn’t to say that in larger churches people cannot know and be known, only that in such congregations it is easier to avoid the hard work of loving intentionally, especially when we find certain people irritating. As I am fond of saying, in a house church you can run but you cannot hide. In a larger congregation it’s easy enough to hide.
When considering our fellowship in Christ, the question is not, “where do I go to church?” but, “with whom has God directed me to BE the church?” It is an important and fearful question. Jesus command is for me to love my group as he had loved his group. That means sacrifice. It means finding a gathering of people among whom I can lay down—lay down my life. That is fellowship in the finest sense of the word.
* By membership, we don’t mean a signature on a church document or the completion of some catechism. We mean membership one of another, to be known deeply and transparently; to be entrusted into the world of another follower of the Jesus Way.