The theme of this Gospel is clearly love but not the kind of love we see a film or television program, or hear on the radio or a CD. Even in church hymns, we speak frequently about love. But, as Oliver sings in the musical based on Charles Dickens’ story, “Where is love?” We ask: what is love?
First, let’s look for a minute at where John places this reading. It fits squarely between the Gospel readings from this morning (Saturday) and yesterday (Friday) and immediately after the Gospel proclaimed last Sunday: the vine and branches wherein we were reminded that it is only in our union with Jesus that we can render fruitful service. Today’s reading, then, extends this teaching to the kind of service that we are called upon to offer: a particular kind of love, sacrificial love.
In the Greek, there are two words for love that are used interchangeably in this passage. The first is agape. It is understood as the highest and most perfect kind of love and is used to describe love for persons and for God. The second is philia and is used to describe the affection of friendship. John appears to use these words as synonyms so that we understand our relationship with God is based on friendship. Sometimes we hear this word “love” used in such a way that we degrade, lessen or weaken its significance. The way Jesus, or in this case John, uses the word for love just doesn’t apply to chocolate, a long drink or an afternoon nap. We may like and enjoy those things a lot, but we don’t “love” them in the way we love our neighbor.
It is notable, I think, that Jesus gives us just one love commandment. He does not say, “Love me, love my father or love God as I have loved you”. No, he says, “If you want to be my disciple, then you must love one another.” If we really love our brothers and sisters we do not have to worry if we love God. But, if we do not love everyone unconditionally, then there is no other way we can claim to love Jesus. We need to love like God loves: without exception.
So we do not really have to ask or worry, “Is it a sin to do or say or think such and such a thing?” The important thing to worry about or ask is: “When I do, say or think such and such, am I really a loving person?” As our relationship with our Redeemer grows, the less and less we are hung up on rules and regulations. We know in our heart what is the appropriate, loving thing to do or say.
In practice, of course, it’s easier said than done. We are slow learners …some slower than others. Some have a family history that promotes love in action; others struggle with a history of abuse in the home. In addition, the prevailing culture thinks and acts differently. Rough, raunchy, abusive language and tone of voice; behavioral violence can invade our homes every day on televised news. The sounds of fictionalized gun and interpersonal violence may come into our living spaces. Our blood pressure rises unnoticed, we flinch and blink our eyes not realizing that we are desensitizing ourselves to what we say we want controlled and petition lawmakers to protect us against.
Deep down, we all want to love people. We like people to be our friends. Yet, because of our past experiences, the influence of parents and other people around us, the pressures of our society and our traditions, we often do not know how to love, do not know how to forgive, do not know how to be reconciled, we do not practice the skills that promote healthy relationships.
Sometimes people will love us back; sometimes they will not. Sometimes, even though we want to love people, they may reject us. If they do reject us, we need not necessarily think that we have done wrong. When people cannot return genuine love, it is they who have the problem. Sad to say, due to past experiences not everyone is capable of loving. All the more reason why we need to pray for and reach out to them. People learn to love by being loved.
The most important thing is not that I am very clever, very successful, very rich, very famous… The most important thing is that I am someone who really loves. When I genuinely love others, there will always be some who cannot love me back but there will be others who will really respond in love. And it may be that my love has empowered them to be loving too.
Recall last evening reading from the Prologue of the Rule (of Benedict): “See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life. Let us set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide,that we may deserve to see him who has called us to his kingdom.”
You’ve heard the saying, when in doubt, don’t! But maybe a better point to ponder is: WWJD – what would Jesus do?