Texts: Acts 10.44-48; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17
This morning I want to lead you in a criminally brief meditation about love. ‘Love’ is a word that has almost come to grief in our modern world. Used so often, and with so many different interests and agendas, it is in danger of becoming empty: no more than a vacuous vessel into which both speaker and spoken-to may pour any kind of meaning they like.
Depending on the context, love turns out to mean so many things. In Hollywood, love is a feeling of euphoria, a chemistry between people which (like the weather) can come and go. While that euphoria is around, life is great. But when it departs, there is no longer any reason to persevere with a relationship. In some sections of the Australian military, love seems to mean being willing to stick by your mates even if your mates are using and abusing you. Love means keeping silence while your ‘mates’ do with you as they will. It means remaining loyal to people who actually hate you. In the middle-class suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, love so often means no more than ‘being nice’, that is, keeping up the appearance that we all get on with each other (even though we don’t) or pretending that we have a common view of the world (when actually we don’t). Love, in this context, means to avoid talking about anything that may raise our passions, for fear that the other person’s passions may come back at us in unpleasant ways. This is ‘love’ as the avoidance of difference, or conflict, or strong emotions, or the possibility of working toward a common truth. Love is being polite, even to the point of living a lie. I suspect this is the creed of many of our churches as well.
John the Evangelist has Jesus say this, and I quote:
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love . . . This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you slaves any longer, because the slave does not know what the master is doing. Instead, I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have learned from my Father.
I want to make just three observations about this extraordinary passage. First, that the love of which Christ speaks does not wait for human thinking or culture to fill it with meaning. No, the meaning of this love is always already established: it is an imitation of Christ’s radical form of friendship, the willingness to lay aside one’s own life in order that another’s life may flourish. It is, in the words of Paul Ricoeur, the apprehension that the other person has a claim on me, and that I am no longer responsible only for myself, but that I share in the responsibility to ensure that the life of my brother or sister is able to flourish as well, to become what God intends that it may become.
A second point now. The language of laying down one’s life refers, of course, to a particular history: the real event of Christ’s crucifixion. It should be remembered, however, that the crucifixion represents not just the love of a singular man at a particular time, for a particular community. The crucifixion is a sign in the world of the love of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit for every single creature, in every time and place. The cross enacts in human history what God is like, and will always be like, for eternity: sheer love. We are talking here about the love of the Father for the Son, and the Son for the Father; the love that is able to welcome and cede its place to the other; the love that is willing to lose that another may win; the love that able to long for another’s flourishing and give that longing both form and body. All that Christ did in the world, he learned from his Father. Now the Father and the Son have come to us anew in the Spirit, that the love which properly belongs to the Father and the Son may be spread abroad in our own, oh-so-human cultures, relationships and bodies.
A final observation. The love of God, as I have been saying, is not without substance. It has form and shape and a particular history in the world, and that is really what the language of ‘commandment’ is about, in this passage. We are commanded to love not because God is a bully and we are his slaves. On the contrary, as Jesus says here, we are no longer slaves but friends; but this is only the case insofar as we are willing to love. The command to love, you see, is also (and somewhat paradoxically) the means by which God frees us from our bondage to self. If we did not love, we would still be slaves to all that we are apart from Christ—a series of basic, and seemingly irresistible, drives-toward-power derived from DNA, from family, from our peer environment, or where ever. In love, however, we learn to listen for another voice, the voice of God, who alone knows how it is that human beings may flourish. The command to love is therefore, in its most basic form, an apprehension of the pressure God exerts towards our freedom, our liberation towards a life lived not only for ourselves, but for the people around us as well. The command to love reminds us that love cannot be what we want it to be. Love can only be what God is.
So then, let us love one another. Not after the manner of fashion or convenience, but after the costly manner of God in Christ. Let us love one another as if we had a claim on each other. Let us love as though nothing else really mattered. And whatever we do, let us not turn love into that kind of law that is unable to forgive and set free. For the love of God is the capacity to forgive most of all. Let us therefore love and forgive each other from the heart, just as in Christ God has loved and forgiven us.