What is love?

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”                                                                                  John 13:34-35

On Sunday we explored these three sentences. What it means to love one another without hesitation, or resistance. A command that sounds so simple, yet can become so incredibly complex when human emotions are factored in. As the Easter people, why is that we find this so hard to do?

To place these verses into context, we discover that they are part of the discourse that Jesus has with his disciples immediately after the Last Supper and before leaving the upper room for prayer in the Garden of Gethsemene. Judas has just left the room and now there is no going back. Jesus talks to his remaining disciples and tries to explain to them what he means, but they just don’t get it. They haven’t got the rest of the Gospel or the rest of the New Testament as we do, and what Jesus was talking about wasn’t part of their perspective. The bigger picture for them involved Jesus coming in and rescuing Israel and fighting those who were the oppressors. Not this talk about being with them for only a little longer. Their faith was in a Messiah who would rescue their nation from their woes. Jesus needed to radically transform their understanding of what woes they really had and how they would be rescued for them to be able to speak to others. He needed to change their ideology from fighting talk to loving talk. He needed to change their aggression (and denial) to that of love. He needed to change their perception of us and them, of Jew and Gentile, to that of God’s children, regardless of creed, colour or race.

All of the Gospel of John points to the cross. This is where understanding and illumination happen. God is seen in Christ, and Christ in God. What is revealed in the cross is the love of God in Christ. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Love. To love one another. Yet, we also seem to find such difficulty in doing so. Most of the Hebraic Scriptures is about love. Just as Israel was designed as a loving community, who treated those who came into contact with it with respect and care, so it is with what Jesus asks of the disciples. They and we are to be a community from which the love of God shines across and out. 

Here is an excerpt from Shakespeare’s one hundred and sixteenth sonnet:

“Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken. 

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

This goes to show that the complexities of love are woven through the centuries. Poets have wrangled with how to describe love and what it means in our lives for millennia. What is this love? It is love that knows no bounds, that does not alter or bend. It bears out to death. Jesus’s love for us that goes beyond human expectation or knowledge, that takes us just as we are, warts and all, specks or logs in our eyes, and loves us. 

This great new commandment can fill us with a great sense of hopelessness and failure, if we do not read the Gospel carefully. We know that we are wholly incapable of showing the love of God in the way that Jesus asks us. This is a commandment given to a group of disciples who seem utterly incapable of grasping the message and are also about to run away when the going gets tough. Jesus entrusts his message to them simply because they are loved by him and by God. There is no other qualification required. However, our love for others is dependent on our ability to accept love, and to love ourselves as God loves us. It is love that knows no bounds, that does not alter or bend. This, then, is where we begin to struggle. Who knows what we despise in ourselves and think that cannot be forgiven? Who knows how much we are capable of ‘beating ourselves up’ over something said or done that was in some way hurtful? Who knows what ‘love’ was shown to us in the past that turned out to be a sham. It is things like this that make us withdraw from others and from God. We begin to question how these things could be allowed to happen and why did it happen to us? How could God love someone who is frightened, in denial, outspoken, frequently puts their foot into their mouth and hurts others on the way? This was Peter, and God chose to build his church through Peter. A man who denied Christ three times in a single night and God still believed in him.

Knowing that we are loved and trusted by God is the beginning of fulfilling this commandment. We do not generate this love in ourselves, because it is already there. We do need to cultivate it of course, and that is material for another day. As Christians we know that God is love, not a set of tasks, or works, or rituals, but simply love. We’re not better at loving than anyone else, but God has loved us from the very beginning and trusted us, even before we began our journey in Christ.

It takes time to allow God’s love to seep into our souls, our hearts and minds. We have a choice to allow God in, to explore where God was in those moments that we felt bereft and to follow Him. Or we could choose to carry on, being very much in control of our lives. What does it mean then, to love one another without hesitation? Having allowed for our emotions, one can see that God himself has made allowances of our emotional and mental state. In fact, one could say that he has thought of everything. 

My challenge to you this month is this: will you, as a member of the Easter people, show the light of Christ in you to others without hesitation? The light of God that we carry inside is a precious cargo: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, and give glory to our Father in heaven.”