The Sixth Sunday of Easter E. Bevan Stanley
May 9, 2021
Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
We have been talking about love, but what do we really mean by the word? Love is indeed a many splendored thing. We use the word in many contexts. I love God. I love my wife. I love my children. I love my friend. I love my books. I love golf. I love music. I love chocolate ice cream.
There are two main ways to think about love.
One approach is to think of love as a feeling. This is the most common understanding in our culture. Love is powerful emotion. As such it is an effect wrought upon us by some stimulus. Or rather it is our response to an effect wrought upon us by some stimulus, usually a pleasurable one. I love chocolate ice cream because chocolate ice cream tastes good and eating it makes me feel happy. The logic of this is that I love my wife because she is kind to me, makes me feel good about myself, helps me with many things and makes me feel happy. I love my God because God has given me many blessings. While this way of thinking about love works all right for chocolate ice cream, it seems rather shallow and selfish when applied to relationships.
It also seems very odd that God would command us to do something over which we have little control. If my love is contingent on my receiving pleasure from the object of my love, then how can it be commanded? What if my neighbor is mean and nasty? I can’t love such a neighbor as much as my chocolate ice cream no matter how much God may desire me to.
The other approach is to think of love as a choice, an act of the will. I choose, desire, and will good for the other. I love my wife then means that I want good things for her. It means that I will do what I can to make her life good, pleasurable, fulfilling, and joyful. Love in this sense can be commanded. I can choose to act towards my nasty neighbor in ways that will make his or her life better, more pleasurable, more fulfilling, and more joyful.
Indeed, in the passage from John we just heard, Jesus says that his commandment to us is for us to love. We are to love as Jesus has loved us. He goes on to say, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This is the love that is meant by the Greek word agape. It is to will the highest good of the other.
Today is Mothers Day. We honor our mothers and all mothers for their capacity to love in this way. They gave up their bodies during pregnancy to carry us and all our children. They risked their lives in child birth. They fed and cleaned and clothed and reared us and all our children. As we grew through adolescence toward adulthood they desired our highest good. The willed our health, maturity, and productivity. The hungered for our happiness. My mother-in-law will be ninety-eight in a two more months. She still is more concerned for her children’s welfare and happiness than anything else in the world. And most mothers would lay down their lives for their children. It is no accident that the foremost of all the saints was a mother.
This is an approximation of the kind of love Jesus is talking about. Jesus takes this example of sacrificial love and expands it. In effect he says that this sacrificial love that will do anything for the welfare of the beloved should be applied to everyone we know, or come in contact with. We must desire the highest good for those whom we do not know. We must desire the highest good for those who are different from us. We must desire the highest good for those who frighten us or harm us or repulse us. We must strive to understand them. We must help them to make good choices. We must care for them when they are hurt or sick. We must rejoice in their successes. We must mourn their defeats.
If we strive to love all people in this way, then we will no longer be servants or students of our divine master; we will be his friends. In fact, this is the ambition of Quakers who call themselves the Society of Friends. Not pals, but friends who will lay down their lives in the name of Love.
Finally, while we must freely choose love or else it is not love, it is also true that this choosing is part of the life God has given us. Jesus says, “ You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” This love is our vocation, our calling. God calls us to live in paradise. Jesus calls us to love. These are one and the same.
Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem of that name calls to his comrades, “Come, my friends, ‘tis not to late to seek a newer world,” so Jesus calls us to this life of love. He calls us to help make a newer world, which he calls the Kingdom of Heaven. We are invited to love as Jesus loves, as God loves. And in so doing we will find joy and freedom and heaven.