How can we be ‘commanded’ to love? “What I command you is to love one another.” Indeed, earlier in our gospel, (John 15:7-17) Jesus says; “This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.” First of all, the word ‘love’ here is the Greek agape, not the eros or erotic love we mistakenly apply to just about any relationship. Agape is truly the solicitude, friendship and self-giving which enables both the self and others fully to flourish. Quite apart from eros; it is absolutely essential in marriage where the daily trials of life put enormous pressures on even the best relationship and old age may try one almost beyond enduring. No doubt it’s the same for religious or even house sharers, indeed; for fellow workers and close friends. In agape you do not always need to ‘feel’ great affection for the other at all times, what you have to have is the warmth and commitment required to make this and any true relationship productive and then ultimately happy, a delight.
Some may think that this paints a picture of hanging on with gritted teeth; not so; for when one is truly devoted to a project it becomes something all consuming, what one ‘lives for’. In such a relationship even hard and difficult things have their reward – just as seeing a baby grow through stumbling to confident walker, or the teenager develop from awkward person into confident young woman, able to face the world and contribute to it; just as the tutor delights in the truly outstanding student they know will ultimately outshine them. Anyone who has been through these experiences, or similar ones, will know the ‘cost’ and the joy of the love (agape) that went into them. What is a feature of this love is precisely the self-gift and sharing that goes into these relationships. They are immeasurable, god-like, precisely as that between Father and Son: “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love”.
Significantly in this discourse, Jesus remarks, “I shall not call you servants any more, because the servant does not know his master’s business; I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father.” Divinity then, becoming god-like, is not about being a genius; or performing unimaginable feats, it is about becoming truly, really human in the outgoing of the self to others. Of course, that’s quite a big ask, and for most of us who are yet beginners, still very much work in progress, but; intimates of the divine, it is achievable in His grace.
This is surely too the gist of our second reading (1 John 4:7-10). Written in Ephesus, for the new Christians of this sharply divided society, with its grasping social climbers in this bustling imperial capital of the Province of Asia; with its port and many businesses, including a thriving slave trade; John’s message has nothing to do with sentiment but a great deal to do with the new demands of the Christian life. John’s readers and hearers knew heaps about erotic love, it was in your face throughout the city on wall paintings, graffiti and statuary, in brothels and private houses. What they had to learn was the art of agape, how to be truly human and thus god-like and fitted for the companionship of God in an empire which had some very different values. “God’s love for us was revealed when God sent into the world his only Son so that we could have life through him.”
This is something which both Jew and Gentile had to learn, as we see in our reading from Acts (10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48), in which Peter justifies the acceptance of converts from paganism into the Christian fold without requiring their conversion to Judaism. Surely here what he is speaking of is that friendship with God Jesus talks about in John’s gospel. Friendship made by God and for God; a kind of equality with the divine which is not something we of ourselves can ‘make’, but is of the Holy Spirit and of grace and defies convention and social boundaries. It is about the outpouring of God’s love (agape) for his creation, transcending cultural boundaries and ones of class and race, and we should never forget the demands it made on the first Christians, Jews who followed Christ, and the suspicion and separation in which their former faith indoctrinated them. Jewish Christians had to transcend the colossal boundary their history placed upon relations between Jew and non Jew. Part of the missing verses from Acts, verse 28, actually stress how the Jewish law forbade contact with non-Jews and required sacrifice against their evil and contaminating influence. It would have been their understanding of agape which enabled them to make that great leap of faith, and which allowed belief in Jesus to go out to the world, jettisoning the Jewish law with all their purity separations for love of Christ and their fellow men and women irrespective of their former origins. For the Jewish Peter, and the Christians of Jerusalem whom he had to convince; as for Cornelius and his household, converts from paganism; the new message of Easter would be what made the new community and we too need continually to re-examine our outreach to others.