There is a famous cartoon series entitled ‘love is ..’ which shows a childlike man and woman and completes the phrase in various ways, such as ‘love is … indestructible’. In Jesus’ final discourse with his disciples as recorded in the Gospel of John he told them that he was giving them a new commandment. They were to love one another as he loved them. The readings on Sunday at the noon service were Psalm 148, Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35. From the short passage in John I made my own ‘love is …’ statements which I then unpacked. Read on to find out more.
Are you familiar with the ‘love is …’ cartoons? These are single pictures with a short message beginning ‘love is …’. They began life in the late 1960’s as love notes sent from Kim Grove, a New Zealand artist, to Roberto Casali, who later became her husband. Kim died in June 1997and her son Stefano took over writing the cartoons, working with Bill Asprey who does the sketches.
The main characters are a male and female who look like little children. The characters are shown without clothes usually but have no sexual features. The man has dark short hair and the woman has long fair hair. Occasionally children or other family members are shown also. There is a dog which also appears at times.
There are many ‘love is …’ sayings as you can imagine after such a long time.
Love is … indestructible
Love is … the start of baby talk
Love is … being woken with a kiss and a cup
Love is … knowing mom will be there
Love is … when he rings your bell
Love is … discovering the more you see of someone, the more you see in someone.
One of the most famous was published on 9th February 1972:
“Love is…being able to say you are sorry” This was in contrast to the signature line from the film Love Story which says ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry.’
Today’s gospel reading is very famous, at least as famous as the ‘love is …’ cartoons I would think. Jesus’ new commandment that we love one another has given rise to hymns and choruses. It could also give rise to our own set of ‘love is …’ statements. St Paul got there first with his famous chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13 but I would like to suggest a few of my own.
‘love is … a gift’
The love Jesus is talking about in this passage is first of all a gift from him to us. He gives us love first before he asks anything of us. As he says further on in what is called his ‘Last discourse’: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” (15:9) “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (15:12)
Even the ability to love is a gift from Jesus. We are naturally selfish and sinful but Jesus’ death and resurrection set us free from sin. We are crucified with Christ and emerge from that experience able to grow into all that we were meant to be. We are raised with Christ and have him living within us, giving us the power to love.
‘love is … a response’
This passage comes during the Last Supper. Prior to this, Jesus had taken on the role of the lowest member of the household, washing the feet of the disciples. He washed the feet of all the disciples, including those of Judas. He knew what Judas intended to do, in fact just before this he told Judas to ‘go and do what you are going to do’, but he didn’t miss him out of that loving service.
Our love is formed as a response to the way Jesus loved. He loved the man who would betray him. He loves us no matter how far from our best we may be. Jesus gave everything for each of us, he gave his life and he did it for a purpose: “I have loved you in order that you may also love one another.”
‘love is … a command’
In our society love is mostly thought of as an emotion and of course it is an emotion. However, thinking that’s all it is leads to problems. Love is also an act of will; we can choose to love. Even if the feelings are not there, we can act in a loving way towards others, looking to their best interests, putting them before us. Jesus commands us to love; he doesn’t tell us to love only when we feel like it. Being a Christian brings each of us into a community with others who may be very different from ourselves. That has always been true, right from the beginning, when Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, free and slave all found themselves serving the one Master in Jesus Christ. We can’t choose the family we belong to, our brothers and sisters, parents, aunts etc. Nor can we choose our Christian family. But we are still called to love, regardless of how we feel or whether we would choose to associate with those people given a choice. The disparate nature of our community will lead to misunderstandings and hurt at times; it will tap into our prejudices and sensitivities but regardless, we are commanded to love.
‘love is … a challenge’
The commandment to love is actually not new when Jesus gives it to his disciples. When asked what the greatest commandment was Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ Then he quoted Leviticus 19:18 ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
However, gradually Jesus had been adding depth and challenge to these commandments. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus pointed out that the cosy kind of loving which defined neighbour as ‘someone like me’ had to go. He challenged his hearers to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. When asked, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Jesus illustrated his approach with the parable of the Good Samaritan, that race hated by the Jews.
In this passage he raises the bar even higher. Now he tells his disciples, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ The quality of love which Jesus shows, and nothing less, is to be the model for the love the disciples are to show. It is the standard for us too.
‘love is … a sacrifice’
When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet he said to them: ‘I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’ Normally the word ‘example’ means a model to copy. The particular word translated here as ‘example’ comes only once in the New Testament. Where it’s used elsewhere in Jewish writing it has the more specialised meaning of laying down one’s life for one’s beliefs.
Jesus, Lord and Master of the disciples, set aside his privileges and became a slave. He was not too proud, too important, too vain to serve those ordinary men who had followed him for three years. Real love, the sort Jesus means, involves sacrificing our self-importance, our rights, and serving however inconvenient or demeaning that service may seem.
Jesus didn’t spend his life with the nice people, in clean, tidy places. He hung out with those on the margins, those who didn’t fit, those who were untouchable, those with unacceptable lifestyles. He met them where they were and demonstrated the message of love through his behaviour, healing, holding, teaching, forgiving. He set self aside and focussed on the needs of others, even when that cost him his life.
Jesus asks no less of us. He tells us to set ourselves aside but knows that such a sacrifice is the road to life itself. The road will be uncomfortable and risky but it’s how we are supposed to travel. Each of us is asked to walk our own Via Dolorosa in the footsteps of our Lord. We too may be spat upon and jeered at, misunderstood and ostracised, but Jesus is our example and he calls us to love as he does, sacrificially.
‘love is … THE mark of discipleship’
Jesus tells us that there is one way only that people will know we are his disciples, if we love one another. Our church rules and structures won’t do it, our brilliant teaching programmes, our social life, our counselling service, our wonderful buildings, our standard of music, and so on, none of these will tell people that we are Jesus’ followers, his disciples. The only way they will know is by our love.
The way a Christian community is distinguished from any other is by love. When others observe us, is this what they see? It is of paramount importance that this really is what is seen. Listen to what John Chrysostom said about the Christian community in the fourth century: “Even now, there is nothing else that causes the heathen to stumble, except that there is not love….. Their doctrines they have long condemned, and in like manner they admire ours, but they are hindered by our mode of life.”
Contrast that with what was said in the second century Letter to Diognetus:
‘Inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.”
It is conduct such as described in this second quote which drew people to faith in Jesus. Can the same be said of us as was said of these Christians? If not, what can we do to change things, corporately and individually?
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor