The authors of the synoptic gospels, that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all record Jesus citing the Great Commandment, which is dual, to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. The first part of the Great Commandment, about loving God, is a paraphrase of Deuteronomy 6:5, and the second part, about loving neighbors, paraphrases Leviticus 19:18. Jesus cited these texts in answer to the question, what is the greatest of the commandments, and his answer received approval from his questioners for identifying the very heart of the Law of Moses.
The author of the Gospel of John does not record Jesus citing the Great Commandment in this form, but instead records Jesus’ saying in our gospel for today: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Our text embeds this saying in a very complicated context involving God the Father and the nature of love and friendship. In a moment I’ll lift up some aspects of this context, but first I want to say some obvious things about the commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.”
First, although love is a theme in all the gospels, and in all the other books of the New Testament, it is the dominant, controlling theme in John’s gospel and in the letters of John which reflect the same tradition, if not by the same author. What we call the “Johannine tradition” is defined by the emphasis on love, although it includes the other major Christian themes such as justice, righteousness, humility, peace, judgment, mercy, forgiveness, resurrection, and eternal life. John sets all of these other themes in the context of love.
Second, the controlling theme of love means that the Christian emphasis is on the quality of relationships, relations among people and with God: those relationships should be loving, and all faults come from some failure of love. This controlling theme stands in sharp contrast with another biblical way of organizing Christian thought, namely, the victory of God within history over the forces of evil, opposition, and disobedience. Whereas love emphasizes relationships, victory emphasizes roles in narrative. God’s victory is the organizing theme in the writings of Paul, for instance, and the book of Revelation. Paul’s picture of the human situation is complex, including all the other Christian themes—love, justice, righteousness, humility, peace, judgment, mercy, forgiveness, resurrection, and eternal life: indeed he writes about love even more beautifully than John does. Perhaps some of you remember Dean Hill’s recitation of 1 Corinthians 13 in his sermon three weeks ago. But Paul organizes these themes against the narrative background of a war between God’s divine forces of righteousness on the one hand and the forces of disobedience and unrighteousness on the other.
Third, the two organizing themes of love and victory have competed for Christian understanding since the days of the early church until now. Conservative American Christians read the same texts as the liberal Christians, but organize them under the narrative theme of victory. For them, the distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous is very important, and they are responsive to political appeals that contrast our righteousness with the unrighteousness of other nations, perhaps other religions, justifying war against them. They think of life as a battle against those not in their in-group, a battle against evil empires and axes of evil nations. Of course, conservative theologians know that Paul also said that every person is a sinner and that our righteousness comes from God’s grace, not our own achievements. Moreover, the credulity of conservative Christians is beginning to be strained when they are asked to support two wars against nations that did not attack us, wars justified by lies and deceptions, wars that stoke anger in the Islamic world against the West, wars that divert funds from the legitimate constituencies of government aid, wars that put the American economy in increasing debt to foreign nations. How long can conservative Christians let their commitment to the victory motif of Christianity make them vulnerable to appeals to a kind of patriotism that stands condemned by nearly all the other Christian themes of justice, righteousness, peace, humility, mercy, forgiveness, and love?
The weakness of liberals in this situation is that nothing in the preachment of Christianity organized around John’s theme of love has the dramatic appeal of a call to arms in a battle against the unrighteous. The Christianity of love is soft and tender. Its hero is the Lamb of God who was crucified according to the ways of history, and is victorious only in the sense that love is far more important, ultimately important, than any victory in history. How can this image of Jesus as lover compete with the image of him as warrior in the conservative “Left Behind” series of books when he returns to Earth to boot the backsides of all those not in his in-group? How can a meek and humble Christian leader compete with a Christian leader who lands his plane on a warship, dressed in military attire, and proclaims victory in war? In the politics of our day, the liberals have looked like wimps in comparison with those who boot backsides for Christ.
The weakness of the conservative theme of victory is that it simply is falsified by history. Jesus did not come again within history to destroy the forces of evil and the argument that he will come still later can be sustained only by extreme fantasy. The victory proclaimed over the Iraqis has turned out to be a devastating loss for American morality, respect, and economic standing; in real life there are very few true historical winners and losers—all sides are losers in most wars. Conservative Christians can say that Christ’s victory two millennia ago was only the first step, and that history still will bring about a complete vindication. Yet that theology seems like a desperate strategy to shore up a fantasy that is not only false to history but a force for evil within history, for it breeds warmongering. John’s gospel is far more realistic about history when it cites Jesus saying that we will always have troubles and persecutions, and that love is the only way to survive in history.
I have contrasted the controlling theme of love with the controlling theme of victory in order to indicate what is at stake in Jesus’ commandment to love one another. Now let us ponder that commandment directly. What did Jesus mean by love?
From the gospels we know that love carries a range of meanings. At one end its bottom line is being kind. Kindness itself has many modalities, as in kindness to those we know versus kindness to individuals and groups we do not know, kindness to people mediated through taking care of institutions, kindness to the environment and to the whole of God’s creation. Yet all modes of kindness are characterized in two ways. Kindness is never cruel, and it is never neglectful. When we say we are Christians practicing a piety of love and yet are cruel or neglectful of those we might help, we know our love is hypocritical.
At the other end of the spectrum, love has something of an erotic dimension. This does not mean only sexuality, although there is much discussion now about the Da Vinci Code’s claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were sexually involved. This was suggested in some early writings that did not make it into the New Testament. The Gospel of John describes a physical intimacy between Jesus and the Beloved Disciple that seems to have been accepted without comment by the other disciples. Of course we have no solid historical evidence one way or another about Jesus’ sexuality and it will always be a matter of speculation in which people will see what they want to find. But erotic love does not have to mean sexual love. It means fascination with the beloved, a desire to reach out and touch, to be present and united with the beloved, a friendship that does not easily respect boundaries, that gives more than is deserved, that wants the welfare of the beloved more than one’s own, and is willing to sacrifice to help. Love in its erotic dimension has little patience with reciprocity and Golden Rule-like measures of justice. Love does not love for a reason—its only reason is the delightfulness of the beloved. It overflows boundaries and is creative and self-giving. You can see why sexual love provides the metaphors for divine love in its erotic dimension.
Our gospel text this morning began by saying, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” Here is the heart of the Johannine tradition: God loves us with kindness and erotic exuberance. God’s relation to the world is not primarily that of a creator who demands justice, although it is that in secondary ways. The primary relation is that God is our lover who wildly creates us in the fecundity of the cosmos. God does not have a calculated reason for creating—God simply creates things with value and thus becomes lover and creator together. Genesis says that God first creates, and then sees that it is good. Hosea says that even when we are wicked, God loves us like a husband impassioned for his whoring wife. John says God comes to be with us in Jesus, sacrificing his only begotten son that we might have eternal life and happiness. Where we are blind, because of our own selfish interests, God heals us gratuitously with the light of Christ. You recognize all of these images, do you not?
What does it mean, specifically, for God to love us? According to Jesus in John’s gospel, it means for God to create us in this fecund world full of grace and light, to become lovers ourselves, finite versions of the infinite God as lover. For God to love us, is to make us into lovers. For us to be lovers in turn is for us to make our friends into lovers, and to love God the supreme lover. God’s passion is to love lovers. God’s mercy is to help us when we are faulty lovers. We have biological and social impulses to love, but also countervailing impulses. Selfishness and self-imposed blindness bind us to sin and frustrate our loving. Therefore we need to purify and cultivate our love in loving communities of the sort Jesus founded among his disciples. Jesus said that the Father loved him so much that he, Jesus, could love his disciples, an otherwise unlovely group rather like us. The power of Jesus’ love for his disciples was that it turned them into lovers, so that he called them his friends, no longer disciples in subordination to him but mutual lovers. His commandment for them to love one another was simply the commandment from God by which God completes his loving creation of creating lovers. Jesus had taken his loving friends out of the world of sin where victory is narrated by historical success and into the heavenly world of God where love is what counts, passionate, creative, overflowing love.
Now here is a puzzle for us to think about for the next several weeks. Is the community of friends that Jesus established an exclusive church? Does our baptism into the Christian life mean that we make all our relationships outside that community secondary to the Christian family? Is being a Christian the only thing that counts for love? John has been read that way. Or does Jesus’ community of friends comprise all those who understand that God’s love can make them lovers who work to perfect love in all their relationships? On this second reading the church is where we nourish ourselves with Jesus’ teachings and the sacraments of his demonstration of God’s love. But the specific loves we are to pursue are not primarily within the church: they are the various ones within our families, our groups of friends, our workplace, our cities, with people of other religions and cultures, with the institutions of civilization, and with the environment of God’s whole creation. I am inclined to this second reading. If we look at the church as itself a community of mutual love, it is pretty much a failure. As much as I love you in the pews, I love my grandchildren more, and you would think me crazy if I did not. But if instead we look at the church as a community for the nurture of love in all its other dimensions, then it is a divine vehicle of God’s love and it hosts God’s presence in all those other relationships in which we should be loving. According to John, God is incarnate in the world, not just the church. Let us think about these things, and rejoice that we are friends of Jesus because we can love one another.