The political and cultural climate of the United States in the late 1960s was tumultuous. The country was at war, both militarily as well as symbolically. Lines were drawn and mistrust abounded; doubt in the ability of government to make appropriate decision lurked everywhere, unrest was sending a shiver through the local communities and record inflation was on the horizon. Then in 1967, the Beatles released their hit song, “All You Need is Love.” The lyrics were simple and the melody easy to sing; perhaps the song was even an attempt to provide an antidote to the state of discontentment. But even within the “flower power” movement, it was not a time where love came easy for anyone.
In Christian theology, it can be easy to quip that the answer is always love, and this can apply to just about any question you ask about God and the world. As simple as Lennon’s lyrics are in this hit song, love is far from simple, at least not the kind of love that Christ taught during his ministry that transformed the world. In the gospel of John, we find Jesus explaining his commandment to the disciples.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. John 15:12-17
This text can be closely linked to the commandments from Jesus on love found in the gospel of Matthew.
Being loved is one of the most basic of human needs. Food, water and shelter might keep you alive, but you cannot truly live without love. Jesus’ disciples are just like the rest of us, looking to Christ to understand how to live out our faith in the world. They were asking Jesus to unlock the code, give them the playbook and show them the way within their new Jewish paradigm. They were like high schoolers quizzing the teacher about an exam, wanting to know what was going to be on the test so they could make sure to study the right material. But it just isn’t that simple. Love is just not that simple.
Jesus commands us to love. Love God. Love one another. Love ourselves. The love Jesus is talking about is agape love, God’s way of loving us. Do not confuse this form of love with the common human ways of love such as the kind typically shown to friends and significant others.[i] What Jesus is NOT teaching is that we should have different kinds of love; our love of God and our love of one another should not be different at all. We should love one another and God as passionately, deeply and sacrificially as Christ loves us. And that is where the rubber meets the road.
Love is an action word. The feelings we get when we feel love for someone are simply a symptom or an indicator, a sign of love rather than the entirety of the love itself. When we love as Christ commands us, we look at that person as Christ would, seeing Christ embodied within that person, that neighbor, that stranger, that friend, and that enemy. And when we can do that, we can respond with love to their needs. We can freely feed the hungry, willingly part with our money for the poor, and lift up in love those that have been relegated to the margins by our loveless view of the world existing beyond the comfort and safety of our surroundings. Our protective circles of friends and family often prevent us from doing the very thing that Jesus commands us to do, so must seek out ways to find and respond to the cries of the needy. Seeing the world afresh with a Christ-like perspective allows us to forgive those who have wronged us, find common ground with those with whom we disagree, and to extend grace and mercy to all we meet. This is God’s command for us, and through our baptism, we are equipped and have committed ourselves to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves” (BCP, 305).
God commands us to agape love. This is not a suggestion or good advice. Our response to Christ’s commandment is to seek and serve others. Christ came to transform the world and though the command is not an easy one to follow, it is the one that joins us with Christ in that transformation of all of creation.