The Easter Season has given us a number of images of God and our relationship with him. On the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Jesus spoke of himself as the Good Shepherd and identified us as the sheep of his flock. Last week he said that he is the Vine and we are the branches. In today’s Gospel, Jesus reveals the secret element that connects the Shepherd and his sheep, the Vine and the branches: Love. He gives us the commandment that makes us most like him: “Love one another as I love you.”
The word “love” is loaded – some would say overloaded – with many different meanings. We can say that we “love” basketball and we “love” fried chicken and we “love” to go to the beach. On a deeper level we say that we love our parents and our children and our close friends. Often the word “love” connotes the powerful emotions we associate with “being in love.” On the most profound level, we speak of God’s love for us and our love for him.
Because of the various meanings of “love,” we can even use the word in ways that completely contradict its higher senses. For example, when we say, “I would love to get her back for all she did to me!” or “I would love to see him fall on his face in front of everyone.” This is not love at all! Again, we might tell ourselves that we really “love” someone when in fact we mean that we feel good when we are with that person. We may only be using the person for our own advantage. Is that love?
In giving us the commandment of love, Jesus clarifies the precise kind of love he means: “Love one another as I love you.” He immediately goes on to speak about what “as I love you” means. He loves us with the greatest kind of love: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus is giving this message on the very night before his death. He is speaking about how he loves – not placing on us a demand that he avoids, but rather showing us first what he means by laying down his life on the Cross.
St. John, who heard Jesus give the commandment of love and who was standing at the foot of the Cross when Jesus revealed the greatest love of all, writes about this love in today’s second reading. “In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he has loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” At the heart of John’s words about love is one short but overwhelming statement: God is love. If God is love and we are made in his image, then we are all images of love. When Jesus tells us to “go and bear fruit that will remain,” he is telling us to love, to bear the fruit of love.
Perhaps when we hear Jesus speak of love as a laying down of one’s life, we think of great martyrs like St. Maximilian Kolbe, who gave up his life to save a fellow prisoner of war in a Nazi concentration camp. It is inspiring to reflect on such heroic examples, but we should not think that opportunities to love are unusual and remote. The commandment of love applies to us every day. There are many, many ways to lay down our lives. When we are busy, for example, laying down our lives may mean giving up some of our precious time. Being called upon to put aside our own plans, even for a little while, because someone has a need, can be a real death to self. When we must do something unfamiliar, or something we feel incapable of doing, such as visiting the sick or the imprisoned, our feelings of fear and vulnerability are awakened. Love moves us out of our comfort zone.
In the first reading, Peter learns that the love of God extends beyond all boundaries. The Holy Spirit comes down not only upon the Jews but even upon the Gentiles. “I see that God shows no partiality.” The implication is that Peter’s love too must extend beyond the limits he learned as a Jew. We cannot justify excluding anyone from our love, even those who hate us, because God excludes no one, and he calls us to love as he loves.
How can I love others as the Father loves me? When do I place demands on those I “love”? Whom do I exclude from my love?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 14, no. 4. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.