If we each were to come up with a definition of “love,” there will be at least as many different responses as there are people in this room. And some of you won’t be content to give just one response. You know who you are. So I won’t ask. But it’s not that difficult to understand why there would be such an assortment of responses, because each of us has a unique personal perspective, as boundless as the reach of our relationships, constantly shaped in the give and take of daily interaction with others, polished to a shine by our capacity for self-reflection and our willingness to learn from our mistakes. One might attempt a classic definition – Love is a feeling, a passion, or a strong affection … then proceed to describe it. But attempting a definition will present some difficulty since feelings, passions, and strong affections are realities not easily captured in words. It would be way easier to attempt a description of an image, an experience, or a person and hope your listeners might identify with similar images, experiences, or persons. And all we have to do is watch the lights come on upstairs. Considering the many images, experiences, and persons that hint at the meaning of love, we are able to identify some common elements: a natural attraction, a deep emotional bond, a sense of wholeness or completion, the desire to acknowledge and affirm sentiments worth remembering or returning to in the future. I know it’s all still really vague and difficult to pin down exactly, but if you’re still with me at this point, you probably have a sense of what I’m talking about. If not, let’s give it another try.
This weekend is Mother’s Day weekend, so we pause to remember the first woman who ever loved us, mom. We find ways to thank her for everything she is, everything she has been to us, and her heroic efforts at raising us to become citizens of heaven, and useful member of society. Unfortunately, some of us may not have had the privilege of knowing a mother’s love, or the experience has been marred by unfortunate circumstances, or remembering brings significantly more pain and sadness than joy and gratitude. As well many of us are immensely richer for having known a variety of mothers in our lives – grandmothers, godmothers, step-mothers, and all the women who have unselfishly made the effort and taken the time to show us the love and care of a mother. We would like to imagine the experience of having a mother to be universally positive, but there are and will always be exceptions.
Jesus reminds us in the gospel of that universal human experience of friendship, and he invites us to a deeper level of relationship with himself when he calls us his friends. But what exactly do we understand about friendship? Our friendships with one another span a wide spectrum. We have good friends we have known since childhood, friends we met later in college, or at work, or where we live, friends we didn’t always regard as friends – who used to be just siblings, or acquaintances, or neighbors, even strangers. But in spite of the variety of friendships we have known, we are also able to identify some common elements: a natural attraction, a deep emotional bond, a sense of wholeness or completion, a genuine concern for another’s well-being, a desire to acknowledge and affirm sentiments worth remembering or returning to in the future. “Remain in my love,” he tells us. “As the Father loves me, so I also love you.” He does not confine us to the love we have known through family and friends. Instead, he challenges us to even greater still, his own love for us, and his Father’s love for him.
Jesus declares that there is no greater love than the love which compels one to lay down their life for the sake of another. When lovers profess their love for each other, they might use words similar to what Jesus said: I would give my life for you. It is a gesture that is immensely grandiose. Not only till death parts us, a standard few are truly able to live up to (but many try anyway), but that I would be willing to trade my life for yours. It is the ultimate sacrifice, the voluntary surrender of my own life and all that is most precious to me, so that you might regain your life which otherwise would be taken from you. This is the same attitude with which he faced his own passion and death – affirming his tremendous love for us, whom he now regards as friends.
All is well and good from where we sit, hearing the Son of God declare his love for his friends. “As the Father loves me, so I also love you.” This love, Peter finally admits in the first reading, is without prejudice or favoritism. Each of us is loved by God, not for who we know, or what we can do, or what we can become. Each of us is loved by God because God is love. It is in God’s nature to love. And we do not earn God’s love the way we sometimes think we need to earn the love of other people. All who sincerely fear God and live upright lives are pleasing in his sight. It matters not that one is a Jew or a Gentile. This was a real struggle to understand for the Christian community in the beginning, knowing their own history with God, that they were God’s chosen people, chosen from among the nations, to be God’s own. But God does not rescind his favor when calling the Gentiles into fellowship with his Son. In the immensity of God’s heart there is room for all people. God is able to love more than just a select few. And in this particular passage, Peter acknowledges that the Holy Spirit does not need our approval or permission to accomplish God’s will.
The greater challenge all along comes at the end of the gospel reading, which is repeated in the first letter of John. “Love one another.” Jesus does not limit his call to love. It isn’t “Love one another except those who are different from you;” or “Love one another except those who vote for the other guy;” or “Love one another except those who don’t love you back.” It is plainly and simply: “Love one another, because love is of God.” If we know God and we belong to God, then we are called to love. “Whoever is without love does not know God.” We must love one another because as children of God and disciples of Jesus Christ, it is who we are. Our love for one another does not depend on whether or not we are loved in return. God loves because it is in his nature to do so. We love because God loves us.
Some people are able to claim easily that they love everyone. They are usually thinking of the vast expanse of humanity that inhabits the planet, people in far away places, but rarely anyone in particular. The greater challenge is loving those we rub elbows with each day, those who struggle alongside us at home, at work, at school, at church, those in our society we are inclined to disregard because of how they dress, or who they spend time with, or who they choose to marry. “Love one another.” He didn’t say agree with them on everything all the time. He said “keep my commandments,” and he commanded us to “love one another.” If anyone knows about love, God does.