Well, I think it’s pretty hard to miss the point of today’s Liturgy of the Word, isn’t it? The second reading and the Gospel tell us what John wants us to know about the Gospel: God is love. That’s a wonderful theme that runs all through John’s Gospel and the Letters of John. And today, deep into the Easter season, we have a beautiful presentation of what that love should look like, what it should accomplish, and where it should lead us.
And it’s an important road map for us, I think. We get all kinds of notions about what love is and what it’s not. But mostly these are pretty erroneous, or at least facile. Because for us love can mean so many different things. I can say, “cookies are my favorite food – I love cookies!” and that’s not the kind of love Jesus wants us to know about today. When we say “love” in our language, we could mean an attraction, like puppy love, or we could mean that we like something a lot, or we might even be referring to sex. And none of that is adequate to convey the kind of love that is the hallmark of Jesus’ disciples.
Here, I think it’s important to look at the Greek word which is being translated “love” here. That word is agape. Agape is the love of God, or love that comes from God. It is outwardly expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, who came to show the depth of God’s love by dying on the Cross to pay the price for our many sins. So that’s the kind of love that Jesus is talking about today.
To really see what Jesus meant by love in today’s Gospel, we have to see what he was doing. Today’s Gospel has him readying the disciples for the mission. He has them gathered together and reassures them that whatever their personal gifts or failings, they have been chosen for the mission. And it was just that – he chose them, they didn’t choose him. And they had been chosen to do something very important for the kingdom of God. They have been chosen to create a legacy – to bear fruit that will remain. He could have given them all sorts of detailed instructions on how to go about doing this, but that’s not what he did. He gave them just one instruction: “This is my commandment: love one another.” It is that love that will bring lasting joy to his disciples.
But he does get more detailed in his description of what it means to love one another. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he says to them. And that’s an important point, I think: “as I have loved you.” In the same way I have loved you. And we can see how far Jesus took that – all the way to the cross. He loved us enough to take our sins upon himself and nail them to the cross, dying to pay the price for those sins, and being raised from the dead to smash the power of those sins to control our eternity. So the love that Jesus is talking about here is sacrificial. And he says it rather plainly in one of my favorite pieces of Holy Scripture: “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This sacrificial quality an important property of agape love.
And the disciples clearly were called to that kind of sacrificial love. The Apostles all experienced martyrdom, except for John. They literally died so that people would come to know about Jesus, the Gospel, and God’s love. Their love did indeed bear fruit that would remain – it remained to found a Church, to spread the Gospel to many lands, to bring the message to us even in our own day.
And the disciples were men and women who experienced joy. Which isn’t the same thing as saying they were always happy. They experienced a lot of opposition along the way to founding the Church. They were persecuted, thrown out of the synagogues, beaten for stirring up trouble, put to death for their faith in Christ. But they were still people of joy. Because in their love, the sacrificial love that they received from Christ who chose them and gave them love to start with, they had found a source of joy that could not be controlled by external circumstances.
So that’s what Jesus meant by love in today’s Gospel. It was a sacrificial love that was contagious, joyfully bringing the Good News to the world, bearing fruit that would remain for eternity. True love gives without counting the cost. True love brings others to heaven.
And the thing is, the instruction to love wasn’t meant just for those first disciples. We know that it was meant for us too. We may never be asked to literally lay down our lives for those we love, although that kind of thing does happen all the time. People who give a kidney or bone marrow for another literally lay down their lives in love, maybe even for someone they don’t know very well. People who take a risk to pull someone out of the path of an oncoming vehicle on the street – those are the kinds of ways that people might live this Gospel message quite literally. But for most of us, the call to sacrificial love might be a little more ordinary, less dramatic.
We celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, and this whole instruction on sacrificial, agape love could not be more appropriate. Mothers are called upon by their vocation to form a bond with their children based on sacrificial love. Good mothers lay down their lives in the process of bearing children, and then do it over and over again throughout their children’s lives as they nurture them, educate them, protect them and encourage them, finally teaching them, one hopes, that kind of agape love that is the essence of all of our vocations.
So we’re going to look for opportunities this week to love sacrificially. Doing a chore that’s not our job and not making a big thing of it. Finding an opportunity to encourage a spouse or child with a kind word that we haven’t offered in a long time. Picking the neighbor’s trashcan up out of the street when it’s been a windy day. It doesn’t matter how big or small the thing is we do, what matters is the love we put into it. Mother Theresa once said, “I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I do know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will NOT ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’ Rather he will ask, ‘How much LOVE did you put into what you did?’”
When we are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to love, there is no way we can miss the joy that Jesus wants us to have today. “Love one another as I have loved you” might be a big challenge, but it might just be the greatest joy of our lives.