I don’t know if you were counting or not, but between the second reading and the Gospel, the word “love” was used in one form or another eighteen times. So it’s pretty easy to see where the Church is leading us in today’s Liturgy of the Word. Love is a theme that runs through John’s Gospel and the letters of Saint John: John’s point is that the Gospel is summed up in that God is love.
Now we get all kinds of notions about what love is and what it’s not. Our culture feeds us mostly false notions, unfortunately, and it gets confusing because love can mean so many different things. I can say, “cookies are my favorite food – I love cookies!” and that’s obviously 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.
So I think we should 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; it’s kind of a benchmark of love that he is putting out there for our consideration.
To really see what Jesus meant by love in today’s Gospel, all we have to do is to look at Jesus. His command is that his disciples – including us, of course – should “Love one another as I have loved you.” And the operative phrase there is: “as I have loved you.” Meaning, 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 a vital property of agape love.
And the disciples clearly were called to that kind of sacrificial love. They were persecuted, thrown out of the synagogues, beaten for stirring up trouble, put to death for their faith in Christ. Like their Savior, they laid down their lives for their friends. That is what disciples do. And so, we disciples hear that same command too. We may never be asked to literally lay down our lives for those we love, but we are called on to give up our own self-interests, our own selfishness, our own comforts, for the sake of others.
We celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, and this whole instruction on sacrificial, agape love could not be more appropriate. Mothers are called upon in 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 absolutely will be the greatest joy of our lives.