3rd Sunday of Easter Year C: What is love?
When Jesus had been arrested, three times Peter denied him. Fear prevailed over loyalty; self-preservation over truth. Peter’s love for the one who had called him ‘the rock’ had not proved to be rock-solid. A few days later, he had a second chance. On the shore of Lake Galilee, three times Jesus asked him, “Peter, do you love me?” Three times, now Peter pledged his love for his Lord, instead of denying it.
What is love?” That is the title of my sermon today. Unfortunately society has debased the word: many people see love as being mainly about physical relationships. But if we are to be true to Christ’s teachings, the Church has a duty to keep reminding society that love is far more than what it would seem to be, from the tabloid press and soap operas.
There is no more important commandment in the Christian faith than the commandment to love. As Jesus said, reminding the people of the ancient Jewish Law, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. Love your neighbour as yourself.” (eg. Luke 10.27, and Leviticus 19.18). The centrality of this command is reflected in the fact that these words are read at the beginning of the communion service. You may think this is all very familiar: but how often do we ask ourselves what those words really mean? Let’s look more closely at this commandment, which is sometimes called the ‘golden rule’. I want to mention, first, three things that are central to our love for God: gratitude, obedience, and service.
(i) St. John said, “Let us love because God first loved us” (1 John 4. 19). Indeed God is love – which is another way of saying that God’s love sustains and maintains the universe – and us. We don’t necessarily always feel God’s love. But he calls us to respond to those times when we are aware of his love by giving that love to others, in gratitude for his love for us. So let us, then, love God in gratitude for the fact that he first loved us – and will always do so.
(ii) St. John also said, “This is what the love of God is: keeping his commandments” (1 John 5. 3). This is another way of saying that we must be obedient to God: we love him because he tells us that this is expected of us. People today don’t always like being told what to do; obedience is not fashionable in an age where freedom and self-expression are among the prevailing values. But part of the Christian commitment involves recognising that God’s wisdom is greater than our wisdom, and that that wisdom was revealed to the world through Jesus. So if we don’t put obedience to God at the centre of our lives, this amounts to thinking that we know better than God.
(iii) Gratitude, obedience – and service. When Peter said to Jesus three times, on the shore of Lake Galilee, that he loved him, three times Jesus responded: “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep”. Peter’s love for his Lord was to be demonstrated in serving him, doing his will, acting on his behalf when he had left them and ascended into heaven. He was to look after Jesus’ followers, and give them spiritual nourishment.
There is much more that could be said about how we should love God: but I want those three words to remain clear in your minds: gratitude, obedience, and service.
Let us move now to the theme of the love of our neighbour. Christians do not have a monopoly of love. We aren’t the only ones who try to live our lives on the basis of love. So what is distinctive about Christian love? Is there anything that makes our love different in quality? I’m going to outline three aspects of Christian love which mark it out.
(i) The love which was taught by Jesus goes further than what is expected or asked of us. Going the extra mile; giving more than we are asked to give; loving not just friends, but enemies too – all those who don’t like us, and with whom we don’t get on. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? do not even the pagans do that?” (Matthew 5. 46-47) This is hard – but it lies at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. It will involve sacrifice – sacrifice of one’s pride, one’s self-respect, one’s image: or worse. But it can sometimes be the only way to overcome entrenched enmity and the cycle of revenge and recrimination.
(ii) Second – not attaching strings to our love. Not seeking any reward when we show kindness to someone. Having no hidden motives in the love we express to others; not even wanting to feel good as a result of showing kindness. That may sometimes be a by-product: but an active desire for this will contaminate the love, and is likely – in any case – to be noticed by the person on the receiving end. Jesus loved the world so much that he died for us even though the world was sinful: he called upon the people to repent, but did not make his act of self-sacrifice on the cross depend on them doing so.
(iii) Third – forgiving, and continuing to forgive. Peter asked Jesus, “How many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me? up to seven times?” (Matthew 18. 21). Jesus replied, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times”. This means not holding grudges or harbouring resentment; keeping a tally of scores to be settled. Not bringing up old disagreements when a new point of conflict arises. Think of the parable of the Prodigal Son: it is so familiar that we can forget how profound the forgiveness of the father was. The son had squandered half of his estate – and yet his safety and homecoming were more important to the father than this.
Going beyond what is expected of us; not attaching strings to our love; forgiving and continuing to forgive. These, then, are the key elements of the love for one another to which Jesus calls us.
We’ve looked at the meaning of love for God; also at the meaning of love for our neighbour. We can see that love is sometimes hard work: and we are no doubt acutely aware that we often fall far short of these ideals. Most people with any conscience will know all too well the sense of guilt, self-doubt and inadequacy which can result from our failure to love.
We all know, I’m sure, that there are times when we have hurt someone else by our lack of love, or missed opportunities to show love through our selfishness. Such an awareness has its purposes: it should motivate us to try to do better. But love, like most things in life, needs to be learned; it is not always one’s natural instinct. St. Francis de Sales summed up the challenge of love thus: “The only way of attaining the love of God is by loving. You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; and just so you learn to love God and man by loving. Begin as a mere apprentice, and the very power of love will lead you on to become a master of the art”.