by Larry Patten
There it was. Again.
That verse: This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. It’s from John 15:12. Jesus’ statement was also made—in the same location, with the same disciples, in the same time frame—earlier in John’s chapter 13. And isn’t that sentence another variation of the “golden rule?”
Regardless of where it’s found, in the Bible or on bumper stickers, I’m a smidgen afraid of the simple, thirteen-words-in-English sentence. Often, more than a smidgen.
Since seminary, I’ve known the ancient Greeks claimed four distinctive words for love. Eros, the love that spans the lustful to the romantic. Philia is treating friends like a brother or sister. Storge is linked to the affection within families. Then there’s the final understanding of love, which is the one I fear, which is the one Jesus frequently used.
Love. Agape. I cringe.
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”
How casually we say love.
• Love you, man.
• They’re in love.
• We made love.
• Love makes the world go ‘round.
• Lovesick. Puppy love. Lovelorn.
• I love a meal, a movie, a car, a vacation, a smartphone.
Why be fearful of Jesus’ love?
Because Bonhoeffer was correct. Jesus’ love was and is illuminating. Or as Anne Lamott mused on the occasion of her 61st birthday, “The mystery of grace is that God loves Dick Cheney and me exactly as much as He loves your grandchild. Go figure.” Perhaps you actually love (philia) Dick Cheney and so you don’t grasp Lamott’s bitter humor about the former Vice-President. Try substituting a politician you despise or the cranky family member who drives you nuts or the irksome co-worker that causes you to check job listings on a weekly basis. What Jesus taught was that God loves ‘em all. Unconditionally.
It’s easier to judge others. It’s easier to remain blind to another’s need. It’s easier to view the world as a cruel, unfair battleground (Us vs. Them!). It’s easier to narrowly seek what brings me pleasure (Hello, seductive Eros!).
Jesus’ love demands an equal, generous, non-judgmental relationship. With everyone.
How can I possibly love my fellow Christian if she believes differently from me? For example, based on my understanding of faith, if a person reads the Bible literally, as God’s infallible word, isn’t she wrong?
How can I possibly love those from other faith traditions? If he is a Muslim or a Jew, isn’t he wrong? Different being wrong, right?
How can I possibly love the person who schemed to commit immoral acts—like a terrorist on September 11, or an Adolf Hitler, or a Richard Nixon—and was so clearly wrong? Isn’t really bad really wrong?
How can I possibly love someone—a colleague or friend or family member—who has lied to me or about me? That’s so not right.
How can I love those I don’t know a thing about, like any of the 1,499,454,530* current citizens in China?
How can I love a Los Angeles Dodgers’ fan when I’m a San Francisco Giants fan?
How can I love someone who has broken my heart, broken a promise, broken our trust?
How do you think Jesus loved?
How do you believe Jesus loved?
It is far simpler to live in a dark world, where judgments and criticisms and fears rule. And yet the world along the path set by Jesus is illuminated. By love. For love. With love. Every day I choose. Every day you choose. Will my easily broken heart remain open? Or will I slam it shut and turn the darkness darker?
A shuttered heart seems safer. In the shadows, I won’t get hurt. Maybe I won’t even be noticed. An open heart is riskier. My love—and losses—will be illuminated all the time.
This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.
I’m not surprised John’s Gospel repeated Jesus’ mandate in multiple places. While working on these words, it became increasingly obvious I was saying nothing original. But the tough truth is that I daily struggle to seek and share the illumination of God’s love. I can’t speak for you, but I need to have Jesus’ scary instructions repeated!
For years, a popular phrase encouraged “random acts of kindness.” Random is easy. Jesus’ ways and displays of love—of agape—are never random. Instead, Jesus’ agape commands us to be intentional, sacrificial, and universal.
Every day, with each person, in all situations.
*China’s population has already increased since writing this.
Larry Patten is a retired United Methodist pastor living in Fresno, California. He has worked in churches, hospices, and campus ministry. His writing has appeared in publications such as The Christian Century, Earth & Altar, and Ruminate. He is the author of A Companion for the Hospice Journey.