1 John 3:18-24
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
Our reading from the First Letter of John includes a verb which is repeated in the Gospel according to John and in the three Letters of John: love. This is a distinctive kind of love which is not obvious in English but readily apparent in the Greek. When John peaks here of love – for us to “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” – he is using the word agapē love.[i] This is not the love of inclination (another verb), that is to love people who are like-minded or who have our similar interests: if you love opera you may be inclined to love other opera buffs; if you love rooting for the New England Patriots, love anchovies, love Republicans… you’re inclined feel like one of them because you share something in common. No, the verb used here is not the love of inclination.[ii] Nor is this the love of affection, that is people who are dear to you, who have found their way into your heart, not necessarily because of some shared value, or preference, or interest you share, but more likely something very personal and where you find genuine affection for one another – someone’s who’s a very good friend, who travels the way with you, understands you, cherishes you, challenges you. You might call them your buddy or soul mate.[iii] No, not that kind of love does John speak of in this letter. Nor does John use here yet another Greek verb for love, eros, erotic, passionate love, the love of our sexual chemistry.[iv]
John writes here of agapē love. John goes so far as to say that God is this kind of love; God whom we meet in Jesus is this kind of love: agapē. How Jesus went about living and loving, not just in word or speech, but in truth and action is our template. And to make the point, Jesus doesn’t just call us to love those to whom we are inclined by shared preferences, nor just to love those who are our soul mates, nor just to love a lover. Jesus says, so what: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.”[v]
Jesus is much more radical. He calls us to love even our enemy, someone who is out to get us, or someone who is simply not helpful to our program, an irritant.
It’s all quite impossible, this kind of love, unless we were given by Jesus the very love he extols us to bear. To love, in the sense of agapē, is to participate in God’s generosity of love, to treat another person not with preference for our own good but as an equal. Thomas Merton called this kind of love – agapē love – a matter of taking one’s neighbor as one’s other self. “This love means an interior and spiritual identification with one’s neighbor.” Our neighbor is not regarded as an ‘object’ to ‘which’ one ‘does good.’ Merton says we have to become, in some sense, the person we love. We emanate the love of Jesus to others, not because of what they can do or supply or mean for us, but simply because they exist. They, too, have been created by God, in the image of God, for the love of it. This kind of love is to practice actively taking delight in the happiness of the other. Why have we been given life? To love the other. To lay down our life in love. Not just towards those whom we fancy. That goes without saying. It’s the inverse of that: that where we will find Jesus’ invitation and Jesus’ power to love will be in the face of someone to whom we’re not inclined – an enemy or irritant – and to love them not just in word or speech, but in truth and action. They are God’s gift to us, to learn about love: the giving and receiving of Jesus’ love.
Lord Jesus: supply what you command.
[i]Agapē, which reflects how Matthew, Mark, and Luke present Jesus as God’s beloved son, agapētos, which primarily primarily reflects a quality of mercy.
[ii] In the Greek, this “inclination towards love” is phileō, philia, from which comes the English name “Philadelphia,” i.e., the city of brotherly love.
[iii] In the Greek, this would be stergō, the love of affection. Though not found in the New Testament, it does appear in other contemporary literature.
[iv] In the Greek, this would be erōs, passionate love, from which comes the English word “erotic,” a Greek word that does not appear in the New Testament. It does appear in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, in Proverbs 7:18: “Come, let us take our fill of love till morning; let us delight ourselves with love.” See also Proverbs 30:16.
[v] Luke 6:32. See also Matthew 5.46.
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