What is Love? – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum

John 13:31-35

If you are like me, the word love initially conjures a notion of sentimentality—of being enraptured with feelings of affection, attraction, and wistful longing particularly for another person. For instance, a couple entering into a romantic relationship might be said to be “falling in love,” and might say to one another, “I love you.” You might be familiar with the Song of Solomon in scripture which poetically expresses the inebriation associated with such love. Listen to these beautiful words: As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention towards me was love. And a reply: You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride![i]

But, eros, or romantic love, is not the only form of love that we are capable of feeling and expressing. We also express love filially. Filial love is not a romantic love, but a love that we express for our children, or for a favorite grandparent, aunt or uncle—those whom we nurture or have been nurtured. We love certain friends with which we have established a bond: perhaps someone we got to know in school, or worked closely with in our career, or even someone we have grown close to through a particular experience which created intense feelings of identification. Last weekend I enjoyed a visit from five of my closest friends whom I have not seen in a long time. What is striking about that experience is that no matter how long we are away from each other, when we do have an occasion to reunite, it is as if we were never separated—in a sense, we just pick up where we left off, sharing our experiences since we were last together while simultaneously enjoying each other in the present moment.

And yet, both erotic and filial love are not what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel lesson. There is yet another expression of love: agape love. Agape love is unconditional and not dependent on any qualification; it is the highest form of love and charity. In the Christian context it expresses the love of God for humanity and humanity for God. When Jesus says: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you,” the Greek verb used is ἀγαπᾶτε (agapate). As love goes, this is where things get thorny. Loving God without condition as God has loved us, while a tall order for finite creatures, is something we might readily give ascent to. But, loving each other ‘agape’ style? What does it mean to love each other without conditions: without sex and romance, without stability and provision, without fellowship in exalted experience, or ultimately, without any expectation or transaction?

We brothers give a nod to this conundrum in a chapter of our Rule of Life entitled ‘The Challenges of Life in Community.’ It reads: “Christ in his wisdom draws each disciple into that particular expression of community which will be the best means of his or her conversion.”[ii] The first step in learning to love agape style, is to understand that life in community is primarily about conversion which is defined as: “the process of changing or causing something to change from one form to another.” It might surprise you that life in community is challenging for monks. Once you enter the enclosure as a postulant and novice, you learn quickly that agape love is much more complex than the platitudes we assume in our minds. This is why our Rule speaks of this challenge because we too need help to understand it’s demands. The chapter continues: “The first challenge of community life is to accept wholeheartedly the authority of Christ to call whom he will. Our community is not formed by the natural attraction of like-minded people. We are given to one another by Christ and he calls us to accept one another as we are.”[iii]

This does not mean we are called to consider how we can change our brother into our ideal of someone we can easily love. Rather, it is to develop an awareness of how the dissonances of living with someone that challenges us brings to the surface the particular toxicity of our sinful nature that inhibits us from living fully into who God created us to be. When we become triggered at another’s actions, the invitation is to notice and process what bubbles up inside of us, and then ask God to heal the wound that keeps us from accepting our neighbor with compassion and humility. Often, we will find that the very thing that irritates us in another is exactly something we exhibit and cannot accept in ourselves.

In his book of meditations called “The Way to Love,” Jesuit Anthony De Mello speaks to this awareness. He writes: “Consider the possibility that what you see as a defect in another may not be a defect at all but really something that your upbringing and conditioning have led you to dislike. If after this you still see a defect there, understand that the origin of the defect lies in childhood experiences, past conditionings, faulty thinking and perception; and above all in unawareness, not in malice. As you do this your attitude will change into love and forgiveness, for to study, to observe, to understand is to forgive.” [iv]

The truth is, being created in the image of God means we have the same capacity to mirror God’s love to others. But if we are going to claim the birthright we have been given, then we will have to engage in the difficult task of questioning our assumptions of what love is. Our society has programmed us to seeing love as transactional. “Scratch my back, and I will scratch yours,” is a common adage in our lexicon. But Jesus’ command to love one another as He has loved us is to follow his example of grace in the giving of his life on the cross for all the world. The call to agape love is a call to sacrifice for others fully with no consideration of what you will get in return. Jesus goes on to say later in John’s gospel: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[v] Agape love will cost us, expose us, and crucify us. Our founder Richard Meux Benson once said, “If God calls us to the victory of the cross, He will call us to the nakedness of the cross.”[vi]

And that is good news because the victory of the cross is the stripping of our transactional nature and through the resurrection, the revelation of our true selves as God has made us, uncovered and exposed for all to see. The call to agape love is the call to dissemble the structures of shame, the shame that has been forced upon us, and the shame we have forced upon others. This is a process that begins with our Baptism and continues over time, one piece of bread and sip of wine at a time. In the meantime, let us bear with one another, and strive to see in one another not our image, but the image of God, with compassion, humility, and forgiveness.


Lectionary Year and Proper: The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C

[i] Song of Solomon 2:3-4,6; 4:9-10

[ii] The Rule of Life of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Chapter 5

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Mello, A. D. (1992). The Way to Love. Doubleday.

[v] John 15:13

[vi] Benson, Richard Meux, and G. T. Pulley. A Word of Father Benson for Every Day. A. R. Mowbray and Co., 1932.

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10 Comments

  1. Claudia I Booth on January 5, 2024 at 19:49

    Amen. Thank you for this very wise, well written sermon.

  2. Helen Benton on December 29, 2023 at 13:17

    Your “seeing love as transactional” and the following explication of this is very helpful. Thank you!

  3. Donald K Buxton on December 29, 2023 at 13:14

    Nice take on this, especially at the end when you express the evolving nature of agape love through resurrection. I am concerned that ritual (the eucharist) has become transactional though, or at least in a cause & effect way.

  4. Martha Johns + on August 27, 2023 at 08:09

    Thank you. Wonderful reflection. My focus must be internal to discern the change needed to be effected in me so that I may better approach agape love.

  5. Catherine Warren on August 26, 2023 at 08:16

    This is so good, and exactly what I needed to hear right now.

  6. Elizabeth Hardy on May 9, 2023 at 11:13

    Thank you Br Jim: Community as an instrument of conversion is such a difficult concept for most of us to accept – that I am the one who is meant to be changed – rather than those around me who just need to be like me to be so much more likeable! Thank you for a wonderful eye opener and challenge: as Fr. Benson meant it to be. Elizabeth Hardy+

  7. Duane Sherry on May 9, 2023 at 08:45

    Exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you.

  8. Bill on May 9, 2023 at 07:49

    Nice reflection Br. Jim! I pray for a more commitment to agape love.

  9. Peter Littlefield on May 19, 2022 at 15:24

    So, beautiful, Jim. Your sermons reach deeper and deeper.

    • John Wolf on May 9, 2023 at 10:01

      How basic and reasonable, how clearly expressed, yet how difficult to live into.

      Thanks for your reminder.

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