That’s a lot of love, what Jesus is saying again and again in this Gospel passage appointed for today. In three verses, Jesus names “love” 8 times. How to live? Live loving. Love. Love. Love. Love… With each repetition, Jesus is clearly trying to catch our attention, but how? What does Jesus’ word “love” mean for us? We need to do some detective work, because the Greek of the New Testament has four completely different words for “love,” words which are indistinguishable in English. What love – which of the four loves – is Jesus talking about here, and repeatedly? (And, in our short lesson from the First Letter of John, the word “love” appears five times, and it’s the same word for “love” that Jesus is talking about here.)
- In English, we speak of the love parents have for their newborn baby.[i] They love their precious little girl.
- Or there’s the love we have for a close friend. I write a note to a friend, and I close the note with, “Love, Curtis.”[ii]
- Or there’s the love between two people who have “fallen in love” with one another. They are smitten with passionate love for one another.[iii]
- Or there is the self-sacrificing love of one person on behalf of another, someone giving up their life out of love so that another can live.[iv]
In English we use the same word, “love,” to describe all of these experiences of love, but in the Greek, these are four completely different words. Which of the four Greek verbs for love is Jesus talking about here? It’s the latter, the self-sacrificing love of one person on behalf of another, someone giving up their life out of love so that another can live. In Greek, this word for love is “agápē,” and Jesus lives up to this kind of love in his crucifixion. It’s with that kind of love Jesus is calling us to live our lives: the self-sacrificing love of our own person on behalf of another, so that they can live. Jesus normalizes this love.
[i]If you’ve been worshipping with us with some regularity you may know that we have been using the Rite One liturgy on Fridays during Lent. I love that the liturgy begins with Jesus’ summary of the Law: Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. For me, while I know that fulfilling these two commandments is a challenge, there seems to be a graceful, even poetic quality to them that makes me want to strive for their fulfillment.
I sometimes wonder though what it would be like to begin the Eucharist with these words: Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Love thine enemies, pray for those who persecute thee. Thou shalt be perfect even as thy heavenly Father is perfect. Is it just me, or does this admonishment have a different ring to it? Love of God with heart, soul, and mind coupled with love of neighbor as self: I desire these things. I’m not sure I can say the same about love of enemies coupled with Godly perfection. It seems unrealistic.
Have you ever had a moment in your life when suddenly some concept has become deeper, wider, and clearer? My understanding of the first verse of today’s first reading, “We love because he first loved us,” was such a moment.
It was in my first year of Seminary in a class on the New Testament in Greek. We were reading the First Letter of John, and had come to Chapter 4.