What comes to mind for you when you hear the word “love”? What thoughts or feelings or memories does “love” evoke in you? Take a second and let the word wash over you: love.
I imagine that, like me, you’re probably feeling kind of a warm, cozy, internal feeling, and you’re probably thinking about members of your family or your close friends, or maybe remembering how you met your spouse. Or certainly today you might be thinking about the mother figures in your life, or about the people with whom you have a mothering kind of relationship. Heh, if you’re really like me, you might also be thinking about your cats or your other pets. These feelings of love are a gift – and they are such a central part of what makes us human.
Love is also central in the bible, and it’s a major theme in our texts for this week, as well as in our texts from last week. In fact, both our second reading and our gospel reading for today pick up immediately after our second reading and gospel reading from last Sunday. Much like this week, the author of 1 John reminded us last week that God is love, and that God loves us and that we are called to love one another. And this week, in our reading from (regular old) John, we find Jesus still in the upper room with his disciples on the night in which he is betrayed; he’s still trying to get them to understand what it really means to be his disciples – he’s trying to teach them that love is at the heart of discipleship.
Indeed, love is the foundation of our faith. Jesus has told us that the first and greatest commandment is that we are to love God with all our heart and with all our mind and with all our strength – and that the second commandment is that we are to love our neighbor as ourself. And here he says it yet again, in our gospel reading:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”John 15:12
We’re so used to hearing these words, though, that I’m not sure that we ever really stop to consider just what they mean. We are commanded to love one another. We are commanded to love our neighbor – with no exceptions. How are we honestly supposed to do that? Think back to those feelings we were talking about just a second ago – those warm, tender feelings that we associate with “love” – and tell me: can you honestly say that you feel that way about everyone you encounter in your life? Because I know I can’t – the second I start thinking about certain political figures or people in the news, or I get behind the wheel and someone cuts me off in traffic, the jig is up.
Love, the way we most often experience it, is involuntary. We don’t have much control – if any – over whom we love or over whom we fall in love with. The heart wants what it wants. And so being *commanded* to love our neighbor sounds almost the same as someone commanding us to sneeze, or someone commanding us to pause our heartbeat. It’s something that we simply cannot actually force ourselves to do. And I seriously doubt that God wants us to try to “fake it till we make it” instead.
So what does this mean? How can we follow this commandment that is so central to our faith – the commandment to love one another?
I think this is where being familiar with another language or two can help us gain a better understanding. English is kind of limited when it comes to talking about love. I love cheese; I love my cats; I love knitting; I love my grandma; I love Jesus: these are all such different kinds of love, yet we use the same word for all of them.
These texts from the New Testament were originally written in Greek – and Greek has a few more words for different kinds of love than English does. Some of them might actually sound kind of familiar, because we see fragments of them in some of our words in English. For example, there’s words like “eros,” which is a word used for sexual desire or passion and we see it in words like “erotic”; or there’s the word “mania,” which is about exactly what it sounds like – we see it in terms like “Beatle-mania.” “Phileo” is another familiar one; it shows up in words like “bibliophile” or “ailurophile” (which, respectively, mean someone who likes books and someone who likes cats). But the original meaning of phileo in Greek is actually a lot deeper. Phileo is more what we would actually recognize as being love – it’s that involuntary feeling of love that we feel toward our family and friends and the people closest to us. Phileo is that feeling of love that’s at the heart of our humanity.
However, none of these words for love are what Jesus is talking about in our gospel reading. Jesus is talking about a different kind of love – another word for love you’ve also probably heard: “agape.” Agape is the word Jesus is using when he commands us to love one another as he has loved us. Agape is often described as “unconditional love” and it is – but that’s not quite it. Phileo love – that feeling of love toward our family – is often unconditional too; for most of us, there’s not much that we wouldn’t do for the people we love the most.
Agape love is different from phileo love. Agape love doesn’t have to do with how we feel toward someone else – agape is all about how we choose to act toward someone else. Agape is love that is a choice and an action – it’s the choice to show compassion and mercy and lovingkindness toward another person, without regard to how we might actually feel about that person.
For this reason, agape love is sometimes called selfless love – because it’s not about how wefeel; and because showing this kind of love sometimes requires us to set aside our own convenience and preferences and comfort in order to show love to someone else – to lay down our lives for others, as Jesus says. And yet, ironically, even though it’s selfless love, agape love shows our self for who we really are. When we choose to show love in this way, that love is a reflection of who we are – it’s not a reflection of the people we choose to love or how much they may or may not deserve it. We practice agape love because it’s who we are – who we are called to be.
To give a nerdy example of this – I’ve had Star Wars on the brain this past week, since of course last Tuesday was Intergalactic Star Wars Day (May the Fourth be with you!). I would argue that the kind of love that Luke Skywalker shows Darth Vader is agape love. Biologically, they are father and son (spoilers!), but Luke didn’t grow up with Vader, and Vader has done absolutely nothing to earn Luke’s love. He was such a villainous person that his own infant children were hidden from him – and by the time Luke grows up, Vader has basically become space Hitler, terrorizing an entire galaxy, destroying planets, and killing lots and lots of people. Luke chooses to love his father – to be clear, he maintains healthy boundaries and he refuses to turn to the dark side – but he chooses to believe that there is still good in his father and he tries to help him find it. The love that Luke shows Darth Vader is not based on anything that Vader has done – Luke’s love is a reflection of Luke’s own goodness and loving nature.
Or, if you’re a fan of the sequel trilogy, another similar example of agape love happens between Rey and Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren is at least as much of a villain as Darth Vader – so when Rey is fighting him and manages to disarm him, she runs him through with his own lightsaber. But you see in her face that she immediately regrets it – because it’s not who she is or who she wants to be. So she reaches out her hand and, in an act of love, she heals Kylo Ren. It’s not because of anything he’s done – because, again, he’s been absolutely horrible – she chooses to act toward him in love because of who she is.
This is agape love. It’s love that we choose to show toward someone else, whether we feel loving toward them or not. And when Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us, this is the kind of love that he’s talking about. It’s not the feelings kind of love that we tend to think of. The love that we feel for the people who are close to us is what makes us human – but the love that we choose to show our neighbor is what makes us disciples.
And that’s because this is the kind of love that God has toward us. God’s love for humanity is selfless and unconditional. God loves us even when we don’t live up to being the people that God calls us to be. Because God’s love isn’t a reflection of who we are – God’s love is a reflection of who God is. And that is amazingly good news for us. As Jesus says in our gospel reading, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” God chooses to love us because God is love.
We are people made in the image of that love. And as followers of Christ, we are called to show that love to our neighbor, no matter who they might be. We are called to choose love by the one who first chose to love us – by the one who keeps on choosing to love us, no matter which side of the Force we’re on.