What Did Jesus Mean By Love?


A sermon preached on May 2nd, 2010 based upon John 13:31-36.

Jesus said, “A new commandment I leave you with, that you should love one another, even as I have loved you.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

My first response in reading over this familiar passage was to bemoan the fact that we have only this one word, l-o-v-e love which we use for so many different behaviors and feelings.

Even if we set aside the ways we use this word to speak of certain activities (“I love fishing”) or things (“I love pizza”), we still are left with a broad variety of human “loves”.  For instance, there is the love of a child for a parent, and the love of a parent of a child, which we recognize as two distinctly different things.  There is the love of siblings as well as the love of friends, both of which are distinctly different from the love of lovers.  There is a distinction again between the love of those who have freshly fallen from that of couples who have been life-long companions. And then there is that love into which the great religious traditions encourage us to extend ourselves — the love of strangers, and in the case of Jesus, even the love of enemies. 

So, I found myself wanting more clarity regarding the nature of the love Jesus was referring to when he said we were to love one another. 

There are distinctions we can make as we try to figure out what Jesus had in mind.  For instance, I’ve done children’s sermons in the past where I showed the kids the words l-o-v-e and l-i-k-e and talked about the difference — how it isn’t possible to like everybody but it is, in theory possible to love everybody — act with the other’s best interests in mind.  This is another way of speaking of love as an action rather than as a feeling, with the implication that Jesus meant for us to understand love as an action, not a feeling.

But as I ponder this, I have second thoughts about this tidy distinction.  You can for a time motivate yourself to act lovingly towards someone you don’t really like, but it will be mighty tough to sustain such a relationship over the long haul if you don’t eventually come to hold them in some affection.

I read over CS Lewis’ helpful book, “The Four Loves” in which he makes distinction between what he calls “need love” and “gift love.”  The first is where we truly need something from the person we love; we are dependent on this other person, as in the case of children’s love for their parents.  In contrast, gift love isn’t looking for something in return. A good parent would be seen as an expression of this.  

Once again however, the distinction gets cloudy:  those of us who are parents recognize that even as we pour ourselves out on behalf of our children, there remains a sense in which we need our children, and there are moments when children can truly act for the good of their parents.     

When we hear Jesus say that we should love one another, it is easy to assume that he’s referring specifically to what we might think of as the more noble expressions of love – gift love — the love that gives without expecting anything in return.

There is some truth to that.  After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Love one another as I have loved you”? 

But what I’ve been thinking this week is that Jesus probably had in mind the whole ball of wax that is love.

Even Jesus was not without need in his love. Like any human being, Jesus grew attached to his friends, weeping when Lazarus died. He needed their companionship in his loneliness, expressed most clearly when in the Garden of Gethsemene he suffered over his impending death on the cross, only to find his friends have withdrawn from him into sleep.   Jesus wept over the people of Jerusalem when he realized they would not receive what he had to give them. 

And so the distinction between gift love and need love, though useful, proves inadequate to describe the reality of our lives.  To be a human being is to be needy, dependent, in ways we are often loath to admit.

It is important to note the context in which Jesus said to his disciples, “A new commandment I give you, that you should love one another.”  He says this right after calling them “little children,” acknowledging their fundamental neediness, and speaking specifically of the fact that he is about to leave them by death.  

The context is not unlike one that most of us have found ourselves in at some point in our lives.  We sit at the bedside of a loved one, knowing they are about to die – knowing how badly we will miss them. To love one another in the manner we human beings love is to set our hearts up to be broken, and there is nothing quite so painful in life.  

If we are determined to avoid such pain, the only thing to do is to stay clear of the love that attaches our hearts to others.  There are basically two ways to go about this. The first is to pursue the path that this world often promotes, where we love things and use people, devoting our days to accumulating stuff and the kind of pleasures that don’t involve exposing our hearts to others.  We all know that Jesus isn’t big on this way of living.

The second way is to pursue detachment in the name of being super spiritual. It involves avoiding attachments of the heart so that we can “give” without being concerned about receiving anything in return. It is to set our minds on sainthood through bypassing earth.

It may be surprising to realize that Jesus doesn’t care for this way either.  Like it or not, earth is where we live, inhabiting mortal flesh that is inherently needy. So, as Jesus is about to leave them in death, he tells them not to love less but to love more.   Give your heart away.  Trust that though you will be setting yourself up to have your heart broken, the holy spirit will be with you to see you through the pain.  

These days the tendency is for human beings to be very careful where we invest our love.  Our spouse, our family – that’s often about as far as we go. 

No, says Jesus.  Love with abandon.  Love many, many people in a variety of ways, but always with an aspect of generous gift love mixed in.  Love the people in your church in such a way that you will weep copiously if they die before you do.    

There is a transformation that takes place over time as we invite God into all our relationships.   They deepen, becoming a thing of extraordinary beauty.  

One of the distinctive qualities of the love of Jesus was his capacity to love people whom others, as well as perhaps themselves, found unlovable.   He loved the lepers, the tax-collectors and sinners, the demon possessed. 

In the hearts of each of us there are places where, when we go there, we feel distinctly unlovable.  When we find ourselves in these places that perhaps we manage to keep hidden most of the time, there is this thought that “if people could see me as I am now, they would never love me.”  Such a place resides in all of us. 

Jesus comes to us in that place and says, “My child, your sins are forgiven, arise and go in peace.”  

“Love one another as I have loved you.”  These unlovable spaces are the barriers to the deepening of our loves, and it is through the abiding presence of the Lord that we find the healing to move deeper into these connections of the heart that are love.   

And in the end, this, and only this,  is how people will know that we are followers of Jesus.

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