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Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Remain in my love

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”

Thus Jesus in the first part of our Gospel reading today. To set it in a little context, which I probably don’t need to do, but still, this is, of course, part of Jesus’ farewell to his disciples. They have met together for the Passover meal, and Jesus has washed their feet. And the other Gospels tell us that he took bread and wine, blessed them, and gave them to the disciples – the ordinary actions that the host would have done at any special meal together, particularly a Sabbath or Passover meal. But Jesus, we are told, took this and lifted it into something different: This is My Body; This is My Blood. And now he is speaking to them, telling them things that perhaps they won’t take in all at once, but that the Holy Spirit, so Jesus reassures them, will remind them of in the days, weeks, months and years to come.

Above all, he is reassuring them. Basically, he is telling them that he must leave them, but that they will not be left alone. The Holy Spirit will come to them – something that couldn’t happen if Jesus didn’t leave. And the Holy Spirit will lead them into all truth.

The bit about loving one another, though – that’s so important that he says it twice. First, right at the very beginning: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” And now in the passage we have just read: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”

Well, yes, all right, we know that. We have heard it before. It is familiar. But, hang on a minute – how are we supposed to do this? And what does Jesus mean, anyway?

Part of the problem, of course, it does depend on your definition of “love”. Our English language lets us down here, unusually, as we only have the one word that has to cover an awful lot of meanings, from loving God down to loving cheese on toast, including loving our families, our friends, our pets, our old teddy-bear, our hobbies and the person we're in love with! In Greece they managed better, and had several different words!

There is “storge”, or affection, the kind of love you feel for your child or your parents; then there is “eros”, which is romantic love; “philia”, which is friendship,and “agape”, which is divine love, and this is the word that is used in this passage. It is also, as you may or may not know, the word that St Paul used in that lovely chapter in 1 Corinthians, when he talks of the nature of that sort of love:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

One of the interesting things is that when Jesus reinstates St Peter after he has denied him, you remember, by the lakeside, when he says to him “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” he uses the word “agape”. Peter can’t quite manage that, so he, when he replies “Lord, you know that I love you”, he uses the word “philia”; in other words, “Lord, you know I’m your friend”. Then when Jesus again asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”, he again uses the word “agape”, and Peter again replies using the word “Philia”. And then the third time, Jesus himself uses the word “philia” – which is why Simon Peter was so hurt. He’s already said twice that he is Jesus’ friend, why does he have to say it a third time?

Simon Peter found that committing himself to agape love, to God’s love, was pretty much impossible. I’m not surprised, are you? Let’s look at it again:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

This is the sort of love that Jesus was talking about, when he told us to love one another in the same way that He loved us.

But how? Heaven knows, I don't always succeed in this, I'm sure my centre is far more often on myself than it is on God, and I expect many of you feel the same way.

Even Simon Peter couldn't do it, as we have seen: “Lord, you know I'm your friend!” It wasn't until after Pentecost, after the Holy Spirit came down, that he became the great apostle and evangelist. His love for God, and for his neighbours, was never in doubt after Pentecost, however much it was before!

So it seems as though we can't love God or one another without God's love first in us, in the Person of the Holy Spirit. And in our Gospel reading, Jesus says that we need to remain in His love. God loves us. We need to remain in that love, “abide” in it, the older translations say. A modern paraphrase, “The Message”, says “Make yourself at home in my love”. So if God’s love is in us, and we remain in that love, we make ourselves at home in it, what does that mean? Jesus says that if we obey his commands, we will abide in his love, end of. And his command is to love one another.

But it's not always easy, is it? The trouble is, quite apart from anything else, our human loves can be so desperately flawed. You might think that there is nothing more wonderful than the love between parents and children but how easily that love can turn into wanting to dominate the child, to dictate how it should live, what it should do, who it should be. And you have all heard the old joke, “She’s the kind of woman who lives for others – you can always tell the others by their hunted expressions!” The kind of person who, out of love, misguidedly tries to run people’s lives for them.

And I don’t need to spell out just how easily romantic love can go wrong, and become something of a battle for possession. Or in this day and age, more likely, a refusal to commit oneself to the beloved.

As for friendship, you would have thought it would be difficult for that to go wrong. People tend to be friends because of shared interests; Robert and I have a great many very dear friends whom we would not otherwise have anything in common with apart from our love of skating. That is the thing that we are friends about.

But sometimes friendship can be more about excluding the other person, not including them. Particularly among children, of course, but it can happen among adults. Sadly, we see it a lot in the churches – we exclude those who, perhaps, are not of the same denomination as we are, or don’t worship God in quite the same way. Or perhaps we are Evangelical and they are not, or vice versa, so we tend to be sniffy about their way of being a Christian, and exclude them.

But God’s love is the kind of love that lays down its life for its friends. Jesus says that if we obey his commands, we will remain in his love. We need to love one another with God’s love, and that’s not something we can do alone. God’s love, we are told, is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit – we can love neither God nor one another without God’s having first loved us.

It all comes back to that, doesn’t it. God loves us and one of the implications of that love is that we are enabled to love one another.

But it’s not just about gooey feelings. Jesus pointed out that the greatest test of love is if you are willing to lay down your life for the other person. And St Paul’s description of love is eminently practical, too. Love, it seems, is something you do.

Love is something you do. Love is about putting the other person first. It’s about taking that extra step – giving someone a lift, even though it’s out of your way; making that telephone call, or sending that e-mail, to check that someone is all right. It can even be about commenting on someone’s Facebook status! It’s about remembering people’s birthdays and other special days. All that sort of thing – you know as well as I do; I scarcely need to spell it out.

In another place, Jesus tells us that we must love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Now loving ourselves is, very often, the difficult bit. It's all too easy to have the wrong kind of self-love, the kind that says “Me, me, me” all the time and demands its own way – the absolute opposite, in fact, of the love that St Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians. You can't love your neighbour – or God, either, for that matter – if you are full of that sort of self-love.

But then there is the equal and opposite problem – we don't value ourselves enough. We don't really like ourselves, we have a big problem with self-image, we are not what the French call “comfortable in our own skins”. And often it is the people who appear most self-absorbed, most unable to love others, who are the most wounded inside, and who are totally not comfortable with themselves. And again, it is only through the love of God, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we can be made whole, and thus enabled to love ourselves and other people, as we should.

So really, it's all one – we love, because God first loved us; we can't love God without also loving one another; we can't love one another unless we love ourselves – or, at the very least, have a healthy self-image, which amounts to the same thing; and we can't love ourselves unless we are aware that God loves us!
So the important thing, as it always is, is to be open to God's love more and more - which is basically what I think "remain in my love" means; to continue to be God's person; and to continue to be open to be being made more and more the person God designed us to be. To be fully human is to be fully God's person. Amen.

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