When the Beatles sang, “All you need is love” back in the 1960s, this soft sentiment echoed the enthusiastic embrace by some people who wanted everyone simply to get along and overlook their differences. It was also during this turbulent time in history when others expressed a rejection of this dreamy emotion. The hard-liners suggested that we can’t solve the problems of the world without first acknowledging the base motives and evil intent of others expressing competing differences; the solution: a forceful, uncompromising response.
Depending on our personality and life experience, each one of us likely leans in one way or another. But neither vision of ‘love’ is what Jesus expresses in the Gospel for today (John 15:9-17), a text laden with talk of love.
Love, it goes without saying, is one of those words that is not easily defined. At least the biblical Greek distinguishes a few nuanced understandings of love ranging from a desiring love (eros) to a friendship love (philia) to a self-giving, outward-focused love for all people (agape). Consistently, in this Gospel text, it is the agape love that is prevalent. But Jesus weaves agape with friendship. And so Biblical scholars are correct to insist that these biblical definitions of love are not mutually-exclusive when they are used (David Cunningham, “Feasting on the Word” Year B Volume 2, WJK Press Kentucky 2008, p.498); there is overlap in meaning. So, we are back at the beginning, confronted with a powerful word which can mean so many things.
How do we understand what Jesus was getting at? How can we grasp, and better yet, experience, for our own lives the love of which Jesus demonstrates with his words and life?
Maybe we do need to look at more than just the word. We need to look at the setting, or context, in which those words are spoken. Because the words that we hear in one time and place can have an entirely different impact on us if we hear them in another time and place:
For example, ‘I hope you are well’ may seem like nothing more than a polite greeting in a casual conversation over the phone. But the phrase has a much more focused meaning if it is spoken by a friend visiting you in the hospital. They are the exact same words, but they carry a different resonance, a different intensity and inflection.
So, meaning shifts with the setting. That is an important principle to remember in the Gospel of John, for its words are always sounding in at least two different historical contexts: First, there is the immediate story line, the unfolding narrative of Jesus Christ and his ministry as recorded on the pages of the Bible. And second, there is the community that gave birth to – that wrote down the words of – the Gospel of John and the circumstances in which that community lived some three generations after Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Consider how the exact same words of Jesus would sound in these two different contexts. If, in the face of Jesus’ impending death we read, ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (15:13), then the verse leaps out to us as an interpretation of the sacrificial action Christ is about to suffer on the Cross.
But what happens if we read it in the context of the community of John at the end of the first century – when these words were first written down? During this time the community of Christians faced growing oppression from the Roman Empire and was experiencing serious conflict with the Jewish synagogue (9:22; 12:42; 16:2). The words seem no longer to refer only to Christ and his death, but to the sacrifice of members of the community.
I don’t believe we have to choose between one reading and the other. Instead, by identifying both readings we understand how the life of faith keeps expanding and deepening the meaning of Jesus’ words. It is a process that has kept the church vital generation after generation. And it continues in our own lives today. The Word is a living word whose meanings grow clearer as we hold the complexities of life in its light. (For this meaning-finding in context, I used Thomas Troeger’s wonderful formulation in “Feasting on the Word” ibid, p.497-501)
Love is not only a mushy, self-gratifying emotion that finds energy and drive in our dreamy states and compulsions. Love is also not merely a ‘tough’ love that is forceful, cleansing and ‘real’. Love is not only self-sacrifice. But neither is it self-denial and self-hatred. The meaning of love for each of us is more likely born in our own lives where we have to struggle and suffer through some external or internal conflict.
Another phrase from Jesus in this Gospel plants notions of love and joy firmly in the context of suffering. He says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (v.11). How can Christ speak of joy when he is about to be arrested and tortured to death? But also imagine how these words would have sounded to a community of believers at the end of the first century who themselves were grappling with rejection and persecution. Finally, what about us, the heirs of Jesus Christ and his disciples: How do these words redefine the meaning of joy as we move through strenuous times?
In the reality TV-show, “The Amazing Race” whose 26th season finale is soon approaching, a dozen teams are racing around the world. Couples challenge each other through each leg of the race, ultimately seeking the $1 million prize at the end.
One couple in this season – Blair and Hayley — is particularly fascinating to watch. Because they have such friction. She is a nurse, and he is a doctor. You would think they have a lot in common and therefore could get along. But they are at each other’s throats all the time. Hayley nags and complains and is downright nasty to Blair. And Blair isn’t a pushover but for the most part is patient, non-anxious and keeps it together. You would also think, because they can’t communicate very well and have such acrimony between them, they would have long ago self-imploded and have been eliminated.
But, contrary to my expectations, they have found a way to make it work. They are still in the final four teams racing for the million. And, what is more, they won a recent leg of the race!
When Phil, the host of “Amazing Race”, greeted them on the ‘mat’ he shook his head in disbelief and inquired as to how they are finding success. Both of them admitted the challenges they face and how each of them drives the other crazy. But both of them said they respect each other and this tension is somehow motivating them forward. Phil responded: “You sound like true BFFs!” – Best Friends Forever.
To be honest, I have a hard time calling this ‘love’. But there is an aspect of ‘love’ here we often forget: A community needs to learn how to love one another despite the fact we will drive ourselves crazy from time to time. The early Christians, facing oppression and persecution from outside, needed to learn how to strengthen their bonds in-house, so to speak. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t disagree. That doesn’t mean, they needed to force each other to repress their differences. That doesn’t mean they all had to be like-minded and ‘the same’. That doesn’t mean it has to be roses and champagne all the time.
Similarly for us. We can express our differences, fight (fairly!), respect each other. And still love one another. Especially when we focus on the reason we are together, the prize, the goal, what in truth unites us in Christ, we will find traction on our journey. There can be a beautiful loving that can happen in a diverse, sometimes chaotic, existence called the church. We won’t be all holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ around the campfire all the time. Sometimes, our love will mean we have to make some tough choices, confront our differences and work through conflict. That’s love, too.
How do we find God’s love? Well, it’s a little bit of both/and. And sorry to say for those who want to have control – there is a little bit of letting go necessary. And, conversely, for those who tend to be passive, there is some work involved!
Photographer Ansel Adams would wait days and hours for the perfect circumstances and ideal light to take his iconic photos. He said, “Chance favours the prepared mind.” There is a method to the faithful walk. And it must go far beyond merely enforcing the will and doing it as if it all depended on our own sheer determination and timelines to make it happen. We have to remember, God is free and is not dependent on our actions. The reason Jesus says he no longer calls us slaves but friends (15:15) is this: A master was bound by convention and law to care for his slaves; but a friend’s love is freely given, and mutual. A friend will love and receive love, freely and without condition.
Could we learn to wait for and fully expect God’s grace and love to come freely as God will – in the flow of “living water”, “blowing wind”, “descending flames”, and “alighting doves” – all biblical descriptions of how God comes to us in love and truth? (see Richard Rohr, “Breathing Underwater”, Franciscan Media, Ohio 2011, chapter 6)
So, the waiting and the preparing the mind for God finding us in love, the softening of the heart, the deepening of expectation and desire, the ‘readiness’ to really let go of control, and the recognition that “I really do not want to let go” – these are all characteristics of the mature Christian. Because the actual willingness to change is the work of weeks, months, and years of “fear and trembling” (as Paul expresses in Philippians 2:12).
Love is a process. Love is revealed in the transforming, changing person. It is found in the grit on the road of life with others. It is revealed in the commitment to stay the course, however difficult that course may be.
Grace and love will always favour the prepared mind, the heart willing to risk it all and nurturing the anticipation that there is a hopeful outcome. And, if you ask me, I believe the reason that Blair and Hayley in “The Amazing Race” are finding success? It’s because at least one of the partners at any given moment is showing a whole lot of undeserved grace and forgiveness to the other. No matter how that team finishes in the end, they will, I am sure, remember the love that in different ways each of them experienced in the other over the course of the race. Perhaps a little bit, at least, like true, best-friends-forever.