What is Love?

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another,
even as I have loved you.

Over the next seven months we are planning a thematic approach to these evenings together. Each night we will consider one of the virtues of the soul – starting these last three months of this year with Love, Faith and Hope – gathered together by St Paul in different places in his writings – they are the foundation of the Christian life.  Then beginning in January we will consider the cardinal or natural virtues of prudence, courage, temperance and justice.

This is paralleling a Student Study Group being organized by Jonathan Fink-Jensen on the virtues and vices.

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Tonight we are considering “Love” – it is the highest of all virtues.

St John says that “God is love”.

But what is love when it is revealed in us?

There are many forms of love that have been identified over the centuries in pagan and Christian circles – such as Affection (storge), especially love of family; friendship love (philia); romantic love (eros); divine love (agape).

Yet in the Christian tradition there has been a consistent resistance to separating these loves, to suggesting somehow that all love is anything other than one, since God is One and He is love and the source of all love in us.

Love, in us, is the experience of desire reaching out for the object of our love and being satisfied only when it possesses that object.

I love speculaas! Something a little higher: I love my dog, I love my work.  Something a little higher: I love my beloved.  And higher still: I love my God!  In every case love reaches out for the object of its desire, and is satisfied only in the possession of that object or that “other”.

And in that moment of possession there is a rest in a kind of timelessness, in eternity.  Of course with speculaas that moment is so much shorter! and it leads almost immediately to desire another!   With God the rest can be forever – we can be completely satisfied, and in that resting God stirs up our desire for more… in a cycle of ever deepening love and fulfillment!

Our hearts are always trying to find that rest – love reaching out for satisfaction – Our hearts are restless, as the famous phrase goes, restless, O Lord, until they find their rest in you. [St Augustine’s Confessions, 1.1]

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How we direct our desire, that love reaching out, is key to whether or not we will find contentment, true joy: love is the cause of every virtuous act. But misdirected love is the cause of every sin, of every vice, of every discontentedness in the soul.  It is not the desire itself that is the problem, but the object of love, our aim, that can cause the problem.

The whole of the law and the prophets, Jesus tells us, summed up in the Ten Commandments, seeks to show us what is the true way to love God and our neighbour.

e.g. A robber loves money, and may desire to get it to support himself and his family – that is a right love, but it is mixed with an act that hurts another by stealing from them.  In the case of a person who falls in love with someone who is married – the love for that person may be genuine and good – but in the very act, the other person is breaking marriage vows and the spouse is being hurt – in that love reaching out is a mixture of good and ill.

The Law can help us to see what is pure love, love without a destructive element mingled in with it.  So we are given by God a description of what love is – and an ever more profound love – the Ten Commandments with their outer and inner meaning: don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, and so on, with all of the moral laws.

But how do we do it? our love so often seems to miss the mark? will we just despair because we can’t seem to love in the right way or with all our heart?

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Near the end of tonight’s Gospel reading we have Jesus giving a new commandment to us about love – as if the Ten Commandments aren’t hard enough already.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.

I want to share with you what a great writer said on this…(Pope Benedict in Jesus of Nazareth)

“What is new about the new commandment?  Since this question ultimately concerns the “newness” of the New Testament, that is to say, the “essence of Christianity”, it is important to be very attentive.

“It has been argued that the new element—moving beyond the earlier commandment to love one’s neighbour—is revealed in the saying “love as I have loved you”, in other words, loving to the point of readiness to lay down one’s life for the other.  If this were the specific and exclusive content of the “new commandment”, then Christianity could after all be defined as a form of extreme moral effort…  And yet who could possible claim to have risen above the “average” way of the Ten Commandments, to have left them behind as self-evident, so to speak, and now to walk along the exalted paths of the “new law”?  No, the newness of the new commandment cannot consist in the highest moral attainment.  Here, too, the essential point is not the call to supreme achievement, but the new foundation of being that is given to us.  The newness can come only from the gift of being-with and being-in Christ.”

The Good News tonight is that this new Commandment is not about just about trying harder! or laying an even heavier burden on us than the Law of the Old Covenant.

Let us come back to the footwashing in tonight’s reading (John 13) to understand how we can be with and in Jesus to love like Him.

John13Coming to the conclusion in his ministry, at night, in a room set apart for a Passover meal, with growing enemies without and even an enemy within this close gathering of disciples, Jesus strips down, girds himself with a towel – as a slave or servant would in that culture – and he washes the feet of his disciples.

The key here is in this interaction between Peter and Jesus.

And the one who is most disturbed by this is Peter: “You shall never wash my feet,” says Peter.

Think of the disciples’ feet – open sandals, filth in the streets, a dusty world – Peter would not have his holy Lord bow before him and wash them.

Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

A wonderful response showing Peter’s exuberance!

Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.  And you are clean.

Jesus is clearly not just speaking about bathing and footwashing practices for Christians!  But it is really pointing us to something much more!

God washes us in the waters of baptism – (he who has bathed does not need to be washed) – but each of us does need to allow our feet to be washed – a symbol or allegory of that part of our person that has direct contact with the world.  In our engagement with the world we sin, in our current state it is impossible for us to avoid it – and Jesus knows that.

Rather than us despairing about that, Jesus gives us a way to deal with it.  We must admit our misguided loves, both outwardly and inwardly, to God, continually in our journey.  Not hiding, but presenting “our dirty feet” to be washed by the Lord continually.  Unless we receive on an ongoing basis this love from God, his purifying mercy, we cannot in turn love as he loves. If I do not wash you, you have no share with me. True love is not something we stir up of ourselves, but something imparted to us by Jesus as we receive his forgiveness, receive His love, know it, and a fire is kindled in us to do likewise to our neighbours.

And Jesus says, If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.

Washing one another’s feet is bearing with and offering forgiveness to those in our midst – to “the dirty feet” of our neighbour.  What you forgive on earth shall be forgiven in heaven.  What I have done to you, you should do to one another.

So the very person we are offended by – their ugly sin, maybe their behaviour towards us, snubbing us (that’s their pride), or some other moral failing that we are repulsed by – whatever that ugliness, we condescend, we gird ourselves with a towel of a servant, we go beyond the sin, to the person whom Jesus loves, just as he did with each of us.

We love with the love that we know from our Lord.

It’s not some superhuman effort on our part, but by an allowing of ourselves to be ministered to by Christ, drawing close and staying close to Him – love fills us…and the desire of God for our salvation…becomes our desire for the salvation of others, our love for them.

Tonight we have opportunity to go to the altar during the songs that will follow this talk.  Perhaps there are two things that you and I can do if we choose to go forward to pray –

First: show Jesus our “dirty feet” and allow him to wash them, receive the perfect forgiveness he offers us, receive his love; and

Second: ask Jesus to bring to our mind someone who offends us, and ask Jesus to give us the grace to see beyond their “dirty feet”, to love that person with a love like His – forgiving, forbearing, washing, stirring up our love and theirs.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another:
just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.

Amen.