In the 1960s, The Beatles proclaimed that “It’s easy...all you need is love.”
I certainly grew up influenced by The Beatles, but I somehow missed the 60s, so I’ve turned to a Professor of Religion, David S. Cunningham, for a first hand reaction. Cunningham writes that the reactions to the song came in two kinds: an enthusiastic embrace of love as the simple solution to the world’s problems, and a critical rejection of the word love as a dreamy emotion that would distract people as those problems grew worse. Those two attitudes towards love have, in some sense, marked all modern political culture---with one side pleading “can’t we all just get along?” while the other side demands a clear-eyed acknowledgement of, and a forceful response to the base motives and evil intent of others. (Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol. 2)
I don’t believe that either of these reactions represents what Jesus was trying to say with the words “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Last week, Carl, a member of our congregation, suggested to me that he thought someone got it wrong down the line, and that the word they wanted was not love, but respect. This perfectly sets up the dilemma: love is not an easy word in our culture. There are some ways that we use the word love that simply is not what Jesus is asking of us. Other ways of understanding the word leave us scratching our heads: what is Jesus really asking us to do in saying, “love one another as I have loved you? If it is to be as easy as The Beatles suggest, couldn’t we come up with a more clear, concise word?
I’m not sure that we can. In my conversation with Carl, I realized that my problem with “respect” is not that I don’t think it’s important, but that it’s not enough. Respecting my neighbor isn’t a bad thing: respecting the dignity of every human being is a phrase I really like. It suggests boundaries on our actions that honor the rights of others.
Where I think respect is lacking is that you can respect people without it mattering what happens to them. I can “respect someone’s privacy” and thus stand aside or avert my eyes as their life come crashing down. I’m not suggesting that I could have necessarily prevented what happened, and I’m not suggesting that we can control everything that happens to one another through intervention. Respect, at least in this sense, is not enough. I think that “love one another” reflects the earlier passage in John’s Gospel, “For God so loved the world....” There is a connection that goes beyond respect. God so respected the world just doesn’t cut it. We claim that God loves the world.
But Carl is right to be suspect of the word love, especially as we usually associate love as only a feeling. We’re so used to hearing love as the great powerful emotion: we can rightly ask how do you love people you don’t know. Or, as I suggested last week to what was now a group of people, “How do you love people that you don’t even like?”
Jesus suggests that in the calling of his disciples friends, he is freeing them to follow his commandments so that they can love one another. This is Jesus’ description of the love that reflects his relationship with the Father.
Love in this sense is a theological virtue: an excellence of character that God has by nature and in which we participate by grace. This love is primarily interested in the good of another person, rather than one’s own self interests. This love is not so much a feeling as it is a disciplined habit of care and concern that, like all of the virtues, can only be perfected over a lifetime. (Cunningham, again...)
This is the love Paul in First Corinthians when he says that 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 bares all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor. 13:4-7)
This type of love is really challenging for people because it’s not based on what we’re accustomed to. Most friendships, for example, have a certain usefulness to them like business connections or particular social circles, or are the friendships that are cultivated because they are pleasurable and we enjoy them. They are based on people’s perceived actions and reactions.
The virtue of love, however, is not based on the actions and choices that people take. This love is based for the good of others, not on finding good in others. This is really hard when we live in a world so broken, and marred by all sorts of bad choices that we all make.
Yes, it does matter when people do things that are dishonest or harmful. We should not simply brush aside the things that are hurtful and pretend they didn’t happen, and there are consequences for people’s actions. Choosing not to love and not to abide with grace is not an option that we as Christians have the luxury to choose.
Jesus calls us, his disciples, to abide in a love with him, with everyone, and with God, that exists out of mutual commitment and affection, and observes that this love should be so deeply woven into our lives that we might even find ourselves called to die for it.
The Beatles certainly got one thing wrong: this is far from easy...but it somehow it just might be all we need.