Brief synopsis of the readings: Our Easter journey continues with the Acts of the Apostles. Here Peter visited Cornelius who knelt at Peter’s feet but Peter told him to stand as “I am only a man.” Peter then told his household that God does not favor one group over another. As he said this the Holy Spirit came down upon them, Jews, and Pagans. Peter then suggested that all were eligible for baptism and they were baptized. Once again we read from John’s Gospel. Jesus told them that God commands them to love one another as the Father loves Jesus. “This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus then told them they were not his servants but his friends as a servant does not know his master’s business. They are friends because Jesus have made known to them “everything I have learnt from my Father.” Jesus finishes by stating this: “What I command you is to love one another.”
I live in San Diego and for several summers we’ve walked to raise money to end AIDS. I haven’t seen this in a few years but there used to be a guy near the starting line with a huge sign using Bible verses to condemn homosexuality. Without having spoken to him, I have to assume that he sees AIDS as God’s punishment for homosexuality (even though HIV doesn’t care about orientation). As I passed him I often thought how much fun it would be to stand next to him and hold an equally huge sign next to him with the phrase “Ask him about the command to love one another.”
Today’s Gospel calls us to ask what it means to love another person. I confess that I’m amused with song lyrics (geared toward young people) that agonize over “what love is” and I write this as I spent 4 years in my 20s as a church youth minister. I love teenagers for their honesty and bewilderment over love. I spoke with many of them about how the ancient Greeks had three words for love:
Filia translates to loyalty. It’s the love we have for our family. When you say “I love you” to your siblings, it’s filia. This type of love can be unbalanced; in other words you can feel filia toward someone who doesn’t feel the same way about you.
Eros connotes romantic love. This is the love you grow into with someone who you meet as a stranger. This is the love you have for your spouse, and eros must be mutual between the two.
Finally we have agape. Agape speaks to “universal love.” Agape reflects God’s love for us: it does not depend on our relationships or our attractiveness but instead our shared belief that we are loved without exception by an all loving God. Agape demands that, as disciples of Jesus, we love one another as God has loved us. This, too, can be unbalanced. We can love someone who doesn’t love us.
In today’s Gospel we are called to agape with everyone around us. Understand that this commandment is an aspiration. This side of Heaven none of us will get it right. If we think of the holiest people we know, they will be the first to tell us about their daily struggle to agape. We will not be evaluated on results as much as our desire to love without condition.
Last week I spoke about the movie Schindler’s List. Oskar Schindler certainly didn’t love his Jewish employees at the beginning of the movie, but as he got to know them he began to see them in a new light. By the end of the movie he had come a long way, and his love for them was obvious.
But we can also love people we don’t even know. A few days ago (in the middle of the night) a man stepped up on a bridge railing near Detroit, Michigan. The bridge went over a highway and he planned to commit suicide. When police arrived they attempted to talk him down, but they also asked local truckers to line up their trucks under the bridge and prevent this man from jumping. Thirteen trucks lined up under the bridge and stayed there until the man was convinced to come down and accept help. We know virtually nothing about these drivers, but more to the point they didn’t know anything about this man except he needed help. Did they love him? I think so. Nobody compelled them to do this (and for all we know, other truckers declined to get involved) but they did this for no other reason than to help someone in trouble.
Unfortunately as we look around, we can see how far we have to go. We live in a world where refugees are often seen as terrorists, where walls are seen as acceptable protection against those who are simply hungry or afraid.
Agape calls us to move beyond our fear and believe that their hunger does not take away from our need. God has given us a world that provides for all of our needs and should give us the ability to love one another as we have been loved. And yet we don’t. We need to continue to read this Gospel to remind ourselves that we haven’t fully accepted what we are promised. We need to continue to read this Gospel to remind ourselves that those in need don’t suffer from self inflicted wounds.
God doesn’t parse out love. Agape isn’t a finite resource that we need to share based on our appropriateness. When we proclaim that some people deserve our generosity and others don’t, we move away from God’s call to love. When we say that some people shouldn’t be fed because there won’t be enough for us, we move away from God’s call to love.
The call to love demands that we ignore all of our fears. It calls us to ignore all of our prejudices. It calls us to see ourselves and each other in a new light: it calls us to see ourselves and each other in the light that God sees us. It’s scary and God knows that.
But let us embrace God and let go of our fears and prejudices.