Commentary on Acts 10:25-26,34-35,44-48; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17
THE THEME OF TODAY’S MASS is clearly love. When we see a film or television programme, when we hear people singing on the radio, the subject is very often about love. Even in the church, we speak frequently about love. In fact, as Oliver sings in the musical based on Charles Dickens’ story, “Where is love?” And what is love?
According to today’s Second Reading the centre of all living is love. It is not only the centre of Christian living but needs to be at the centre of any kind of life.
Our Christian faith should not be just seen as a religion, something tacked on to an otherwise secular life which in most respects is the same as everyone else’s. Our Christian faith is a vision of how a human life should be lived in fullness. It teaches us how to be a real person. I think it was St Irenaeus who said a very long time ago that “The glory of God is a person fully alive” (Gloria Deo homo vivens). And a person is only fully alive when full of love. Because such a person then reflects best the God who IS love.
What is love?
It would be well at this point to say what we mean here by the term “love”. The Greek word that John uses in his gospel and in the three letters attributed to him is agape (pronounced ‘ag -ah-pay’, Greek, ‘agaph). The Christian writer C.S. Lewis once wrote a small book called “The Four Loves” in which he discusses four different ways of loving. The first of these is eros (eros), which is physical love, the love of young lovers, the love of Romeo and Juliet. The second is philia, (filia), which in a way is the highest form of love. It is the love of friendship, is essentially mutual and shared, and touches every aspect of a person’s being expressing itself in a total transparency through intimacy, affection and perhaps sexually. It covers marriage and all other genuinely close relationships. To experience such a relationship is one of the great blessings of life. The third love mentioned by Lewis is prautes (prauths), sometimes translated as ‘gentleness’ and, less happily’ as ‘meekness’ (as in “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”). It suggests someone who is unassuming, undemanding and totally submissive to what God wants but also warm and caring.
Finally, agape describes a love which reaches out to others without expecting anything in return. Such is the love of God for his creation. God’s loves is poured out in abundance on every single creature and it continues to flow out whether there is a response or not. This is the love which the father in the story of the Prodigal Son shows to the wayward son who has gone far away and wasted all his father’s gifts on a debauched life. It may come as a shock to some to be told that the love of God for the Mother of Jesus and for the most immoral person you can think of is exactly the same! God is love; it is his very nature; he cannot not love. What then is the difference between Mary and some depraved person? It is in the response. Mary listened to Jesus. “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it,” Jesus once said referring to his mother. Mary said an unconditional ‘Yes’ to God at her annunciation. She opened her heart to the agape of God.
It is that love of agape which we, too, are supposed to have. It is this love that enables us to love our enemies and want to be reconciled with them. We are not asked to love them with eros or philia. That would not make sense. To love them with agape is to want the very best for them, to want them to reform, to be changed, to be healed of hate and negativity.
Where there is God, there is love
Therefore, John says today, “Wherever there is love, there is God”. He does not say, “Wherever there are Christians, there is God” or “Wherever there is a Christian church, there is God”. But, wherever there is a person filled with real agape-love for others, God is there. That is the meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan. He was called “good” not because he was a religious person but because he reached out in compassionate love for someone who was supposed to be his enemy. So we can find agape, and therefore God at work, in a Protestant, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim. Maybe that person has no religious faith at all. He or she may be an agnostic, an atheist, a communist.
Wherever in the world there is truth, compassion, justice, true freedom and peace, God is certainly there.
What gives value to my life?
Perhaps I have been baptised, perhaps my family is Catholic for a long time, perhaps I fervently go to Mass every Sunday, perhaps I carefully keep all the Ten Commandments, yet if I do not really love and reach out in solidarity to brothers and sisters, whoever they are and wherever they are, I do not have God’s life in me. Paul put it well when writing to the Christians of Corinth: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:1-3).
God loves me unconditionally but that love is not in me if I am not passing it on to others.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us just one commandment. He does not say, “Love Jesus or love God as I have loved you”. No, he says, “If you want to be my disciple, then you must love one another, as I have loved you.” If we really love our brothers and sisters, including strangers and even enemies, we do not have to worry if we love God. But, if we do not love everyone unconditionally, then there is no other way I can claim to love Jesus. I need to love those God loves (with agape) and God loves every single person without exception, even the most wicked.
So I do not really have to worry and ask, “Is it a sin to do, say or think such a thing?” Or, “Does the Church allow me to do this?” Rather, let me ask this way: “When I do, say or think such and such, am I really a loving person?” In one way, to be a Christian is terribly simple. I do not need to study in a university or an institute of theology. If I really love people as Jesus loves me, I will definitely graduate – with honours!
In practice, of course, it is not always so easy. We need to learn slowly how to love people unconditionally. Our lower instincts and the prevailing culture around us think differently. Yet, we need to learn that the way of Jesus is in fact more in tune with our deeper nature. It is more human to be loving than hating (yet we often excuse our outbursts or anger or hatred as being “only human”). Deep down, we all want to love people. We do not like to hate people and hating does terrible things to our minds and our bodies. We like people to be our friends and do not like them to be our enemies.
Yet, because of our past experiences, the influence of parents and other people around us, the pressures of our society and our traditions, we often do not know how to love, do not know how to forgive, do not know how to be reconciled.
Love and commandments
The love that Jesus speaks about is very different from the love of the pop songs on MTV, or much of the love on TV and the movies. Sometimes when we love, we will be very happy. But sometimes loving the poor, the sick, the criminal will not be very easy. If we have to look after a relative who is close to dying, it can be a very painful experience, especially if that patient is difficult or unresponsive to our attentions. But that is love.
Love is not a question of keeping rules and commandments. Love is a way of life. It is an internal attitude which influences every single thing we do and say and think.
The love of a Christian needs to be unconditional. Sometimes people will love us back; sometimes they will not. Sometimes, even though we want to love people, they may reject us. If they do reject us, we need not necessarily think that we have done wrong. When people cannot return genuine love, it is they who have the problem. Sad to say, not everyone is capable of loving. All the more reason why we need to reach out to them. People often learn to love by being loved.
The most important thing is not that I am very clever, very successful, very rich, very famous… The most important thing is that I am someone who really loves. When I genuinely love others, there will always be some who cannot love me back but there will be others who will really respond in love. And it may be that my love has empowered them to be loving too.
To be able to reach out in love and to experience being loved is God’s greatest grace.