Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:9-17
Questions of authorship and dates aside, John’s letters are read best as commentary on John’s Gospel, or if you must, the Gospel as the broad amplification of what the letters apply so intimately. Either way, in the Gospel’s climatic instruction and the epistle’s final exhortation, love is commanded.
Love. It’s a command. I am never sure if this is meant to be surprising, or simply expected. Either way, commanding love is at least a bit challenging. Quick: Name another part of your life or relationship in which you would rightly command love. Did you ever command anyone to love you? It seems desperate and controlling — but… God did. Did you ever command your children to love their siblings? Tempting, but at least potentially self-defeating. But… God did that very thing.
Preachers command love, and they do this with authority: from the Savior, the apostle, Moses and the prophets. Love, and love alone, is the imperative of the first and greatest commandment and the second one like it. Love summarizes the Law. Every detail of ritual and righteousness is instruction on how best to love. Love. It is commanded. Inescapable. So, it is time I cease being surprised by it.
I confess though, often enough I complain of the fickleness of affection as a foundation for faithful relationships, but fail to (have the wisdom, courage, grace to) command love. I certainly – and perhaps also my colleagues on occasion – and our common culture casually substitute desire for duty using the language of love. Love comes and goes, waxes and wanes. Enjoy it while you got it, and give it when you can, we say. The heart wants what the heart wants, we concede. Life is lived best knowing this and having realistic expectations, we counsel. But is there no duty here? And is not some duty required of us? Indeed, requirement presumes duty. The grammar of imperative love in Scripture uses the vocabulary of obligation. Love. Perhaps an exclamation should most often follow.
The context for the command, more to the point, the object of our love in these John passages is one another: fellow believers and all the other children of God. This is the best assurance that we love God. And before that, that the Father has loved the Son, and the Son has loved us. John’s language, both in the Gospel and the epistle, is its most repetitive when speaking of love. It is near confusing at times. But John comes by it honestly: Jesus had used such grammar even more extensively while praying about love: God’s, Christ’s and ours for each other.
First, this truth helps us imagine that we may indeed love as God commanded and at God’s command. God did it first. Second, we have known this love of God for us. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” And third, we do not need to generate this love; we already live in it. “Remain in my love,” Jesus taught.
So… surprised or not that love is commanded, I must – again, I say, must – love. And love as did Jesus. I think love is also commanded so that we would examine our love and desire to love as did the Savior. Christ is the measure, and commandment-keeping the best measuring instrument. Let me go first.
The first “one another” that I am to love are the fellow disciples of my home. Growing up, my mother and father were there first, a younger sister next and then 22 foster children who were partially raised in my childhood home. Lots of opportunity there. Now only mother and sister remain. I have no doubt that both have obeyed the command better than I. I have loved, but only lately have I examined my love. A lack of identifiable problems caused me to think that there was fullness of expression. But here God gave me a great gift. Not only do I have the authoritative witness of Scripture to guide me well, I was blessed by a father whose love neither my mother, sister nor I ever found wanting. If loving like Jesus stumps me still, perhaps loving like Percy – my father – would be a good intermediate goal.
Then came a family of my own making. Desire preceded duty. I made plans to marry Lois on the day I met her, though at that time she did not yet know my name (I probably should have consulted her). I proposed three weeks after our first date. She said no. (I’m still not sure what I did wrong there. She says timing. I note the first proposal was in my hometown of Detroit, the second in Princeton, New Jersey. It might have been the location?) No love defines me more – for better or for worse – than this family, now with three children in their 40s and five grandchildren. Desire followed duty. While my sins show, and none have seen them more clearly than my family, God has given love, and in it I joyfully remain. I live in this love. Here, joy is complete.
The second “one another” that I am to love are the fellow disciples of the congregation. It’s been nearly half a century since l last was a member of a church where I was not its worker or pastor. Still, either I love or I do not. This last year provided more opportunities to love, and by God’s grace I saw them more clearly. At the beginning of our sheltering apart, I found safe ways to visit our 31 members aged 90 or older. Some were outdoor afternoon conversations, some were through the open front door, some from the street while they shouted from the retirement home balcony and some over FaceTime held by a helpful attendant in a nursing home. The smiles of those with dementia may have been recognition of me, but better still I hope it was a recognition of love. All looked for love. I am so honored to be the vehicle by which God’s love came to them. It was the confidence of keeping commandment that I knew in my first, rural pastorate where I visited in every home every year.
The third “one another” that I am to love are the fellow disciples of our larger fellowship — the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Perhaps Acts 10 is most to the point here. Division deep and wide, long-lasting and lingering, provided the context. It was the division itself that was unchallenged. Jew and Gentile — no one could remember the last time they challenged each other. Avoidance passed for peace, and silence for statement. At its best, apathy passed for tolerance, and tolerance for love, forgetting that apathy is love’s opposite. Until a word from God to one disciple and a word from God to another disciple brought them together by appointment. Peter and the believers are astonished; Cornelius asks them to stay longer. Being in the same room talking will not of itself overcome our divisions. But, I believe, it will not be overcome without being in the same room talking. And yes, in my opinion General Assembly meetings do not count; homes, like that of Cornelius, are best.
We note: In the Acts passage the Holy Spirit “came on all,” was “poured out” and was “received.” In the Gospel, Jesus continued his instruction by promising the Holy Spirit whom he will send, who will “testify about him” and “guide them into all truth.” In the Epistle, the Spirit will testify that “the Spirit is the truth.”
The writers of our three New Testament passages want us to know that this work of obeying the command to love is accomplished by God’s Spirit, and the Spirit is a gift of God. Here we pray with Augustine, “Lord, command what you will; give what you command.”
“This is my command: Love one another.” So help me God.
- Do you command love in your discipleship, disciple-making and ministry? When you do, to what effect? When not, where and why not? And with what effect?
- Love in these passages seem to be considered apart from its quality and quantity both, but considered as either present or absent, existing or not. While thinking in terms of growing in love is probably appropriate and maybe unavoidable, it must be asked: Which “one another” do you not love? And in asking it, remember apathy and tolerance are poor substitutes. And remember God gives what God commands. Prayer is a required prerequisite to obedience.
- “God is love” is a statement of being, and “love” is a command. Reflect on the substantive and the imperative of these declarations. Granted that the Spirit of God testifies to Christ to help us love, how should we imagine, if at all, that God is in us when we love? Explore this mystery with John the Gospel and letter writer who spoke much of being in God, God being in us and love being the command.
- Gratitude marks the life of the believer. Are we not grateful for God’s love given before we knew to ask for it, given still while rejected and ignored, promised for all of life and beyond? Pray a prayer of thanksgiving. Give gratitude for specifics long ago and recent. Name an act of love demonstrated before you knew to ask for it, perhaps before you knew God at all. Name an act needed now and thank God in advance of a demonstrated answer.
- Take a step of love toward one unloved or under-loved by others, perhaps by you too. Be bold.
- Augustine confesses sin (“late have I loved”) and confesses faith (“you were with me”) in his “Confessions.” Read this passage and write a prayer or poem that does the same:
Late have I loved you, Beauty ever so ancient and ever so new, late have I loved you.
You were within; I was without.
I mis-formed, headlong rushing, in the well-formed things you have made, sought for you there..
You were with me, but I was not with you.
Those things held me back distant from you,
those things which would have no being were they not in you.
You beckoned, bellowed, broke through my deafness;
you burned, blazed, banished my blindness;
you breathed your fragrance, I gasped, and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I ache for your peace.
This week’s lectionary reflection is by Jerry Andrews, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in San Diego, and a member of the board of the Presbyterian Outlook.
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