May 6, 2007


I give you a new commandment: love one another. – John 13: 34

“Love” is undoubtedly the most abused word in the English language. No two people are likely to mean the same thing by it. So what does our Lord mean by it? Perhaps it is easiest to begin by saying what He does NOT mean by it, namely, something romantic or sentimental. It does not even mean necessarily liking someone. Mother Teresa of Calcutta focused on helping & caring for physically repulsive people that no one else wanted to go near because she saw in them “Jesus in distressing disguise.”

One thing that clearly distinguishes divine love from human love is its unconditional nature. God distributes the seeds of His love equally on rocky ground, thin soil, & soil choked by brambles as well as fertile soil, knowing full well the outcome beforehand. Extravagant & wasteful, you say? Perhaps, but one does not know just which type of soil we are dealing with until it has been touched by God’s love. Some of the most unpromising people imaginable have responded magnificently to God’s touch.

Secondly, divine love is sacrificial – willing to go to the Cross for the sake of the beloved. Again, it is steadfast, unshakeable. No matter how obnoxious we may be, we cannot turn God off. I believe Jesus would have readily forgiven Judas Iscariot, but it was Judas who cut himself off from God by his suicide. I don’t think God has to cast anyone into outer darkness: we do it ourselves & therein lies the real tragedy.

Since this kind of love is not something we come by naturally, we have to learn it. Yet even human love is a learned response. We learn it by experiencing it, first from our parents & then other relatives, & finally, most awesome of all, from a total stranger. When such experience is lacking, we become candidates for socio- & psycho- pathology. Similarly, we can only learn to love the way God loves by example & direct experience. This is where the community of believers becomes vital.

The insight that grounds the new commandment is that we come to know & love the divine through the human. This means that our responsibility for setting the example is not trivial. We cannot share with others what we ourselves have not experienced. So, there is much more at stake here than just our own personal spiritual enrichment. Others are depending on us. As the old saying goes, “You are the only Gospel some people will ever read.”

Our Lord also depends on those people who are imbued with His Spirit & remember His love as the ground & energy of their own love. To get in touch with this amazing kind of love, we have to belong to the community of disciples who know & enact it. The fact is we need both Scripture & the Community of Believers to love one another as He has loved us. As an old song puts it, “You can’t have one with the other.” AMEN!