Maybe you feel that all these words about agape, about divine love, are a boring, repetitive drone of platitudes that everyone already knows? You may be right. I certainly confess that, for many years of my adult life, probably into my forties even, I did not look forward to lectionary year B, when, like this year, the gospel of John in passages from the Last Supper discourse was matched to a second reading from 1 John, creating what seemed to me to be an indistinguishable one-trick pony of a goulash, a bland “all you need is love” for four or fives weeks of preaching. It has only been in recent years, as I have come to appreciate the startling gravity of agape and kenosis, as they reveal themselves in the incarnation as the pulsating heart of the paschal mystery, that I have come to love and joyfully anticipate celebrating these Sundays in an adult way.
Consider in the light of what I was talking about last time, the kosher-breaking vision of Peter as he prepared to visit the house of the centurion Cornelius, the meaning of John’s amazing statement that everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. The words do not say, as we might expect, that “everyone begotten by God (in the sense of ‘all who are baptized’) loves God and knows God,” but rather, the text says that everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. That is, those who act for the good of others come to share in the life of those who are the children of God, and live in a state of intimacy with the Holy One. To me, this is as wondrously liberating a credal statement as the parable of Matthew 25, in which the surprising criterion on the last day is not orthodoxy, membership, the correct sexual orientation, ordination, or even confession of the name of Christ. In Matthew 25 as in I John 4, it is agape, that is, disinterested service on behalf of others, not related to ideology, that brings one, startled for even being recognized and unaccustomed to and unprepared for reward, into intimacy with the servant-emperor of life.
Bear with me a few minutes more as I ask you to read with me again the words of the gospel from Sunday in this pure radiance of God’s love.
"As the Father loves me, so I also love you.This word “remain” - in Greek, the verb μένω (menō), has the sense of “staying in the same place.” It has often been translated as “abide,” a word which is beautiful but possibly suffers from being a kind of religious archaism. But the unmistakeable sense of the word is intimacy; of lodging in another person’s home, and all of the openness and hospitality that that implies. Jesus says in this gospel passage that the intimacy that he shares with Abba, an intimacy that can be described as in-dwelling, living together in one house, is the same intimacy that the disciple can expect from him, and the same intimacy that his commandment compels us to live in with one another. The “commandment” of the “friend” Jesus thus is not a burden laid upon the believer, but the blessing of a lover who only wants the very best for the beloved, as if to say, “I can’t say anything better than this, there’s no other life in the universe, there’s nothing that will ever satisfy any of you, ever, more than being like God, and that is to serve one another’s needs no matter what.” The “commandment”, then, is rather like telling the disciple not to “fall up” or not to stop breathing. Surrender to agape. Float in this divine current, and finally be yourself. Finally, find complete joy by forgetting to pursue it.
Remain in my love.
If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love,
just as I have kept my Father's commandments
and remain in his love.
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.
This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing.
I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.
It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you
and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain,
so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.
This I command you: love one another."
Why is it so hard then? Why do we get stuck so often in eros, love that pays us back with good feelings, and philia, the mutual love that’s altruistic enough but shared among the related and like-minded? I reject the possibility that we’re fundamentally oriented toward sin, because the revealed truth is that all of God’s creation is fundamentally good, and breathes with God’s own breath. It must then, be some issue of mistaken identity, substituting other loves (eros and philia), which are also good, for agape, which is divine. Can God possibly be patient enough to wait us out on this, individually and as a race?
Here, I just want to diverge to another passage in John, chapter 21, verses 15-17. This is the famous dialogue between Jesus and Peter on shore of the lake after the resurrection, one which looks backward to the threefold denial by Peter of Jesus in the courtyard of the High Priest the night before Jesus’ execution by the Romans. In this passage, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Simon bar-Jona, do you love me more than these?” Each time, Peter answers affirmatively, and Jesus charges him to love his flock by nurturing them. But what we miss in every English translation of this passage is the subtle shift in the question of the Lord. The first time, Jesus asks, “Simon bar-Jona, do you agapas me more than these?” He is asking Peter if he has thrown himself completely into the ring of holy fire, the love that gives itself completely for others. And Peter responds in an equivocal way: “Lord, philo you.” I love you like my own family. The second time, it is the same, "Simon, agapas?" "Lord, philo." But the third time, when we might expect Peter to respond to Jesus’ question in kind, John shows us the kenosis of the logos again, as at creation, as at the incarnation, as at the washing of the feet, as at the last breath on Calvary. It is Jesus who changes the question to Peter: "Peter, philos?" Peter responds, "Lord, you know it. Philo!” Jesus then makes what might be thought of as a prophecy “about the sort of death Peter would die,” that is, as a young man he goes where he wants, but as an older man, he’ll be led where he’d rather not go. But you know what? That sounds to me an awful lot like Jesus is saying to him, “Today, you can only offer philia. But things are going to change. Agape is going to grab you around the heart and take you where you can’t go today. I can wait for that.”
God can wait. That’s the way of agape: it is the faithful “remaining,” or “abiding” that empowers love in others by loving, that gives and gives and gives no matter what, if anything, is flowing in the other direction. It is the very first thing on Paul’s list of the qualities of agape in 1 Cor. 13: Agape is patient! The word in Greek means something like, “can endure the injuries of others for a really long time.” Thank God for that.
...Everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.
Purchase "God Is Love" by Rory Cooney, sung by Theresa Donohoo, on iTunes.