No one is born loving in agape. Most of us learn the hard way, the long way. We journey through the ages of humanity, the stages of development, the path toward “self-actualization” and ultimately transcendence. We learn to love from eros and philia, from the thrill and pleasure of loving, from the security and acceptance and transparency of presence to one another, from the fierceness of a mother’s defensive love, a father’s laughter, the often indefatigable and unalienable devotion of brothers and sisters, or grandparents.
Somewhere along the line, if we’re lucky, it strikes us that we’re not the center of any universe but our own, and that to become part of the truth of the universe we have to turn outward toward others. We hear the obvious truth of the life of the grain of wheat. It’s not at all that there’s anything wrong with eros and philia. It’s just that they are there to lead us to the Source, the love that is pure life-giving, that is independent of feeling, reciprocation, or even belonging, because it participates in life itself, and finds the source of its joy from its dissipation on behalf of the Other.
Honestly, I’ve been so selfish for so long that I don’t even know how little I do for other people. It’s just in the last ten years, really, that I’ve consciously stopped ignoring the things that I don’t do because I don’t feel like it. It’s like it dawned on me, in my mid-fifties, that to love other people isn’t about feeling anything, it’s about doing. It doesn’t matter what I feel, only what I do. Eventually, with some reflected living, some feelings might catch up, but if they don’t then somehow the actions themselves, if they are for another, and selfless, are part of the paschal mystery, and are life-giving in and of themselves to me as well as to whomever I might have served. It’s hard to imagine it’s taken me so long to even begin to grasp this. And don’t misunderstand me — it’s not like I’ve suddenly become Mother Teresa or Mia Farrow. Just a little bit less Falstaff, or Oscar Wilde.
It’s so obvious, but sometimes it’s just words. Like, I remember Tom Conry once laying one of his famous dictums on me, “Liturgy isn’t about making people feel good; it’s about making people feel like doing something good.” And on the level of drama alone, that’s a world of difference. It’s a movement from the self and eros toward the other, and agape. When that other stands outside the circle of friend and family, that’s the purest form of agape. It’s certainly true that real love is like the river; it doesn’t matter where you drink from, the river is the same. One can be truly, completely selfless with a lover, or with a son, or daughter, or parent, or friend. But Jesus, it seems to me, wants to make a point about this in his culture, which is already loyal to a fault to its own. In the Sermon on the Mount, making a point about loving those who love us, he tells us, “Don’t even the pagans do that?” So the real test is loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us. As any of my friends in liturgy preparation would tell you, be specific about enemy-love in the general intercessions some time, and see how fast the good Christians shoosh you out the door. “For the safety and well-being of al-Qaeda, let us pray to the Lord.” “For ISIS, the Taliban, the Sendero Luminoso, the Crips, the Bloods, the 18th Street Gang, let us pray to the Lord.” And praying for them is hardly dying, or living, for their good.
For the believer, this relentless divine love is at work even in those who have not heard the Name of God, or who have heard it and rejected it. Every moment of longing and alienation is a doorway to the infinite. God’s life is invitation, the available experience of accepting, unconditional love. The question becomes, who will discover the path of the love that “lets the rain fall and the sun shine on good and bad alike” in the search for meaning in life? Whose Church will be a safe harbor like that, whose preaching of the gospel will be the way it lives and worships and serves the neighborhood?
Maybe that’s the “so what” question that follows the proclamation that “God is love,” the one that Paul asked just a few decades after the death of Jesus (Romans 10).
But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed?Belonging, in Christ, ultimately means being sent. Love, like God, is not satisfied with itself, it is by its nature outward bound. If this “here comes everybody” party is ever going to get underway, we’re going to have to get the word out. Into every cozy upper room, into every lakeside breakfast, into every comfortable Christian’s life, a little fire must fall. Love is mission. Easter, the paschal mystery of God, is Pentecost.
And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard?
And how can they hear without someone to preach?
And how can people preach unless they are sent?
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.