The 4th-century theologian Jerome tells a story about the Apostle John. John was old and frail, unable to walk, so his disciples would carry him into the gathering of believers on the Lord’s Day. Every week these were his words to the congregation: “Little children, love one another.”
This went on week after week, until at last, more than a little weary of these repeated words, his disciples asked him, “Master, why do you always say this?”
“Because,” John replied, “it is the Lord’s command, and if this only is done, it is enough.”
We have no way of verifying Jerome’s story, but it certainly sounds like John—that is, the author of the Gospel and Epistles of John. Those writings are filled with exhortations to love.
I can sympathize with John in this story. I, too, feel the pressure of this regular question: “Michael, why do you always talk about ‘love’?” Sometimes this is simple curiosity, but often the criticism is plain: this teaching, that we are to “love one another,” is somehow seen as insufficient.
That’s odd, quite frankly. After all, Jesus was emphatic about what the greatest commandments of God were: love God and love others, and you can’t have one without the other. In fact, Jesus says, this love of God/others sums up everything else God commands. All Scripture hangs like a seamless coat on this single hook: love God by loving others.
And Jesus’ first followers were equally clear on this. Loving others is the benchmark of genuine faith, they said—if you don’t love others you’re not a true disciple of Jesus, you don’t even truly know God. You want to fulfill God’s Law? Love others, they said, simple as that. The only thing that matters, in fact, is a faith that works itself out in love. Love is the virtue that binds together all other virtues. It is the most excellent way to live. It’s the one thing that remains always and forever.
According to both Jesus and the Apostles, love is it.
So it’s more than a little odd when Christians, whether back in John’s day or our own, get impatient with those of us who emphasize love above all else.
But why do some Christians react this way? Why is a simple insistence on loving others so wearisome, even so aggravating, to some?
Some insist that “love one another” is too wishy-washy. It’s too soft on sin, not strong enough on holiness. What about God’s judgment of sin seen throughout the Bible, after all, even in Jesus’ own teaching?
Others say that “love one another” is too simplistic, too impractical. The world is far too complicated for mere love, especially once we get beyond one-on-one relationships. What place does “love one another” have in the worlds of bottom-line business or high-stakes politics, or in sovereign countries defending their national interests?
These sound like the criticisms Jesus received, come to think of it. “Soft on sin, weak on holiness,” some of the most religious folks muttered around Jesus. “He sets aside God’s commands!” others among them frowned. “Love our enemies? That will only get us crucified by them!” all the “Make Israel Great Again” zealots exclaimed.
I think much of the problem is that we don’t really know the love that Jesus taught, the love that Jesus lived. And if we know this love, we don’t really trust in this love, not really. This can be true of both “sides,” it seems to me, both those who think love alone is the stairway to a heaven of harmonious society, and those who think “love alone” is the highway to a hell of moral relativism.
Many imagine this love to be mere tolerance. They imagine “love one another” to mean “live and let live,” a sort of “Whatever floats your boat, as long as you let me float mine.”
Others imagine this love to be a kind of affection, good feelings toward others. “Love one another,” then, means “Get rid of all that negativity—good vibes for everyone!”
Still others imagine this love to be basic decency. “Be nice to each other, use your manners, be polite”—this is what “Love one another” means.
Now there’s nothing wrong with tolerance, or affection, or basic decency. In fact, these are a bare minimum for being human together, I would think. They’re bottom-line attitudes and behaviours for a functioning human society.
But these, in themselves, are not the love that Jesus taught, the love he lived. Jesus’ love transcends mere feelings of affection, and it’s exponentially harder than simple kindness or even basic tolerance. People don’t get crucified for being nice.
So what is this love that Jesus says is the be-all and end-all of human living? Thankfully we’ve got a lot to go on in the Gospels, both from Jesus’ teaching and from the way he lived.
Love starts with a stance of openness toward another person. It’s like a father scanning the horizon for a long-lost son. It’s like a holy man embracing a lowly child. It’s like a busy healer stopping in a crowd to find the ill woman who touched him.
Love is freely given, expecting nothing in return. It’s like patiently healing crowds of the world’s poorest, no cost to user. It’s like forgiving the sins of society’s worst offenders, no blood sacrifice required.
Love is given whether we feel the recipient deserves it or not—neighbours, strangers, sinners, even enemies. It’s like someone welcoming the least among us: clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick. It’s like a despised enemy-of-us compassionately tending the wounds of one-of-us.
Love is giving one’s very self for the other, even when it hurts the giver. It’s like someone standing up to injustice on behalf of the over-burdened, shifting the target to their own back. It’s like a king giving himself to be crucified by an oppressive power in order to save his people from annihilation.
The goal of this love is mutual flourishing: giver and receiver, all people, experiencing abundant life together. It’s like a final banquet where the lost and found, the last and first, the least and greatest, all feast together with food enough for all who want to be there.
This is the love Jesus taught. This is the love Jesus lived, all the way to the cross. This is love: freely giving ourselves for others so that they might experience flourishing life together with us, even if we feel they don’t deserve it, even when it hurts us to do so.
Make no mistake: there’s nothing wishy-washy about this love. It’s damned hard (sorry, but it is). Seriously, think about the people you know. Think about the people you fear. Think about the people you despise. Think about the people you condemn. Then imagine loving them like that.
This love is in no way soft on sin—but it can turn our “sin lists” upside down. Yes, Jesus speaks God’s judgment on human sin. But it is the most religious who earn Jesus’ harshest criticism, especially religious people with power, because they wield their religion like a club instead of spreading it like a salve. Injustice of all kinds gets roundly condemned by Jesus, including injustice masquerading as justice. Jesus stands alongside the most vulnerable in society: the poor, children, foreigners in an ethnocentric world, women in a patriarchal world. Those who abuse their religion, or abuse their power, or otherwise cause harm to the vulnerable—these are the ones who get threatened by Jesus with divine judgment.
In a world of Jesus-love, then, sin and evil still exist—if anything they are even sharper, more pungent. In a world of Jesus-love, sin and evil are things to be actively, albeit non-violently, resisted, even if this demands your very life. In a world of Jesus-love, your own personal sins are for you to repent of, others’ personal sins are for you to forgive, and the world’s public sins are for you to resist.
This love is, in fact, what holiness is really all about. Jesus overturns common conceptions of “clean” and “unclean,” “pure” and “impure,” “holy” and “profane.” Compassion trumps purity, every time. Heal on a holy day? Touch an unclean leper? Share a meal with impure sinners? In all these ways and more, Jesus agrees with the more liberal of his fellow Jews—liberal with love, that is. Mercy is the new holiness.
And this love is the most practical, the most necessary thing in the world. “Eye for an eye” is still the norm in our world, whether in our private vendettas, our societal notions of justice, or our national defense strategies. In fact, “eye for an eye” might actually be better than what we often see, which is more about “pre-emptive strikes” and “total war”—both as nations and as individuals (think about that a moment). How long until the whole world is blind?
I’m reminded here of a quote by G. K. Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” That’s how I hear criticisms that love is simplistic or impractical. We prefer our sanctified greed and justified violence to the narrow path of loving in the way of Jesus. How long until we’re really willing to trust in Jesus alone for our salvation?
I’m with the Apostle John in this: “love one another” really is enough. Who’s with me?