Gospel reflection for May 9, 2021, Sixth Sunday of Easter

Love is an unusual word. In the English language we use it to describe a multitude of relationships and preferences. Oddly, we use the same word to explain our relationship with our closest intimates as we do for our favorite food, hobby or sports team. While we can be passionate about any of the above, love as it is understood philosophically, and certainly theologically, would exclude most of what we are inclined to include when we speak of them. One cannot actually love that which is inanimate.

Jesus calls us to remain, or more precisely, to abide in his love. This expression, love – the specific Greek word used here is agape – is a sacrificial, self-giving, and an unconditional love. Often the Greek philosophers used agape to signify participation in love that comes first from their gods. Clearly in the New Testament this is translated as finding its origin in God himself and realized through the Incarnation of the Son, Jesus Christ.

We know that Jesus has already instructed his disciples, through the conversation with Nicodemus much earlier in his ministry, that God loves the world. In fact, “God so loves the world that he gave his only Son” to be the redeemer of the world, and through the Son to reconcile all with the Father.

The context for the Gospel passage that we hear this weekend is the Last Supper in John’s account. Here, Jesus gives his final instructions to the disciples before his arrest later that evening. Jesus is about to demonstrate through his own Passion and Death the very love of God for us that he has spoken of at other times during his ministry, and that he is most clearly speaking about here.

We share in this love of God for us as we follow the commandments and exercise our love for one another. Whenever John presents the commandments of Jesus to his disciples he does so always through the lens of love itself. In fact, there is really no other commandment from Jesus mentioned in this Gospel. St. Paul similarly summarizes all of the moral teaching of Jesus, and the fundamental demands of discipleship, in much the same way: love one another.

This, then, takes the teaching of Jesus to its most basic level, and as has been observed by critics from both within and outside of the Church, where we as disciples have continually failed to live the command of the Gospel.

While following specific rules, though challenging, can be accomplished by many, it is not easy to live this command of Jesus. Jesus knew, as do we all, that it is hard to separate our desire to love from our desire to be loved. While desiring to be loved is itself not sinful, one runs the risk of seeking to be loved in ways that are merely self-gratifying or selfish. While there is some give and take in the experience and expression of love, for the disciple of Jesus that is not itself the purpose of being loving.

The person who loves with all generosity and selflessness, and yet who experiences no reciprocity in that love, can wear out and perhaps made to feel like a failure. We open ourselves up to being taken advantage of, and being used, and not all appreciated. Yet, Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek and to love as he does. His love is expressed on the Cross and so must the disciples show love for one another.

While this sense of love of the other was a hallmark of the early Christian communities, one that is noted by various non-Christian writers of the first centuries, the demands of love move beyond the walls of the familiar. It is one thing to love those with whom one has a relationship. It is something else entirely to love the stranger, and even more so to love one’s adversary.

Yet this is where discipleship and the call of Jesus takes us. We love because the Lord calls us to love, not because there is anything else in it for us, other than the fulfillment of an obligation and the desire to see the eternal and temporal goodness of another.

It is through the exercise of genuine agape, and through our connectiveness to the vine that is the Church, that the good that we do can bear genuine fruit, fruit that truly lasts.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.