I John 4:7-12
“No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
Jesus reminds his hearers that all the law and the prophets are summed up in the commandment to love God with heart, and soul and mind, and to love others as ourselves. The first letter of St. John also speaks about the commandment to love God and others. But, we might ask, can love be commanded, is love a law we must obey? Do children love their parents because they have been commanded to do so? Would a wise king issue a decree telling his subjects to love him and therefore expect to be loved in return? So why does the Bible command us to love God and our neighbour? Is true love ever a response to a command which, if obeyed, brings rewards, otherwise results in punishment? Is God’s love for us dependent on our obedience; or parents’ love dependent on their children’s obedience?
Earlier this year I gave some Lenten meditations on the Christian mystics. One was Meister Eckhart who tells us that we should love God “without whys and wherefores.” That is, we should love God and neighbour without calculating beforehand what is in it for us if we do or don’t. This understanding of what it means to love God and neighbour runs counter to much religion which is about satisfying our needs, earning rewards, solving problems, finding a parking place, or becoming prosperous. In the same way, some give to charity only to reduce their income tax returns! Such love is a calculating stratagem in which we first determine whether it will be to our advantage to love or not.
But true love is spontaneous like the blossoming of a rose, the beating of the heart, the embracing of a weeping child, the binding up of a victim’s wounds, the caring for a spouse with dementia, giving a ride to a mother and child standing in the rain on the roadside. That is why we speak about “falling in love”, for there is no other explanation. An orchid does not blossom to win the prize for the best orchid, but because it can not to otherwise. So, love is a miracle which can only be described in poetry, something beyond our reckoning, capacity and understanding. We love God and neighbour not because by doing so we gain brownie points, but simply because the wonder of creation and the beauty of redemption evokes love. In his well-known hymn St. Francis Xavier put it well: we do not love God to gain heaven or escape hell, or in the hope of some reward, but because God loves us.
We know that all our images of God, however helpful, are inevitably inadequate and sometimes idolatrous. God cannot be manipulated by our prayers or declarations of love. God is not a patriarchal father who needs to be loved to love. No, “God is love,” writes St. John. And because God is love, it is always God’s nature to love even if sometimes God’s love is “tough love”. It is not a love that is blind to our sins, but a love that expresses itself in acts of mercy and restorative justice. When the NT speaks of God as love it refers to love as self-giving, creative and redemptive, embracing, healing and renewing. These words lead us into the mystery of the love revealed in the life and death of Jesus Christ, a love that is unfathomable, unconditional and life-giving. “God’s love,” write St. John. ” was revealed among us in this way; God sent his only Son into the world that we might live through him.”
Love cannot be commanded, it is a gift we receive by sharing. Yet, at the same time, in sharing God’s love by loving our neighbour we do what is right and good, we fulfil the commandments, and God’s love is perfected in us. As St. John writes: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” What a remarkable saying. one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
God’s love is made perfect in our love for one another, the neighbour, the downtrodden. Such is the down-to-earth practice of love which St. Paul describes in his majestic love poem,
“love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (I Cor.13).
Yes, there are no whys and wherefores in true love, it is beyond reason, beyond dogma, beyond calculation, beyond religion, beyond commandments, even beyond words — it is something that takes root deep within us so that it eventually becomes who we are, blossoming like a rose, God’s love perfected in us. In a poem entitled “At the end of the day”, based on the writings of Julian of Norwich, Isobel wrote these words;
At the end of the end
,All I can do is trust and believe…
That the meaning of all is love.
That God loved us before he made us.
And his love has never diminished.
We began when we were made,
but the love in us and in God for us
has been since time began.
Love makes up our shortfall,
Love is what it all means,
Love is all that matters,
Love will triumph in the end.
John de Gruchy
30 November 2017