Love is hard. So very hard.
If you don’t think so, just look at what the Revised Common Lectionary does for this Sunday. Rather than tell the truth about love, love is lifted out of its reality. Love is theoreticized. Commercialized. Hypotheticized. I am not tying to bash the lectionary, but come on. And, at the end of the day, I think we are better off with the truth than living in a world that pretends love is easy.
It isn’t. And it never has been. And it never will be.
Because before what we call the “Love Commandment” is the betrayal of Judas. Immediately after is the prediction of Peter’s denial. Sometimes I wonder what Jesus thought when he uttered these words, this command, after “it was night” and before “the cock will crow.” And yet, Jesus washes the feet of both. Jesus feeds both. And then tells us to do the same. Love is never easy.
I am writing this on Mother’s Day, returning home after spending the weekend with my oldest son, his first year at college. A Mother’s Day present to myself, perhaps, but also, just to check in on him. Things are changing. He’s making his way in the world. Our relationship is changing.
I remember that first year of college. Going so far away. Leaving behind friends. Leaving behind family. Leaving behind what you have always known. Writing this, saying this, of course, does not make it any easier. But maybe, it reminds us, reassures us, that we are not crazy. That we are not making stuff up. That there is a solidarity in the kind of love Jesus describes, Jesus lived, Jesus loved. Because what do you need in those times? To know that you are loved. Deeply.
Jesus, as the Word made flesh, knew how difficult love can be. From his mother insisting on him moving into ministry, to the death of his dear friend, Lazarus, to Judas’ abandonment, to Peter’s denial of what Jesus knew he could be. Oh yes, Jesus knows. If we isolate John 13:31-35, as the lectionary has done, from real life, then we turn Christianity into love without truth. Into love without the incarnation.
It’s an important moment this far out from Easter. Love is never without sacrifice. Love is never without hearts hurting. Real love knows what’s on the other side of its most fulfilling, most wonderful moments.
I think I like that about love, as hard as it is. Even though today, my heart breaks. Not because I am overly sad. Not because I can’t go on. But because true love is real love. Felt love. True love imagines the future. True love knows change. True love expects and accepts that nothing can stay the same.
It is no accident that this injunction from Jesus occurs in the Farewell Discourse. Things are about to change — and big time. Jesus will hand himself over to be arrested. Jesus will be put on trial and crucified. Jesus will leave his disciples, and while his leaving is to prepare an abiding place for them with God and with himself (John 14:2) nonetheless, he is leaving — and transitions are excruciating. So, we hang on to love, don’t we?
The “love commandment” is said in the midst of betrayal and denial, in the midst of departure and desperation, in the midst of fear and unease. And so, this is the nature of Christian love. It is a love aware of consequences. It is a love aware of challenges. But most of all, it is a love that loves anyway. A love that knows what it is getting itself into, and yet loves abundantly.
Otherwise, our love merely skims the surface of Gospel love, of God’s love. It will be satisfied with the love of the world, a love that demands and decrees, a love that stipulates and insists on certain standards, a love that has convinced itself of a self-maintaining love, a self-preserving love, a self-love. A love unwilling to take risks. A scared love. A safe love.
“Love one another as I have loved you, so also you should love one another.”
We tend to leave off the last clause, making it easier. But Jesus does not let us off the hook. The demand to have love for one another surrounds Jesus’ love for us. Or Jesus’ love for us makes it possible to imagine loving one another on either side of Jesus’ love.
Regardless, the emphasis here is on loving one another. Yes, truly, Jesus loves us. God loves the world. But as soon as we assume that this love is one-directional, Jesus corrects us. His love means love for him and love for the other. This love is not just between you and Jesus. This love is for the sake of the world.