Rethinking Love

Good fences, Houston Heights, Texas
Good fences, Houston Heights, Texas. Image by Patrick Feller via Flickr; licensed under CC BY 2.0.

This week’s texts are all about love.

But preaching about love can be extremely challenging in an American context. For starters, the English language is overflowing with different understandings of the term. The following examples only scratch the surface of love’s wide-ranging semantic domain:

“Love. It’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru.”

“My dog loves those treats.”

“For the love of God!”

“We loved that new Netflix series.”

“All you need is love.”

“Make love not war.”

“Fall in love…”

“I love that new shirt on you.”

“Do you love me?”

I could go on. But if this short list makes anything clear it is that the English language just can’t get enough of love. In English, the word love embraces a wide range of feelings and dispositions. To highlight only the extremes, love can be used on the one hand to describe something as trivial as a French fry and on the other hand something as profound as a parent’s care and concern for a child.

The lectionary texts this week give us an opportunity to reflect theologically and biblically on the topic of love and to consider afresh how the world-shaping, life-transforming power of love might take root in our communities. Not surprisingly the Bible’s ancient understandings of love are in significant tension with many modern concepts of the word. Given our world’s profound need for love at this very moment, these texts may also encourage us to pray for the kind of love that God alone can provide.

For John 15:9-17, love is both a gift and a command: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” The love that Jesus displays for the world is a love whose origin is in God, the heavenly Father. It’s a heavenly love but not a love that remains in heaven. It insists on dwelling among us (John 1:14).

The Father’s love overflows through Jesus, and Jesus’ love overflows through us: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (verse 12). In North America, “love” is often associated with things that are soft, safe, and warm. The kind of love Jesus commands is dangerous, fierce, and costly: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (verse 13). Love in John 15 is not chiefly exemplified by abstractions or feelings. Its clearest expression is in the death of one for another.

Love is also something that we can “abide” in (verse 10). This is done through obedience to Jesus’ commandments. Again, Jesus’ obedient relationship to the Father is definitional for Christians’ relationship to Jesus. They are to respond to Jesus in the same way that Jesus responds to the Father: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (verse 10).

In so many ways, John 15’s interpretation of love is disturbing. It involves death, obedience, and sacrifice. It may seem remarkable then that Jesus’ says these things in full expectation that his words will engender joy: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (verse 11). Abiding in Jesus’ love means abiding in joy.

1 John 5:1-5 places its discourse on love in the context of a discussion about faith in Jesus. Faith in Jesus makes one a child of God (verse 1), and anyone born of God “conquers the world” (verse 4).  Conquering the world, for 1 John 5, is not about military might or colonial conquest but rather about obedience: “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (verse 3).

Turning to the Old Testament, Psalm 98 offers a very different angle on love by focusing specifically on God’s love for Israel. This triumphal psalm celebrates the “marvelous things” that Yhwh has done, chief among which is victory in battle (verses 1-2). Yhwh’s act of valor are expressions of chesed (often translated, “steadfast love”) for the House of Israel (verse 3). These mighty deeds are observed and celebrated by all of creation (verses 4-8).

Without doubt, Psalm 98 has in mind the Exodus—Yhwh’s prototypical act of deliverance. Divine love in Psalm 98 refers to concrete acts of liberation, protection, and judgment. God goes to battle on Israel’s behalf because of God’s love for the people. It might seem strange to modern ears, but for ancient Israel, God’s love and God’s judgment are deeply intertwined. To put it more pointedly, divine judgment is divine love.

The lectionary texts this week do not provide a uniform understanding of love. In fact, they underscore that there is no single “biblical” definition of love.

But they do invite us to reconsider how divine love is operative in our communities.

  • What does it look like to receive love as both a gift and a command?
  • What are the implications of Jesus’ claim that love is seen supremely in self-sacrifice?
  • And how do our modern understandings of love support, distort, or deepen the Christian call to love as Jesus loves?