The command to love is found in the report of the Last Supper discourse. This exhortation is considered the heart of Jesus’ teaching, certainly in John’s Gospel. Love for others is here grounded in God’s love for Jesus and Jesus’ resulting love for us. It is a profound message, one that we have heard again and again. It may be so familiar that we slip over its obvious meaning without considering some of its most challenging implications.
It is probably difficult for many of us to grasp the meaning of God’s love for Jesus. The Gospels do not always help us in this matter either. Though Jesus consistently spoke of his intimate relationship with his Father, this relationship did not protect him from the misunderstanding of others, their hatred of him, and his ultimate suffering and death. This does not mean that God did not love Jesus, but that the circumstances of Jesus’ life may not help us understand God’s love.
It is the love that Jesus showed to others that offers us a glimpse of God’s love. Jesus’ love embraced all the people he met, those who accepted him and those who did not. Because of his intimate union with God, it was divine love that Jesus offered to others, to those who were easy to love and those who were not. His entire life revealed God’s universal, unselfish, merciful love.
Jesus’ self-emptying love points back to the self-emptying love of God and forward to the kind of self-emptying love expected of us. We are to love one another in the way he loved us. It may seem strange to be commanded to love, for as the lyrics of one song so rightly put it, “I can’t make you love me if you don’t.” Perhaps it is the radical nature of this love that requires a commandment.
Self-emptying love does not always come easily, as today’s reading from Acts demonstrates. Initially Peter hesitated to move into the world of Cornelius, the Roman centurion. After all, Rome was the occupying force at the time, and Roman soldiers had mocked and beaten Jesus and ultimately driven the nails into his body. Who could blame Peter for withholding love? But the story shows how the Spirit of God did not respect the religious, ethnic or political divisions that held sway at the time. Even the Gentiles received the Spirit.
In our lives there are genuine religious, ethnic and political differences that separate and even alienate us from others. Today’s readings clearly insist that we love these others as Jesus has loved us. This is the radical challenge facing us today. We cannot merely rest secure in our belief that “God is love.” Easter calls us to live out this conviction in a world that is so burdened with conflict and strife.