God is love. On this point, the New Testament letters and the Gospel of John allow no argument. God is present when one experiences love and whenever one extends love to another. Every act of love, then, is an encounter with God.
It is easy to miss these divine encounters. Love seems like one of many emotions, and not a particularly powerful one at that. Although many have experienced the transformative and healing power of love, many have also experienced the way that love “comes and goes” when a relationship that started out strong comes to a sad conclusion. Likewise, love does not appear particularly compelling. Many have found love easy to give up in exchange for power, greed, lust or hate. Seeking God’s presence in something as ephemeral as love might not make intuitive sense.
‘I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.’
How have you experienced God’s love?
What practices help you remain aware of God’s love?
How has service to others helped you share God’s love?
This is, however, exactly what Jesus teaches his disciples to do. Jesus experienced a profound sense of God’s love, unencumbered by the confusion of sin. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus called this love “the Father.” This title provides insight into Jesus’ own thinking. Although the title “Father” exists for God in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is not particularly common. For Jesus to use it suggests that he finds something particular in it that describes well the divine presence he encounters within. The divine love that Jesus knows, far from being a weak and shifting feeling, is the fierce urgency of a dedicated parent.
In John’s Gospel, divine love has a mission. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). The Father’s love had a goal: that Jesus should teach others how to experience and share the same love. The resulting gift is a life like God’s own.
Divine love is God’s presence in a world of confusion. John often plays with the language of truth and ignorance, light and shadow, day and night. With these symbols he illustrates a duality that exists in the world between those who know God’s presence and those who do not. This is a literary motif found elsewhere in the Judaism of Jesus’ day (e.g., Wis3:9-11), but John brings out the essential character of God’s presence: “I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them” (Jn 17:26).
Divine love requires humility and service. Love can indeed fade, and human awareness of divine love can dim over time. When Jesus, fully aware of what he was doing, washed the feet of the men who were about to abandon him, he taught his disciples how to strengthen their awareness of divine love. To take an example from Matthew’s Gospel, divine perfection is symbolized by God sending his rain on the just and the unjust (Mt 5:45). Jesus understood this to guide his own behavior, and he expected his disciples to do the same. Living as God lives increases one’s awareness of divine activity in the world. The service that Jesus offered to the disciples had a contemplative aspect. It could reveal God’s presence better than any other formal instruction or ritual practice could provide them.
Finally, as Jesus expresses in the prayer we read this Sunday, divine love is unifying. It is “vertically unifying.” A disciple who starts to love in a way that resembles God’s manner of loving receives a share of God’s glory. Likewise, it is horizontally unifying. Disciples who care for each other the way Jesus cared for them will find in that love a bond that no destructive power can break.
All we have is love. It is the only power that God gives his disciples to save humanity. Arrayed against the forces of greed, war, alienation and poverty, it may not seem to be enough. Christ’s disciples today must always remember that the smallest act of love contains within it the full power of God. Our own response to divine love, halting and compromised as it may be at times, lets love come to perfection in each of us and in the church. Like Jesus, we become vessels of the divine presence, and through us, the world can encounter the divine love that will turn back every threat of death.