But What Is Love?

A Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Texts: 1 John 5:1-6; St. John 15:9-17

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who first loved us. Amen.

What is love?

We talk about it so much. Jesus said the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. He told us to love our enemies. On Maundy Thursday, he gave us a new commandment: to love one another, and he said the world will know we are his disciples by our love.

Last week, the First Epistle of John said that God is love.

So. What is love?

What does it mean to love our neighbors and one another, itself a difficult enough task?

Or to love God?

Or, perhaps most difficult of all, to love our enemies?

Does love mean the same thing for the authors of Scripture that it means for our culture today? Consider what we mean when we say we love someone or something – we might mean something along the lines of affection, as for family and friends. Or it might have a physical, romantic component, as with a spouse or partner. But we might also use it to mean we have a preference for a specific food or place.

Without much thought, I might easily say I love hiking, Suzanne, pulled pork, my friends, God, and the German city of Speyer.

Rest assured, I mean something completely different when I say I love my wife than when I say I love barbecue. And certainly, the love that God has for us is greater than my enjoyment for  walks through the woods.

This morning, our Gospel reading sheds light on what it means to truly love. Picking up shortly after the new commandment given on Maundy Thursday (the disciples are still gathered around the table at the last supper), Jesus says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

We might say, then, that love is – at least in part – a willingness to sacrifice of ourselves for the good of others; that is, to love someone as Christ loves is to lay down part of ourselves for the well-being of neighbor, friend, and yes, even enemy. To lay down our irritability, our resentments, our insistence on getting things our own way, to give of our material possessions for the sake of others.

In her essay “What is Love” for the magazine Earth & Altar, Episcopal priest Becky Zartman compares love to roses – not a dozen long-stem roses given as a gift, because they will eventually wither and end up in the trash. But rather a rosebush, “a living source of beauty and grace all summer long. The thing about rosebushes, though, is that they need to be radically pruned to produce a truly stunning abundant showing of beauty. And we humans must be pruned, too. Love acts as our gardening shears.”

As God’s love for us prunes away our arrogance, our pride, our greed, and all of that which does not bear good fruit – or should I say lovely rose buds – we will, by God’s grace, be better able to act out of love for our neighbor and for each other.

This past year, love has looked like an empty building, wearing a mask, staying at home. Love has looked like laying down some of our social life for the sake of our neighbors. It has looked like foregoing visits with family and friends to keep them safe. It has been difficult, to be sure.

We know that we can lay these things down because Christ first loved us – even to the point of laying down his life.

Did you catch that? It’s a reference back to two Sundays ago, Good Shepherd Sunday. Christ’s life isn’t taken from him but he lays it down willingly. And because he lays it down, he can take it back up. Through the Cross and the Resurrection, we see the sure and certain promise that whatever is pruned away and whatever we lay down is nothing in comparison to the glory promised to us in the new life we take up through Christ.


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