Love binds and builds, heals and hallows, redeems and restores. A broken world can expect all this and more, say our Johannine scriptures, when God’s power courses mystically through human events. John 10 finds the shepherd Jesus foretelling self-sacrificial love for the sheep. In John 15, Jesus calls the faithful to be willing to lay down their lives for their friends.
1 John 4 focuses on the intimate nature of God’s love for us, which evokes our love for others, while the next chapter equates the love of God with keeping the divine commandments. On the stage of Acts 1, 4, 8, and 10, the fruit-bearing and inclusive nature of divinely inspired love is dramatized by the great cast that is the early church.
This month’s passages offer both a head-on command to love and a traveler’s guide to the nature of love itself. John makes up only 10 percent of the New Testament, yet it provides a full third of the references to love. “Love” appears in John more often as a verb than a noun. Feelings won’t suffice. Actions must prevail.
The Holy One leads us beside still waters and restores our souls, whether we are Gentiles, eunuchs, or the homeless of Detroit. This power of life originates from God in every moment, forming living, healthy relationships.
God chose to enter history and love us. We must choose to love others and head into a world that doesn’t like those who love unconditionally.
Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.
A Shepherding Love
Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
John frames the life, teachings, and—most of all—love of Jesus within the totality of God’s cre- ation. “The good shepherd” who knows “my own and my own know me” (John 10:14) recalls not only Psalm 23 but the earthy abundance it celebrates. This shepherd leads the anxious to stillness, restores their souls, and will ultimately prepare a table for them in the presence of enemies (Psalm 23:5).
The context for John’s gospel is the tense opposition to Jesus and his followers from synagogue leaders. Schism within the early church over Jesus’ humanity colors the first Johannine epistle. Neither can squelch the hands-on immediacy of Jesus’ love: The later healing by the disciples is “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (Acts 4:10).
Though 1 John 3 is born in the electric ethos of early church upheavals, its haunting question convicts the wealthy nations in 2006: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:17).
Providential help comes in those actions that imitate Jesus’ shepherding love. For example, one form of the world’s “goods” was shared with “a brother or sister in need” in New York City, according to a story last October in The New York Times. Younger art docents have been shepherding older Alzheimer patients among Picasso, Wyeth, and Matisse paintings at the Museum of Modern Art. The anxious confusion of one patient, Mr. Rosen, dissipates as he comments on Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror.” “It’s like he’s trying to tell a story using words that don’t exist,” Rosen says. A usually angry Mr. Ertola begins smiling and abandons the wheelchair he had requested. Ms. Brenton, who typically has difficulty finding the right words, announces that the woman in Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” is happy, even though her face is turned toward the house on the hill, because “you know she’s going to get to the house.” She adds, “I’d like to go into that house, too.”
Leading psychiatrists aren’t sure why this art is reawakening hearts and minds. Maybe it’s the good shepherd, leading the anxious to stillness and restoring their souls.
Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:25-31; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
In 1727, nuns of the Order of St. Ursula arrived in New Orleans by boat from France. They were forced to leave in 2005, again by boat, as the floodwaters rose. They blew out the convent’s perpetual candle and shut the door at the Ursuline Academy, where they have taught all races and classes longer than any other all-girls school in the United States.
Today, the Ursuline sisters are back. The girls, some 2- and 3-year-olds, are praying and learning French. “Our job now is to listen and help people get their lives back together,” says 83-year-old Sister Damian. After 279 years, they know the people and places around them deeply, affectionately, and intimately—in the way the Johannine texts suggest God loves us all.
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16). “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit...” (John 15:5). In this case, 279 years of fruit! Back and forth between John’s gospel and 1 John (John is “the beloved disciple”), we can trace lines of intimacy that form the Christ-like love we are to emulate.
This personal love always begins with a God who “loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). Mutual understanding and deep connection of this sort foster strong, abiding relationships. Expanding from the vine of Christ, these branches inevitably bear fruit both for themselves and for the world.
The Ursuline sisters returned to the intimacy of compassionate ministry when the land was again dry. It is by walking together into the water that Philip’s personal understanding of the life and faith of the Ethiopian eunuch leads the disciple to baptize him in Acts 8. Disciples and eunuchs, nuns and school girls—abiding in God, and God in them.
An Ethical Love
Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
How are we to consistently and persistently love one another and all of God’s children? By accepting that we are commanded to love, even as God first loved us. Love is only partially a feeling for the other. It also means tapping into the ever-flowing energy of God’s love. We are asked to choose to love, again and again, sustaining the principles, ethics, and morals that issue from that love.
In all four of this week’s readings, it is remarkable how little love is defined by a feeling and how greatly love is formed by commandments, epiphanies (“By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God...” in 1 John 5:2), and even a command. When the Holy Spirit falls upon everyone “who heard the word” (Acts 10), Peter orders others to baptize them into that loving relationship with God. Theologian Paul Tillich’s classic book Love, Power, and Justice put it this way: “Love is the drive toward the unity of the separated. Reunion presupposes separation of that which belongs essentially together.”
People are baptized in the early church not because they “feel ready,” but because it is the right thing to do—the ethical response. In Psalm 98, the people are “making a joyful noise to the Lord” with lyres and trumpets to celebrate those loving, right relationships. A psalm that begins in song climaxes with the Creator judging “the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity” (Psalm 98:9).
When Detroit shelters threw parties for the city’s homeless (about 13,000 people) during this year’s Super Bowl weekend, some gratefully received a novel level of food and hospitality. At the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries activity center, Ed Hansen said, “I feel like I’m at a four-star hotel with all this service.” All for Detroit’s image in the national media? Most agreed motives for throwing the parties were mixed. If this love is to be part of a deeper ethic, a choice emerges: When is the next big party for the homeless?
But Then the World...
Acts 1:15-17; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
In John’s gospel, the Prince of Peace leaves in an upward ascension and anticipates the faithful carrying forward the costly good news of love. As he departs, Jesus reports to God: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you...protect them...so that they may be one....” (John 17:11).
And then a cautionary note—to put it mildly: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world...” (John 17:14).
Acts of historic, Christ-like love often carry a lofty price tag. Archbishop Oscar Romero loved the Salvadoran people. Martin Luther King Jr. loved the poor and dispossessed of America. I confess to worrying these days about the vulnerability of Cindy Sheehan, who loves her son and others who have died in the Iraq war so much.
Ironically, the cost of unfaithfulness and being unloving can be great as well. Fleeing the presumed cost of discipleship, Judas will come to a tragic end. To replace him the apostles cast lots and come up with Matthias. One can imagine that Matthias found a deep happiness that day (Acts 1:26). The psalmist says those who “delight in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 1:2) are happy and God will watch over them, but those who are wicked are driven away like chaff by the wind, perishing.
It is one thing to live our lives sleepily in this world, yet quite another to adopt an incarnational faith that causes us to engage with history—specifically people who need our love—by heading into the world where we already live. In extending Jesus’ resurrection love into the world, we go with others and we go empowered: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18).