“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor. 13:13)
Over the past few months, I have reflected on what St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” This fruit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ. The reason that the New Testament writers focus on the virtues is so that Christians can live and work joyfully and productively in community.
The most difficult Christian virtue to write about is love. The word is used so often and in so many different contexts that its meaning is diffuse. Love in common parlance is used to refer both the object of our affection or desire and our relationship to it or someone else. We say, for example, that we love our spouse, our children, our parents, and our grandchildren while at the same time we say that we love chocolate ice cream.
Part of the confusion is caused by the fact the in the English language love is both a noun and a verb. Love then is both a virtue and an action. When we speak about love in the context of a church community we usually distinguish between God’s love for us and our love for one another. Our love for one another in Christian community is always modeled on God’s love for us but God’s love is both beyond our capacity to understand and to enact fully in our lives.
Talking about the love God has for each of us can be so clichéd. We have heard about it so often and in such vague terms that it becomes meaningless. Krister Stendahl, the former Dean of Harvard Divinity School and Bishop of Sweden who taught my seminary preaching class, gave his students the following advice: whenever you preach about God’s love, do so sparingly. If you talk about it too much it will go in and out of the ears of your hearers almost immediately. They won’t hear it at all. Remember, he said, when preaching that “a little love goes a long way.” That is why I saved writing about the virtue of love until last.
This post is the first of two in which I will begin to explore the meaning of love, particularly as we read about in the letters of St. Paul and other New Testament writers. The topic, of course, is enormous and a thousand books I fear would not be enough to exhaust it. This article will examine the love of God for us and the love of one another in the community of the church.
Throughout the Old Testament, and most often in the Psalms, we find this refrain: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good for his steadfast love endures forever.” The words “his steadfast love endures forever” occurs 42 times in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word the NRSV translates as “steadfast love” is hesed. It is often translated as “mercy” or perhaps even better as “loving-kindness.”
Mercy and loving-kindness are at the heart of God’s very being. This is also reflected in the New Testament book of 1 John where we find these words: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).
For Christians, the model of love is Jesus Christ himself. The love embodied in the person of Jesus Christ is not selfish but self-giving. Jesus is the good shepherd, the model shepherd, lays down his life for us. The writer of the Gospel of John observes that “God loved the world so much that God gave his only begotten Son” for us and for our salvation. (See Jn. 3:16). Or, as St. Paul puts it, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8 NRSV). God’s love, in other words, is made most evident to us in the gift of God’s Son, Jesus, for us and for our salvation.
Throughout the New Testament, the example of God’s love as modeled for us in Jesus Christ is made the cornerstone of our love for one another. The example of Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of how we should act towards one another in Christian community. The author 1 John says this quite directly:
Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:7–11)
Because God loved us so much, we ought to love one another. The model for how we are to love one another is shaped by the self-giving love of Jesus Christ. It is a cross-shaped love, a love willing to sacrifice the self on behalf of another. This love always looks first to the good of the other. St Paul captures that spirit when he advises Christians on how to live together in community with these words: “Let love be genuine; …love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor “(Rom. 12:9-10).
St. Paul writes this immediately after he says: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function…. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Rom 12:4, 6). In other words, St. Paul is saying that we all are not alike. We are different people with different abilities and gifts. Our abilities, our greatest strengths, are not the same nor should they be. If we truly love other persons we should not try to shape them into our own image but rather seek to love and honor them, as God by virtue of our baptism has called the other into community with us.
Imagine what Christian community would be like if we each strove to outdo one another in showing honor to one another. What if we made a point to honor everyone for who and what they are, without criticism, without rancor, without bitterness, but sought first their welfare and dignity over that of our own? How might it change our life at home, at work, at church, and in the wider world?
As St. Paul says, “Think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).
To be continued. In part 2, I will discuss the most familiar passage in the New Testament concerning love: the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.