V Easter, Year C
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water
When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
As we have journeyed through the Gospels we have become aware that there are two different worlds, that created by humanity (the ‘kosmos’) and that created by God in Christ (the ‘kaine ktisis’). The world we have created, that is, human culture in all of its aspects is grounded in violence. The world of God has its origins and end in love.
Christianity has long proclaimed the love of God and rightly so. But if we look at typical theological paradigms, it is apparent that God’s love is limited or restricted to those whom he has either chosen or called or to those who have ‘accepted Christ.’ In other words, typical theological models begin with a premise that God’s love is neither universal nor whole. We have demonstrated (ad nauseum we fear) that modern Christianity in far too many of its forms has not followed the lines laid down in the New Testament regarding God’s love but has conformed its perceptions of the being and character of God to that of the mimetic religions.
Love is misunderstood today. It is qualified. Biblical love or God’s love is quite different. In the 1960’s we experienced a social revolution partially grounded in a new examination and appropriation of love. It was called ‘free love.’ Unfortunately, it was neither free nor was it love. The love we spoke of in the 1960’s drew part of it’s impetus from the gospels and the rediscovery of Jesus (the Jesus Movement), but it quickly degenerated into ‘eros’ where free love became free sex. Many today long wistfully for those days when we felt free to love anyone indiscriminately. We do so because indeed, indiscriminate love is the way God loves, God is ‘no respecter of persons.’ We fail because we have equated love (agape) with feeling (eros) or mutuality (philos). Agape transforms both eros and philos.
Today’s text brings to the fore the reality of agape. But is also exposes the character of mimetic violence which is ‘false love.’ What do we mean? In conversation with Girard, Jean Michel Oughourlian in Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World has said, "Love is the true demystifying power because it gives the victims back their humanity.” Victimage as we have seen mythologizes or demonizes the victim, blames the victims for societal conflict. Jesus was also demonized by his cultural opponents; he was accused of acting under the power of the devil, he was accused of being possessed by the devil.
Girard points out “As Anders Nygren clearly saw, there is a radical opposition between love in the Christian sense and the Greek concept of Eros – even if the term agape is not always used to express the Christian concept in the New Testament. But love is certainly not a renunciation of any form of rationality or an abandonment to the forces of ignorance. Love is at one and the same time the divine being and basis of any real knowledge. The New Testament contains what amounts to a genuine epistemology of love, the principle of which is clearly formulated in the first Epistle of John: ‘ He who loves his brother abides in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling. But he who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.’
Love is the only true revelatory power because it escapes from, and strictly limits, the spirit of revenge and recrimination that still characterizes the revelation in our own world, a world in which we can turn that spirit into a weapon against our own doubles, as Nietzsche also showed. Only Christ’s perfect love can achieve without violence the perfect revelation toward which we have been progressing – in spite of everything – by way of the dissensions and divisions that were predicted in the Gospels.” (Things Hidden)
Love fundamentally reconciles, that is it’s character. But so does violence. God’s love and violence have the same goal: reconciliation and the unity of relationships. But they are of an entirely different character and essence. Love is actively forgiving, it is non-retaliatory. Girard says, “This non-violence, which seems so inconsequential when attributed to a God who transcends human affairs, changes its character radically if we transpose it to this world – if mankind takes it as a model for interpersonal conduct. If the Father is as the Son describes him, the Word of the Son is indeed the Word of the Father. It is not a gratuitous representation; it describes the very being of the Father. It invites us to become like the Father, by behaving as he behaves. The Word of the Father, which is identical with the Father, consists in telling mankind what the Father is, so that people may be able to imitate him: ‘Love your enemies, pray for your persecutors; so you shall be children of your Father.”
If we are honest, we will admit that there is very little of the Father’s love being shown in Christianity today, for the Father’s love is enemy love. This can be seen clearly in the parable of the Good Samaritan, whose love knows no ethnic or religious boundaries but is extended even to the enemy. There is a lot of talk these days about ‘aiding and abetting the enemy’ but this is precisely what the Samaritan does. The Samaritan would no doubt have been considered a traitor, one who committed treason by virtue of his care for the enemy victim. But such is Gospel love. Do we not proclaim this with regard to ourselves when we say that ‘while we were yet sinners, when we had considered God our enemy, God demonstrated his love for us by sending Jesus to experience death at our hands?’ And furthermore, that God forgives us when we demonize and butcher his only Son?
Our text today, if heard aright, does encourage us to have mushy feelings for one another, although that may be a result of our loving action. It commands us to extend to one another the kind of love that the Father extended to us in Jesus. There are no ifs, ands or buts. There are no conditions or qualifiers. This command is ‘new’ because it is not qualified or discriminate. It is ‘new’ because it has no limits or boundaries. Anything short of this is not ‘Agape’ but a subtle form of Eros.
(Regrettably we do not have access to Ceslaus Spicq’s Agape In the New Testament Vol 3 where he deals with agape in the Johannine Literature but if you can find it, it will contain valuable information.)
With reference to the Good Samaritan Joachim Jeremias says, “Jesus means to say that the selfless help which the crossbreed shows the helpless demonstrates that the commandment to love knows no limits.” Furthermore, “the breadth of the commandment to love is without parallel in the history of the time, and to this extent the Fourth Gospel is quite correct in making Jesus describe the commandment to love as a new commandment (John 13:34). Whereas Jewish morality made a man’s personal enemy an exception to the commandment to love (‘You shall show love to your compatriot [Lev 19:18], but you are not obliged to do this to your adversary [Matt 5:43]) and indeed prohibited the giving of bread to sinners (citing Tobit 4:17 and b. Sanh. 92a), Jesus requires his disciples to love even those who do them wrong and persecute them.” Theology of the New Testament
Raymond Brown (Commentary) connects the ‘newness’ of the commandment with the covenental character of the last meal. “The very idea that love is a commandment is interesting. In the OT the Ten Commandments have a setting in the covenant between God and Israel at Sinai; traditionally they were the stipulations that Israel had to observe if it was to be God’s chosen people. In speaking of love as the new commandment for those whom Jesus had chosen as his own (13.1, 15.16) and as mark by which they could be distinguished from others (vs 35), the evangelist shows implicitly that he is thinking of this Last Supper scene in covenant terms.” And “Love is more than a commandment, it is a gift and like the other gifts of the Christian dispensation it comes from the father through Jesus to those who believe in him…The love that Jesus has for his followers is not only affective but also effective; it brings about their salvation…The mark that distinguishes God’s Love expressed in the covenant from even the noblest forms of human love is that it is spontaneous and unmotivated, directed to men who are sinners and unworthy of love – a theme beautifully expounded in Anders Nygren’s classic Agape and Eros…Thus as long as Christian love is in the world, the world is still encountering Jesus; and so we can see that the commandment to love in vvs 34-35 is a response to the problem raised by Jesus’ physical departure in vs 33.”
Peter F Ellis (The Genius of John) also sees a covenantal connection: “The new commandment is not only new in content – it is love unto death, whereas the old love command of Lev 19:18 apparently never demanded so extreme a love – but new as the commandment of the new covenant foretold by Jeremiah (Jer 31:31ff).
Schnackenburg (Commentary) avers that the Love Commandment “cannot be explained simply as an antithesis to the Old Testament commandment to love one’s neighbor (Lev 19:18) and the interpretation of that commandment in Judaism. There is no support for this. On the contrary it comes from the understanding that the Johannine school had of Jesus’ person and work. For the members of that school, the commandment to love one another was new in that it was given a distinctive emphasis by Jesus, his service of others (cf. his washing of the disciples feet) and his giving himself in death (Jn 15:13, I John 3:16).” On the other hand he says, “The love that has been given to us in anticipation by God opens up for us a new living space in which we can and should love our brothers (sic) in an entirely new way…In the light of these texts taken from I John, this ‘new commandment’ is not presented simply as a moral demand. It is rather expressed above all as a new possibility which calls imperiously and insistently for realization.”
In his book The Power of Intention, Wayne Dyer speaks of intentionality as the key to living a renewed lifestyle. His comments dovetail quite nicely with what we have been discussing about Agape. Love is the ‘single most powerful energy.’ He observes that intention is loving, we would say that Love is intentional. Unlike the ‘randomness’ of scapegoating, Love is directed purposefully toward the other.
What is Love? It is described as intention in I Corinthians 13, where ‘Jesus’ could just as easily be substituted for ‘agape.’ It is directed action, concrete action in our relationships.
Does the world not recognize us as Jesus’ followers precisely because we do not love as Jesus loved, as God loved? Have we so confused Agape with Eros that the world rightfully criticizes the Church as an irrelevant institution? What is ‘new’ about the way Christians relate to one another and their enemies? Or have we succumbed to the belief that we can chose those whom we will love and how much we will love them? Is our love the qualified Eros of the victimage religion or the unqualified love of the Gospel? Who are we today?