This Sunday’s readings, obviously, were about love. Our Epistle, from 1 John, said, “Let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.” Our Gospel, the passage from John 15 right after last week’s reading, the vine and the branches, has Jesus saying, “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. . . . Remain in his love. . . . This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.” Lovely.
But what kind of love?
Of course you know the Greek here is agape. It’s not the standard Greek word for love; it’s distinct from eros, desire, and philia, friendship. Sometimes it gets translated “Christian love,” because it is a word almost made up for Christians. But what kind of love? Benedict XVI spent his whole first encyclical trying to tell us.
Sometimes we misunderstand (BXVI points out) and call it “service love.” It sounds like there are two totally different things, mistakenly covered up by a common word. When normal people say love—from “I love pizza” to “I love him” and even “I love you”—they mean something about liking the person, desiring to be around them, finding them pleasant. But Christians, we might be tempted to think, are above all that. We aren’t sullied with mere desire. Our love is without desire, purely self-giving. Right?
Well, there’s something true in that framework—an important pushback against the million silly homilies we’ve heard that begin, “Our Bible readings today talk about love,” then never return to the Bible, and give us a lot of sentimental mush. It’s important for us to say, “no, they’re not about ‘love,’ they’re about agape”; to pretend that Jesus just tells us to go on being perfectly normal is to throw away the Gospel—so perfectly symbolized by the utter lack of interest in what Jesus actually says about this ‘love.’
But it would be wrong to throw out actually liking people. My insane semester is almost over; for now I could only do a short Old Testament Scripture study. Agape is a word in the old (Jewish) Greek translation of the Old Testament, maybe made up for that context. (Much of the time, at least) it translates the Hebrew word achab, which is a word for affection. It describes how Abraham feels about Isaac, and also Sarah, and how Jacob loved Rachel, and how God loves his people. This is not about extinguishing affection.
In the great wisdom of the ancient Latin translation of the Bible, there’s a (I think) made-up word, caritas. Carus means “dear,” or “precious” (there are cognates in Spanish, French has things like cher), so caritas, the Latin translation of agape, the special word for Christian love, means literally, “dearness.” This isn’t about extinguishing affection—it is about having much more affection.
“As the Father loves (agape’s) me, so I also love you. Remain in my love.” “Remain” (or “abide,” or “dwell”) is one of John’s favorite words. When he says “in my Father’s house, there are many rooms,” it’s really “places to dwell,” because we are supposed to dwell in this love, to feel the depth of our dearness to God, and to hold that dearness dear.
“You are my friends if you do what I command you. . . . I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” Agape doesn’t extinguish desire or friendship, it takes them deeper. It means seeing as God sees—and so seeing the dearness of things, and especially people, as our Creator and Redeemer sees them.
We are called to “lay down our life,” yes—for our friends. It’s not because, like Stoics, we set affection aside. It’s because we burn with such love that we are willing to die on the cross: he held them so dear, he loved them till the end.
That’s why we have to be “begotten by God”: until he pours his love into our hearts (by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us, Rom 5:5), we just don’t hold things as dear as he does.
Our reading from Acts is not obviously connected. Peter is finding “that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”
The bigger story is, God spelled out a thousand details of right conduct for the Jews, tailored to all the details of their historic time and place. In Christ, he transcends the particularity of that nation. But he transcends it by giving us the deeper law, the law of agape. It’s like moving from being told, “at 7:15 each morning, you should offer to make your wife breakfast”—to holding her so dear that we don’t need to be told all the details, we attend to those and even more, not because we are told to, but because we love.
Dearness takes us beyond the law, because dearness is the point of the law.
Whom in your life should you hold more dear? How can you practice dwelling in God’s love for that person?