“This I command you, to love one another.” (John 15:17)
It is said that when the Apostle John was living in Ephesus in his old age he would often address the church there with the same simple exhortation, “My little children, love one another.” The elders of the community, tired of hearing the same repeated message, would press John to share with the church some great insight about Jesus or being a disciple. John would double-down by telling them that these simple words were the commands of Jesus, and if they had nothing else of the Gospel to truly live these words would be enough.
Love is hard, at least the kind of love that Jesus spoke of, modeled and expected of his disciples. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:12-13) This is the love that God is calling each of us to, and it is the only kind of love that can truly change the world. This is the love that each person who calls himself “Christian” is called to live by, and it is not easy.
Consider St. Paul’s reflection on this kind of love: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor. 13:4-6) This is nothing less than the job description for being a Christian. Unfortunately, it is not how many Christians consistently live—including me. We are too often consumed with being right than being patient, kind, and humble. Perhaps we allow fear to keep us from fully loving. The two cannot co-exist for “perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)
I think this is why Pope Francis is so easily misunderstood, because he is calling the Church to the way of love, and that way is messy. This is not to say that love is not concerned with truth, or that love is a blank check for sin or error. But love is patient. It is patient with the sinner. It is patient with the error. Love does not insist; it invites. I heard someone say that Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had as the hallmarks of their papacies the virtues of hope and faith respectively. They provided the emphasis and leadership the Church needed in navigating the turbulent post-conciliar waters. They gave the Church a Catechism and a reformed liturgical life to enrich our hearts and minds. They cared for the flock of the Church. (Note: I’m not saying JPII or Benedict weren’t loving, or didn’t care about love, etc. I am saying that their papacies had certain thematic elements in their preaching & writing that emphasized hope & faith.)
Pope Francis as caused a stir, not because he has changed the message, but because he has changed the audience and the emphasis. The 99 have been cared for and feed and built up for the last 40 years, now it is time for the shepherds to go looking for the lost sheep. Francis is calling the Church, firmly rooted in knowledge of what we believe, to go out and to love the world. Love is the most powerful weapon the Church has against her enemies. Love is the most faithful way of imitating Christ. It is the very reason he came.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” (John 3:16)
“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
This is when love is tested most. We live in a world that does not love, that does not know the meaning of love. Our world has twisted true, sacrificial love “that does not insist on its own way” into mere sentiment driven by seeking whatever brings the most self-pleasure. We are told that we are living in the midst of a culture war and that good Christians must stand and fight the good fight. We want to take up arms in the battle for morality and decency, but Jesus calls us to lay down our lives and surrender in love. Only by freely, unconditionally loving one another, even our “enemies”, can we ever hope to spread the joy of the Gospel. In the words of St. Paul, “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)
The glorious truth of Christmas is that God chose to love us and give himself to us when we were his “enemies”. The Incarnation demonstrated the absolute and perfect love of God for us, and challenges us to love others in the same way. Too often, and from good intentions, we put too much emphasis on fighting sins and not enough on simply loving people where they are. Disciples aren’t made by first ridding their lives of their sins and bad habits, but rather by first encountering the love of God in Christ Jesus. That encounter with love is what inspires them to turn from their sins. Listen to the words of Pope Francis:
“On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” This first proclamation is called “first” not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment.” (Evangelium Gaudium #164, emphasis added)
No one wants to reform his life for a stranger. No one will change her ways for someone she doesn’t know. But for love, many men and women will do great things for their beloved. Think of Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman. What if he had begun his conversation with a discourse on the sanctity of marriage? Would that woman have really heard Christ and had her life changed? By reaching out to her in love Jesus opened the door to her heart first by showing that he cared for her.
Yes, God hates sin. We should hate sin. However, the sin we are called to hate is primarily the sin in our lives. It’s interesting that “hate” can be found 36 times in the New Testament (most in reference to Christ/Christians being hated, or commands not to hate others) while “love” appears 261 times. All too often Christians are so busy hating the sin that we often forget to first love the sinner.
What would it look like if we decided to look less at the sin in others and pour out all of our energy in simply loving others, especially those who could be considered our enemies? What if we stopped caring about being right and just cared for people, especially those least like us? Converts to the early Church were won over by the love of Christians, not merely by theological debate. Christianity conquered a culture of violence, sex, hedonism, and pantheism by the witness of love. They followed the admonition of Jesus to love one another and to be known to all by that love. That is our calling. That is our challenge. That is the only way to win the world for Jesus.