Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.
Acts 14: 21-27
Ps 145: 8-9, 10-11, 12-13
Rev 21: 1-5
John 13: 31-33, 34-35
“I give you a new commandment: love one another.”
These words are certainly among the most famous the Lord ever spoke; but just as certainly they present us with a problem: How can Jesus command us to love? Doesn’t love just happen? It wells up from some secret place, quick and fresh, and floods our hearts and swamps our minds, sweeping reason and resolve before its fierce winds? How can such a force of nature be commanded? Yes, Christ could walk upon waves and quiet winds; but can he decree that we must do likewise?
Jesus can command us to do things, of course. He tells us to visit the sick, care for the poor, and welcome the lost. And he can command us not to do things. He orders us to turn away from adultery, to give up seeking revenge, to meet anger with peace. He can order us to take up our crosses and lay down our lives.
But those are all actions. You can compel people to pay their taxes and force children to go to school, but you can’t make them love doing either. You love something or you don’t. Isn’t commanding people to love like commanding them to be angry or happy?
Of course, sometimes parents sound as if they are trying to do just that. On long car rides, my father would often tell us, “You will have a good time. Starting right now!” But in truth he wasn’t really commanding us to enjoy ourselves: he just wanted us to stop yelling, stop fighting, and perhaps even stop breathing, so that he could have a good time. So, too, when we were visiting relatives, Dad would pause at the door, bend down, and say, “Okay, start loving each other now!” Of course, what he meant was “Don’t embarrass your mother and me again!” So whereas Jesus commanded, “Love one another as I have loved you,” Dad was more of a “love each other or die!” kind of fellow.
But whether you make it a command or make it a threat, the problem remains: how can you order someone to love? Jesus says we must, so it has to be possible. But how?
The answer begins with the lie I told at the start of this homily, when I suggested that love just happens, that it wells up from some secret place, floods our hearts and swamps our minds, and sweeps everything before it, as uncontrollable as the waters of a burst dam or the winds of a fierce storm. Nonsense!
We must be clear that when Jesus commands us to love, he is not commanding us to feel. He is commanding us to act.
The kind of love we call romantic, that squeezes our chest and quickens our pulse, is sparked by a person, real or imagined, perhaps many times over. Such a love is sweeping, and highly prized, yet often brief, and sometimes cruel.
The kind of love we call affection touches more gently: a fondly remembered teacher, an aunt or uncle who showed us special kindness, a beloved pet, a childhood playground. Such a love is cheerful and full of good will.
The kind of love we call friendship binds us to a few special souls who share our interests and earn our trust, and know something of our hopes and griefs.
The kind of love Jesus commands is none of these. As the great Christian convert C.S. Lewis wrote, “love, in the Christian sense, does not mean an emotion. It is a state not of the feelings but of the will...” (Mere Christianity)
Jesus does not insist that we feel an emotion. He does not order us to like anyone. He never says, “Your neighbor is really a nice guy, and if you look hard enough, you will recognize that, and then you will like him.” Jesus is the Son of God. He knows that your neighbor is a jerk: loud, abrasive, and under the severe misapprehension that he has a wonderful sense of humor. He knows that the woman at work is vain, gossipy, stingy and bad-tempered. None of those qualities is remotely likeable. Maybe we can forgive the pest, endure the braggart, tolerate the liar, and bear with the greedy. But it is not at all easy to like them, and impossible to do so on demand.
What Jesus expects of us is a decision, an act of deepest resolve: to will and work for the good of others. He does not set us the impossible task of manufacturing feelings. He orders us to serve. He directs our actions and our attitudes, not our feelings. Did the Good Samaritan like the wounded man? It makes no difference. He showed him mercy. Did Jesus like the soldiers who crucified him? Yet he prayed they be forgiven. The shepherd is not commended for grieving over the lost sheep, but for going out and finding it.
We can choose to pray for our enemies. We can choose to forgive those who hurt us. We can decide to visit a lonely, disagreeable relative. We can refuse to rejoice in the misfortune of those we dislike, and resolve to offer relief to strangers. Christ takes notice when we feel warmly towards the poor, but he rejoices more when we shelter them from the cold. Remember the parable of the sheep and the goats: Feeling plays no part in the judgment of the king. It is action that counts: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”
If parents only fed their children when they were likeable, the human race would soon die out. If God only loves us when we are being loveable, we would have no hope. But we do have hope: hope that our sins are forgiven, hope that death will be vanquished and every tear wiped away. And we have this hope not because Jesus Christ likes us, but because he loves us. Now we must go and do likewise.