In the Gospel for today’s Mass, Jesus gives us three lessons on love, which are meant to prepare us for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They also go a long way towards describing the normal Christian life.
Too many Christians see the Christian Faith more as a set of rules to keep than as a love that transforms—if we accept it. Let’s take a look at the revolutionary life of love and grace that the Lord is offering us in three stages: the POWER of love, the PERSON of love, and the PROOF of love.
1. THE POWER OF LOVE – In the text Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments … Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.”
We must be very careful how we hear this. For it is possible to hear the Lord say, in effect, “If you love me, prove it by keeping my commandments.” And this is how many hear it. And thus the text and the Christian faith are reduced to a kind of moral maxim: do good, avoid evil, and thus prove you love God. Loving God, then, becomes a kind of human achievement.
But understanding this text from the standpoint of grace yields a different—and I would argue more proper—understanding. For loving God is not a human work, but rather the gift of God. So the text should be read to say, in effect, “If you love me, you will by this love I have given you, keep my commandments.” Thus, the keeping of the commandments is the fruit of the love, not the cause of it. Love comes first. And when love is received and experienced, we begin, by the power of that love, to keep the commandments. Love is the power by which we keep the commandments.
It is possible to keep the commandments to some extent out of fear and by the flesh. But obedience based on fear tends not to last and brings with it many resentments. Further, attempting to keep the commandments through our own power brings not only exhaustion and frustration, but also the prideful delusion that somehow we have placed God in our debt because we obey.
It is far better to keep the commandments by the grace of God’s love at work within us. Consider the following qualities of love:
A. Love is extravagant – The flesh is minimalist and asks, “Do I really have to do this?” But love is extravagant and wants to do more than the minimum. Consider a young man who loves a young woman. It is unlikely that he would say, “Your birthday is coming soon and I must engage in the wearisome tradition of buying you a gift. So, what is the cheapest and quickest gift I can get you?” Of course he would not say this! Love does not ask questions like this. Love is extravagant; it goes beyond the minimal requirements and even lavishes gifts on the beloved, eagerly. Love has the power to overrule the selfishness of the flesh. No young man would say to his beloved, “What is the least amount of time I have to spend with you?” Love doesn’t talk or think like this. Love wants to spend time with the beloved. Love has the power to transform our desires from our own selfish ends, toward the beloved.
Now while these examples might seem obvious, it is apparently not so obvious to many Christians who say they love God but then ask such things as, “Do I have to go to church?”, “Do I have pray? And if so, how often, and for how long?”, “Do I have to go to confession? And if so, how frequently?”, “What’s the least amount I can put in the collection plate or give to the poor to be in compliance?” Asking for guidelines may not be wrong, but too often the question amounts to a version of “What’s the least I can do? What’s the bare minimum?”
Love is extravagant and excited to do and to give, to please the beloved. Love is its own answer, its own power.
B. Love Expands – When we really love someone we also learn to love whom and what he or she loves.
During high school, I dated a girl who liked square dancing. At first I thought it was hokey. But since she liked it, I started to like it. Over time, I even came to enjoy it a great deal. Love expanded my horizons.
I have lived, served, and loved in the Black community for most of my priesthood. In those years, I have come to love and respect Gospel music and the spirituals. I have also come to respect and learn from the Black experience of spirituality, and have done extensive study on the history of the African-American experience. This is all because I love the people I serve. And when you love people, you begin to love and appreciate what they do. Love expands our horizons.
And what if we really begin to love God? The more His love takes root in us, the more we love the things and the people He loves. We begin to have God’s priorities. We start to love justice, mercy, chastity, and all the people He loves—even our enemies. Love expands our hearts.
The saints say, “If God wants it, I want it. If God doesn’t want it, I don’t want it.” Too many Christians say, “How come I can’t have it? It’s not so bad. Everyone else is doing it … ” But love does not speak this way.
And as God’s love grows in us, it has the power to change our hearts, our minds, our desires, and our vision. The more we love God, the more we love His commands and share the vision He offers for our lives. Love expands our hearts and minds.
C. Love excites – Imagine again a young man who loves a young woman. Now suppose she asks him to drive her to work one day because her car is in the shop. He does this gladly and sees it as an opportunity to be with her and to help her. He is excited to do so and is glad she asked. This is true even if he has to go miles out of his way. Love stirs us to fulfill the wishes and desires of the beloved.
In the first Letter of John we read, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Yes, love lightens every load. And as we grow in love for God, we are excited to please Him. We keep His commandments, not because we have to, but because we want to. And even if His commandments involve significant changes, we do it with the same kind of gladness that fills a young man driving miles out of his way to take his beloved to work. Love excites in us a desire to keep God’s law, to fulfill His wishes for us.
2. THE PERSON OF LOVE – The text says, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you.”
In this text, Jesus tells us that the power to change us is not just an impersonal power, like “The Force” in Star Wars. Rather, what changes us is not a “what” but “who.” The Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, living in us as in a temple, will change us and stir us to love. He who is Love will love God in us. Love is not our work; it is the work of God. “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:10). God the Holy Spirit enables us to love God the Father and God the Son. And this love is the power in us that equips, empowers, and enables us to keep God’s law. He, the Holy Spirit, is the one who enables us to love extravagantly and in a way that expands and excites.
The Lord says that He, the Holy Spirit, remains in us. Are you aware of His presence? Too often our minds and hearts are dulled and distracted by the world and we are unaware of the power of love available to us. The Holy Spirit of Jesus and the Father is gentle and awaits the open doors we provide (cf Rev 3:20). As we open them, a power from His Person becomes more and more available to us, and we see our lives being transformed. We keep the commandments; we become more loving, confident, joyful, chaste, forgiving, merciful, and holy. I am a witness! Are you? This leads us to the final point.
3. THE PROOF OF GOD’s LOVE – The text says, “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.”
The key phrases here are, “You will live,” and “You will realize.” For the Lord says that he will not leave us as orphans, that he will come to us and remain with us.
How do you know that these are more than just slogans? Simply put, you and I know this because of the new life we are receiving, which causes us to realize that Jesus lives, is in the Father, and is in us.
To “know” in the Bible is more than intellectual knowing. To “know” in the Bible is to “have intimate and personal experience of the thing or person known.” I know Jesus is alive and in me through His Holy Spirit because I am experiencing my life changing. I am seeing sins put to death and graces coming alive! I am a new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). This is what Jesus means when He says, “You will realize that I am in the Father and in you.” To “realize” means to experience something as real.
The proof of God’s love and its power to transform is me! It is my life. In the laboratory of my own life I have tested God’s word and His promises. And I can report to you that they are true! I have come to experience as real (i.e., “realized”) that Jesus lives, that through His Holy Spirit I have a power available to me to keep the commandments and to embrace the new life, the new creation they both describe and offer to me.
I am a witness, are you?
This song says, “He changed my life and now I’m free … ”