When we hear the word “love” in the Bible, we must always remember that in the original Greek there are three words for love. In English we only have the one word love, and so it is easy to get muddled by confusing one kind of love with another. Now the love that we have in two of our Readings today (1 John 4:7-10 and John 15:9-17) is not just the caring love (caritas in Greek) that we hope and pray all human beings should have for one another, although sadly they don’t; nor is it the physical love a man might feel for a woman (eros). No, the love St John is writing about is perhaps best expressed in English by the word “friendship”. (agape in Greek)
What’s more, we also need to note that when Jesus says “Remain in my love”, it is just after he has said that he is the Vine and we are the branches. He is showing us very powerfully in that image that we are not just called to be followers of Jesus, but to be as close to him, as much a part of him, as a branch is to the plant it is springing from. It is easy, you see, to think that Jesus just loves us in a vague caring kind of way. We can easily think of God as a rather stern though kindly father looking down on us as if we were little children that he was patting on the head before leaving us to play. I remember once having to do that at a school, handing out prizes to children whom I didn’t know and would never see again. They were very happy and grateful, but there was no more to our relationship than that. I certainly couldn’t have called them my friends.
Jesus makes it absolutely clear in our Gospel today that he has come to bring us a love that is very different from what we might expect from a power that is so much greater than we are. He offers us a love that is those of equals, those who know one another well, who are not just servants but friends. But then he goes further, for the love he offers is that of a friend for whom he is prepared to “lay down his life.” That is a rare kind of friendship indeed, and that is what he offers us, that is what he challenges us to live out in our lives.
But even the word “offer” here is not quite accurate, and to explain that we need to go back to that image of the Vine. We tend to think that the love and the joy and the grace that God gives us, in and through Jesus, is simply like a great gift that he hands over to us. Here is some love. Here is some joy. Here is some grace. Now use it well. But you see the love and joy and grace that God gives us are not simply gifts, they are part of what God is. As we will hear when we continue to read John’s 1st letter next week “God is love, and those who love live in God and God lives in them” (1 John 4:16)
When this true sacrificial friendship love is in us, then it is no longer God giving us something from outside, it is God working inside us. The sap that rises in the Vine, right from its roots until it reaches the branches and bears flowers and then fruit, is not separate from its source but is a continual stream of life. It is why it is often better to describe such love from God as God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in us. God in us and us in God.
In the world of the Bible that kind of friendship was very rare, and it is not that different today. In those days, and often today although it is perhaps more hidden, rich people were your patrons. You looked up to them, you put your “faith” in them; and in return they gave you their support, helping you with money or food, or helping you get a job or to grow your business. It was not a relationship of equals. Jesus, and the Church he founded, the Church to which we belong as Christians, had a totally view of what human life should be like. They challenged this view of life which has some at the top and some lower down, and presented instead a vision of a world, a kingdom, where all were equal, all were family, all were friends. So when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “Thy kingdom come”, we are not simply praying for a future glory with God in his kingdom after we die; we are also praying that our world now may follow the way of our King Jesus, that our world now may become a kingdom where all are prepared to lay down their lives for one another.
In our 1st Reading (Acts 10:25-48) we heard one example of the change that made to St Peter and his fellow disciples. He was a Jew, of course, and Jews did not visit the houses of non-Jews, certainly not of the hated Romans. So when Peter arrives at the house of Cornelius, this powerful Roman soldier goes out to meet him, and kneels before him. He does not expect a Jew to treat him like an equal. But Peter says, “Stand up… I am only a man” and then he goes on “I have now come to realise that God does not have favourites”; and although we have not heard it in this Reading, he goes into this foreigner’s house and eats with him.
Thus the teaching of Jesus, the love of Jesus, God’s gift of himself as Holy Spirit, has already begun to affect the way people treat one another. Here is a world where all are joined in a friendship, that ignores the differences that so often can exist between us humans. Here is a love that breaks down the barriers, and begins to create a new kind of world, a world that is a little sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God.