I love chocolate cake with thick milk chocolate icing. I love my wife, daughter, son-in-law, and grandsons. I love movies and certain types of music. I love the magnificent beauty and grandeur of nature. I love a good novel. I love my friends. I love God. I love Bluebell Banana Pudding Ice Cream. Love, love, love. That is a word we use so loosely today, and it is a word we often abuse. Mother Teresa said she loved the dying men, women, and children as she held their hands in her clinics as these children of God breathed their last. A teenage boy says he loves his girlfriend and if she really loved him, she would let him have his way with her. A widow who works two jobs to support her children and to provide for their education claims she loves. And so does a father who manipulates, intimidates, and smothers his son to the point of such despair that the boy takes his own life. There are married couples who have made the mistake of confusing need with love, and there are married couples whose love is touchingly deep, affirming, and sacrificial. There was Saint Francis who loved God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, and there was a Baptist deacon who in the 1950s could sing praises to Jesus in church and the very next day flay the skin off the back of a black man in his custody.
Love is the greatest thing in the world according to the Christian faith. The Apostle Paul said it surpasses faith and hope in the trilogy of ultimacy. The author of I John even wrote, “God is love” But what is love? What does it mean to say that God loves us? These are not just academic questions. Some years ago, I tried to comfort the husband and wife who had lost their only son in a tragic accident. With much anger and anguish the mother told me not to talk about the love of God or the power of prayer. She said, “Look where God’s love and all my prayers have gotten me—a dead son, a broken-hearted husband, and the light of our lives extinguished forever.” In one way or another every one of us has shared to some degree in those feelings. What does it mean to say that God loves us in a world of such potential pain, tragedy, and loss?
In John’s account of Jesus’ last night with his disciples, our Lord makes an amazing statement about love. He said, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” And a little later he said, “As I have loved you, so also you must love one another.” So much hinges on the word “as” in these statements. I would suggest that we should perhaps begin with that word in our search for the meaning of God’s love and the kind of love we are to have for one another.
“As the Father has loved me,” Jesus said. Let’s begin by exploring what this does not mean. In commenting on this passage, theologian Joan Delaplane makes the following observation:
“Such love does not mean that God saved Jesus from suffering, from temptation, from human limitations, or from loneliness. Jesus was not preserved from being misunderstood, rejected, or humiliated, or from what the world called a ‘failure.’ He was not even saved from the experience of feeling abandoned by God, or the experience of death”
From the soul-wrenching struggles in the wilderness when he was tempted by Satan to the long nights of prayer as he sought strength for his ministry; from the frustration of enduring the continual misunderstanding of his closest disciples to the heartbreak of seeing his own people embrace paths which would lead to their destruction; from the agony of sweating it out in the Garden of Gethsemane to the torment of having his skin flayed from his body as the Roman soldiers brutally scourged him; and from the excruciating pain from the spikes hammered into his flesh to the ultimate pain of loneliness which caused him to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus maintained that God loved him and that such love was the love he had for us as well as the love we should have for others.
As we have said many times, Jesus had a unique way of referring to God. He used the Aramaic word “Abba” (which means “Daddy/Papa”). By such a term he referred to the intimate and close ties he felt with God. As a child feels cherished and affirmed, chosen and valued by a loving parent, so Jesus felt before God. In chapter eight of John’s Gospel, Jesus said, “The One who sent me is with me.” Jesus was grounded in God, shared in God’s presence and power and in God’s life and love. Because he lived from the Center and experienced that Center so intimately and personally, he trusted his life and his world to God. God would be with him through the thick and the thin of life—through times of joy and times of sorrow—through moments of ecstasy and moments of agony—through occasions when he was acutely aware of the Divine Presence and when he felt forsaken and abandoned. God was with him, loved him, affirmed him, and cherished him. Jesus knew the heart which beats at the center of the universe. He trusted the mystery behind all that was, is, and forever shall be. He had faith in the source and destination of his life and his world. And because this God/Abba was with him, he was free live sacrificially, joyfully, and compassionately.
He was free to eat with sinners and outcasts, to touch lepers, and to befriend women in a culture which denied their full humanity. He was free to challenge injustice, legalism, and hypocrisy. He was free to weep over a city which did not know those things necessary for peace. He was free to express his need for his friends to be close to him in his moment of fear and agony in Gethsemane. And he was free to go to his death, and if Luke is correct, to end his life with a prayer of ultimate trust: “Abba, into your hands I commend my spirit.” All of this freedom had its source in his experience of God as Abba and in his faith that he was God’s beloved.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he has come so that our lives may be full. And as God has loved him, so he now loves us. It should be obvious from his life that such love does not mean magical deliverance from difficulty, smooth sailing, and easy living. What it does mean is the eternal promise that we are each valued, affirmed, chosen, and cherished by a God who as Abba can be trusted to be with us and also be the ultimate source and destination of our being. As the beloved of God, we are free to put aside the foolish definitions of success promoted by our shallow and greedy world. We are free to see the praise and blame of others for what they are. We are free to live out of faith, hope, and love instead of out of fear, guilt, and desperation. We are free to laugh and to cry, to rejoice and to grieve, to embrace and to stand up to injustice with determined and divinely inspired courage. We are free to love from the center with serenity and joy, in hope and trust that the whole world, including our little lives, rests now and forever in the heart of God.
I believe Jesus knew that this knowledge and experience of the intimate and abiding presence of God was far more important and ultimately transforming than any magical deliverance we might receive from some celestial genie made in our own image. To know and experience that we are all the beloved of God and to share that good news with all our frightened, bewildered, insecure brothers and sisters is the secret to abundant and joyful life.
God is with us. That is the literal meaning of the name “Emmanuel.” In Christ we are claimed as the beloved of God. We can trust Abba for our identity and our destiny. What more is needed for abundant, joyful, and authentic life? In our materialistic, success-driven, superficial culture, that is a question we would all profit from asking with the utmost seriousness. So, come and be loved by God. And as God has loved, affirmed, liberated, and cherished you, reach out to others with that same love. For as Abba has loved Jesus, so Jesus has loved us. And so we are called to love one another.