May 9 sermon of the Rev. Dr. E. Bevan Stanley, rector of St. Michael’s Church, Litchfield.
Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
We have been talking about love, but what do we really mean by the word? Love is indeed a many splendored thing. We use the word in many contexts. I love God. I love my wife. I love my children. I love my friend. I love my books. I love golf. I love music. I love chocolate ice cream.
There are two main ways to think about love.
One approach is to think of love as a feeling. This is the most common understanding in our culture. Love is powerful emotion. As such it is an effect wrought upon us by some stimulus. Or rather it is our response to an effect wrought upon us by some stimulus, usually a pleasurable one. I love chocolate ice cream because chocolate ice cream tastes good and eating it makes me feel happy. The logic of this is that I love my wife because she is kind to me, makes me feel good about myself, helps me with many things and makes me feel happy. I love my God because God has given me many blessings. While this way of thinking about love works all right for chocolate ice cream, it seems rather shallow and selfish when applied to relationships.
It also seems very odd that God would command us to do something over which we have little control. If my love is contingent on my receiving pleasure from the object of my love, then how can it be commanded? What if my neighbor is mean and nasty? I can’t love such a neighbor as much as my chocolate ice cream no matter how much God may desire me to.
The other approach is to think of love as a choice, an act of the will. I choose, desire, and will good for the other. I love my wife then means that I want good things for her. It means that I will do what I can to make her life good, pleasurable, fulfilling, and joyful. Love in this sense can be commanded. I can choose to act towards my nasty neighbor in ways that will make his or her life better, more pleasurable, more fulfilling, and more joyful.
Indeed, in the passage from John we just heard, Jesus says that his commandment to us is for us to love. We are to love as Jesus has loved us. He goes on to say, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This is the love that is meant by the Greek word agape. It is to will the highest good of the other.
Today is Mothers Day. We honor our mothers and all mothers for their capacity to love in this way. They gave up their bodies during pregnancy to carry us and all our children. They risked their lives in child birth. They fed and cleaned and clothed and reared us and all our children. As we grew through adolescence toward adulthood they desired our highest good. The willed our health, maturity, and productivity. The hungered for our happiness. My mother-in-law will be ninety-eight in a two more months. She still is more concerned for her children’s welfare and happiness than anything else in the world. And most mothers would lay down their lives for their children. It is no accident that the foremost of all the saints was a mother.