Love’s Two-Way Gift
(Acts 14:21-27; Rev.21:1-5; Jn.13:31-33a, 34-35)
In 1965, Jackie DeShannon sang, ‘What the world needs now is love, sweet love, it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of…’
But is love really all that necessary? Can’t we get by without it?
Towards the end of her life, the American actress Marilyn Monroe said to her maid, Lena: ‘Nobody’s ever going to love me now, Lena, and I don’t blame them. What am I good for? I can’t have children. I can’t cook. I’ve been divorced three times. Who would want me?’
‘Oh, lots of men would want you,’ Lena replied.
‘Yes,’ said Marilyn, ‘lots of men would want me. But who would ever love me? [i]
Sadly, she didn’t last much longer. In 1962, she took her own life.
By nature, we’re all social beings, wired to connect with others. Some of us are outgoing and need constant connection with family and friends, while others are happy to connect with just a few people. But we all need human contact; it’s built into our DNA. So where does this urge come from?
Scripture tells us that God is love (1Jn.4:16), and that we’re all made in God’s image and likeness (Gen.1:26-27). So, love is at the very heart of our human identity. God made each of us to love, and to be loved in return.
As parents and grandparents, we know how important it is for children to be loved and nurtured. From the moment of birth, children crave human touch, and the more they receive, the more neural pathways are created in their brain. These pathways manage the child’s emotional, psychological and physical growth. They shape the kind of adult they’ll grow into.
But when a child is neglected, when nappies aren’t changed, when smiles are ignored and when there’s no affection or touch, then fewer brain connections develop and growth is restricted. [ii]
In 1989, when communism collapsed in Romania, it was discovered that thousands of children had been raised in loveless institutions. Their physical, emotional, cognitive and social development was severely stunted. [iii]
But a lack of love doesn’t just affect children. In 2020, when my dear old Dad’s nursing home went into Covid lockdown, all visitors were banned. He was effectively blind and deaf, and relied heavily on regular family visits. But when the visits stopped, he lost his will to live and within weeks he perished.
In John’s Gospel today, Jesus and his disciples have just finished their Last Supper. Jesus knows he’s leaving soon, but he’s worried about his disciples, so he gives them a parting gift. He says, ‘I give you a new commandment; love one another just as I have loved you’.
Jesus understands our need to be loved. He knows how important it is. But what kind of love is he talking about?
In his book The Four Loves, CS Lewis describes four kinds of love. They all appear in the Bible, and in Greek, each has a different name. [iv]
Storge (Stor-jay) is family love, the affection parents have for their children (e.g., Rom.12:9-10). Philia is friendship or brotherly love (Heb.13:1), and Eros is romantic love (Song 1:2-4).
But the kind of love Jesus is talking about is Agape – the highest, most profound kind of love. It’s the unconditional and sacrificial love that Jesus demonstrates when he washes his disciples’ feet, when he feeds the hungry, when he heals the sick and the blind, and especially when he sacrifices himself on the Cross.
St John uses the word agape when he says that ‘God is love’ (1Jn.4:8). Jesus uses it, too, when he says, ‘Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down his life for his friends’ (Jn 15:13).
We’re all meant to love each other with agape, just as Jesus loves us.
For our health and wellbeing, we know that we all need to receive love. But psychologists have also discovered that we have a parallel need to give love.
They’ve found that when we express our love and care for someone else, it’s not only the other person who benefits; we benefit, too. How? By feeling happier.
Actively loving others makes us happier. And studies have shown that even small acts of kindness can generate just as much happiness as lofty acts. [v]
So, this week, let’s test this theory. Let’s perform a random act of kindness on a stranger, and see if it makes you feel happier. The science says it will.
And so does Jesus.
That’s why he wants us to love each other, just as
he loves us.
[i] Flor McCarthy, New Sunday and Holy Day Liturgies – Year C, Dominican Publications, Dublin. 2012:136.
[iv] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves. HarperCollins Religious, London, 2012.