Year C – 5th Sunday of Easter

On the Four Loves 

(Acts 14:21-27; Rev.21:1-5; Jn.13:31-33a, 34-35)

In St John’s Gospel today, Jesus and his disciples have just finished the Last Supper, and Jesus knows he’s leaving soon.  He’s worried about his disciples, so he gives them a gift. He says, ‘I give you a new commandment; love one another just as I have loved you’.

He calls this a new commandment. But why is this new?  Haven’t we heard it before?

In Leviticus 19, God gives Moses some laws to help people live a holy life.  These laws are often called the Holiness Code, and at the heart of them is the commandment to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (19:18).  We have heard that one before.

Matthew’s Gospel (Mt.22:37-40) also has something similar.  When the Pharisees ask Jesus which commandment’s the greatest, he says, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. 

So, yes these are similar to Jesus’ new commandment.  How then is it new?

Well, when the Book of Leviticus tells people to love their neighbour, the standard it sets for how to love others is ‘as you love yourself’.  It’s the same in Matthew’s gospel – love your neighbour as yourself

After the Last Supper, however, when Jesus introduces his new commandment, he raises the bar considerably.  Now his disciples must love each other, as I have loved you.  The standard for loving is now much higher – as I have loved you, not as you love yourself.  That’s a challenge for anyone.

So what kind of love is Jesus talking about?

When the Beatles sang ‘All you need is Love’, they thought that love is simply love, and all you need is lots of it to solve the world’s problems.  But there are actually many kinds of love.  There’s romantic love, tough love, platonic love, puppy love, true love, maternal love, paternal love and brotherly love … The list goes on.

So what kind of love is Jesus talking about?

Well, the Bible refers to four kinds of love.  In Greek, each one has a different name [i].

Jesus shows us what agape really means when he washes his disciples’ feet

Storge (STOR-jay) is family love. It’s the natural love parents have for their children, and the Bible gives several examples.  In Genesis there’s the love between Noah and his family, and in the Gospels there’s the love Martha and Mary have for their brother Lazarus.

Eros is sensual and passionate love, and in the Old Testament it’s portrayed in the Song of Solomon, and St Paul talks about it in 1 Corinthians 7:8-9.

Philia is close friendship or brotherly love, and this word often appears in the New Testament.  In Romans 12:10, St Paul uses it when he tells Christians to ‘Love one another with mutual affection…’

Agape, however, is different. It’s the supreme kind of love.  It’s selfless, unconditional and sacrificial love, and it’s the way that Jesus loves his Father and indeed all of humanity.  St John uses the word agape when he says that ‘God is love’ (1Jn.4:8).  And Jesus shows us what agape really means 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.

So Jesus is telling his disciples – that’s us – to love each other with agape, just as he loves us.  That means selfless, unconditional and self-sacrificial love.

I expect we’d all like to love like that, but it’s not easy is it?  We’re all so human, it often seems impossible.  So what’s the secret?  How can we love like Jesus?

Jesus answers that question in Mark 10:27, when he says, ‘With man it is impossible, but not with God.  For all things are possible with God’.

He then further explains what he means in John (15:1-10) in his parable of the vine and branches.  That’s where Jesus says, ‘Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing’.

So that’s the answer.  We can’t love like Jesus on our own.  It’s impossible.  But we can, if we invite Jesus to become part of us. 

We can all love each other with agape, just as Jesus loves us.

[i] C.S. Lewis explains these terms in his book The Four Loves, Harcourt, Brace: New York, 1960.