Loving as Jesus Loves. A Reflection on John 19:12-15

4623404191_05f29a6d86_n“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:12 NRSV

When you listen to the Beatles’ song “She Loves You” and then listen to “All You Need is Love,” you will probably be correct in thinking that the word “love” is used to refer to two different things. In our English language the word ‘love’ can have very different shades of meaning and one must sometimes be careful when using it. So when Jesus tells us to “love one another,” what is meant? I can remember a deeply theological discussion in grade five where a friend, with a recent Sunday school lesson in mind, declared that he loved a particular girl in a Christian sort of way. The more he talked though, the more it seemed that not hating her passed muster as a Christian kind of love. So when Jesus tells us to love one another, what precisely does that mean?

Thankfully, Jesus narrows it down for us by saying “love one another as I have loved you.” As we look at the rest of the passage, we will learn what it means to love as Jesus loves.

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. John 15:12-14 NRSV

First, Jesus loves by laying down his life to serve the needs of others. Jesus is pointing forward to the day that he will literally lay his life down to bring salvation to his people. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” Mark 10:45 NRSV. His death and resurrection brings us reconciliation with God, life with God, indeed, eternal life with God. If we are to love one another as Jesus loves we are to learn to lay down our lives for others, to serve what is in the best interests of others.

And if laying down one’s life for one’s friends is an example of love, how much more should we be ready to lay down our lives for our most significant and covenantal relationships. We might say:

  • No husband has greater love than this, than to lay down his life for his wife.
  • No wife has greater love than this, than to lay down her life for her husband.
  • No mother has greater love than this, than to lay down her life for her child.
  • No father has greater love than this, than to lay down his life for his child.
  • No child has greater love than this, than to lay down his or her life for his or her mother/father.
  • No pastor has greater love than this, than to lay down his or her life for Christ’s Church.
  • No church family has greater love than this, than to lay down their lives for the community.

But does laying down one’s life in service fully express what it means to love as Jesus loves? After all, we can serve others while harboring an inner hatred, resentment, or apathy toward them. Is that really love? Let’s look again to our passage:

13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer . . . John 15:13-15a

Laying down his life is not the only expression of Jesus’ love, he also loves by extending friendship. Only two people in the Old Testament were known as being “friends with God,” these being Abraham and Moses. While God spoke to many people in the Old Testament these two seemed to enjoy a special intimacy with God. Jesus gives intimacy as evidence of His friendship:

15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. John 15:15 NRSV

How thrilling a thing it is to be extended a friendship and intimacy with God! So exciting we ought to remind ourselves that God is also due a proper reverence and respect. In teaching us to pray, Jesus points towards both the intimacy we can enjoy with God, but also the reverence we are to bring. We are to pray “Our Father,” the word in the Greek New Testament being a more familiar and intimate term like “Dad.” But we are also to pray “Our Father in heaven.” Lest we get too chummy this is a reminder of the transcendence of God. He is in heaven. We are not. He is righteous. We are not. He is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We are not. He is God. We are not. We enjoy an intimacy with God, he extends friendship, yet “the fear of the Lord” is still appropriate.

Having seen what it means to love as Jesus loves, through laying down our lives in serving the needs of others and extending friendship, we can think of the difference it makes to love as Jesus loves.

Think back to New Testament times and imagine that you are a slave owner. And now you are to love your slaves as Jesus has loved you, laying down your life in service to the slave and extending friendship. What a transformation to the master/slave relationship. We have a beautiful example of this in the Bible where Paul encourages Philemon to take back his runaway and thieving slave, Onesimus:

15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother– especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. Philemon 1:15-16 NRSV

And think also of the marriage relationship. One’s wife would no longer be thought of as property, but as a friend whom the husband will delight in serving. In fact Jesus’ teaching on love can transform marriages today. In pre-marital guidance courses I point out three different kinds of love, which correspond to three different Greek words. A friendship kind of love, philein, a romantic kind of love, eros, and a committed kind of love, agape. I used to say that marriage can survive on agape love, a commitment to the marriage vows, but will thrive on all three. Now I say that a spouse who has agape love for his or her spouse will actively pursue all three. When I love my wife as Jesus loves, I want her to know that she is my best friend. I also want my wife to know that, though I am not very romantic, all the romance I can muster up is for her and her alone. When a man loves a woman the way that Jesus loves, fidelity to marriage vows is not enough. Serving is important. Nurturing a deep friendship is important. You can forgive me for keeping to a male perspective here, but I must ask: How many marriages across our nation would be transformed if all men became avid followers of Jesus? And how many relationships would be transformed if all people learned to love as Jesus loves, laying down their lives in service, and extending genuine friendship?

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:12 NRSV

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Your Love is Better than Chocolate. Reflections on Song of Songs

small__7864852790Through the ages many have wondered just how to deal with the book of the Bible known as Song of Songs, its sensuality and sexuality surprising many and causing many a good Christian to skip ahead to a much more modestly behaved Isaiah. However, celebrating fifteen years of marriage this week I found the words of Song of Solomon quite fitting: “For your love is better than chocolate” (1:2 mostly NRSV, except that I prefer chocolate to wine!). The Bible itself teaches that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 NRSV). So we might ask, just how does Song of Songs help us with righteousness?

To answer that we first need to ask what the book is about. In it we find a love triangle with powerful Solomon who never speaks, a male shepherd who does, and a female who is brought into Solomon’s harem, but who is in love with the shepherd. With many just seeing it as a love poem between Solomon and his bride, why do we see a love triangle instead? Consider:

  • With regards to Solomon we know that “Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart” (1 Kings 11:3 NRSV), So . . . “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (6:3 NRSV) could hardly make sense for a bride of Solomon who must instead say “I am one of my beloved’s many, and my beloved is shared between us.” Also, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me” (7:10) again does not fit for a man with so many women. If the woman is speaking about Solomon it would be “I am one of my beloved’s, and his desire is to build up his own ego by conquering women.”
  • In 6:1-3 when the female looks for her lover, she does not look for a king in a palace, but a shepherd in a garden.
  • The male voice says in 6:8,9 “There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and maidens without number. My dove, my perfect one, is the only one” (NRSV). I am hardly romantic, but even I know that it would be horrible love poetry for Solomon to tell the female how many women he already has at home. This makes far better sense on the lips of an exclusive partner, the shepherd.
  • In 8:11-12 the male voice points to the wealth and power of Solomon. “My vineyard, my very own, is for myself; you, O Solomon, may have the thousand [pieces of silver]” (NRSV). In other words, “you can keep your wealth, I will enjoy being in love with this woman which is a far better life.”
  • In 3:6-11 we read about Solomon arriving to marry the woman. But in contrast to all the garden imagery she uses to speak of the shepherd, she points out Solomon’s power: “sixty might men of Israel, all equipped with swords and expert in war” (3:7,8 NRSV). How could she say no that?

Given this love triangle, Song of Songs has much to teach about righteousness.

First, Song of Songs was a corrective to the faulty wisdom of Solomon in matters of love, sex, and marriage. True love is not found in the multiple wives of Solomon, or even Abraham, or any of the males of the Old Testament for that matter. God’s intention is found in the Garden of Eden with one man and one woman exclusively and mutually in love. The shepherd has it right, not Solomon. The exclusive relationship is more romantic by far! And notice how much the female speaks in the poem. That too is far more romantic than the domineering male scenario which Solomon represents. So this poem shows a better way ahead for love, sexuality, and marriage, a more righteous way for Solomon and men like him.

Second, Song of Songs is a corrective to the faulty wisdom of the Christian Church in matters of love, sex, and marriage. So often throughout the history of the Christian Church Song of Songs was interpreted in an allegorical way which would soften the “obscene” bits. It was seen as a description of love between God and His people. However, this often seems a bit forced and the explanations become very arbitrary. Better to see it for what it is, a celebration of love, sex, and marriage. Given the ‘bad press’ that parts of the Church have often given to the physical aspects of love, this poem does help us recover the goodness of sexuality. God invented it, is not surprised by it, and it existed back when God looked at His creation and called it good. That the Church has often downplayed the goodness of sex has more to do with being swayed by Greek and gnostic thinking than with sticking to solid Biblical theology. When we affirm the goodness of a mutually expressed sexuality within marriage we find a way towards greater righteousness.

Finally, Song of Songs is a corrective to the faulty wisdom of society today in matters of love, sex, and marriage. If the Church has at times needed the lesson that sexuality is good, then society needs to learn that sexuality is a big deal. That is why it has traditionally been linked to the lifelong commitment and covenant of marriage. It is too sacred, too holy, too important, too powerful, too harmful, too exploitable to be without boundaries. In God’s design, the covenant of marriage is that boundary.

While people will tell the Church to “get with the times” and that the sex-within-marriage is old fashioned, we do well to notice the teaching of the apostles in the New Testament to people coming to Christ from the Roman culture. They do not often talk about keeping the Sabbath, or tithing, or some of the other things you might expect former pagans to know when drawing close to Israel’s God. But they do warn again and again against sexual immorality. In the ancient Roman society sexuality was “no big deal.” The Christian Church did not “get with the times” then and it should not now. It has always been a counter-cultural revolution.

We have been hearing more often about “rape culture” on university campuses which has been met with a “no means no” campaign. But suppose a young man points a water pistol at a young woman and she says “no.” Is he not likely to pull the trigger anyway and say “What? Where is your sense of fun? A little water is no big deal!” Far too many men and women are playing with loaded guns while thinking they are playing with water pistols. And people are getting hurt. Song of Songs, in teaching that love, sexuality, and marriage is a big deal provides a corrective to the wisdom of our society and points the way to righteousness.

While it is difficult for me to select passages for the scripture reading as some parts are too saucy, and others are, for us today, comically weird, this is the Word of God. And the Word of God tells us that sex is good, exclusive marriage is great, and the two belong together.

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned
(Song of Songs 8:6-7 NRSV)

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