The virus is dead. That’s a matter of scientific fact. A virus is a string of genetic code, unable to do anything on its own. It’s not alive. To thrive it needs a host, namely a living cell. Without such a hospitable environment, it can at best (from its point of view) lie in waiting, disintegrating quickly when exposed to heat, UV light and other destructive agents. Now I can hear your collective sigh of despair: ‘Oh, come on father, we’ve heard enough about viruses over the last few weeks!’ Please, bear with me… However admittedly perverse it sounds, in this particular aspect viruses and love have a lot in common. Like viruses, love doesn’t exist in a void; without hosts, there’s only the potential for love, but love as such does not exist. Unlike viruses that force their way into living cells, love has to be invited, accepted and received. Now I’m going to stop making any references to viruses, promise!
Today’s gospel passage is bracketed by two phrases that mention love. ’If you love me you will keep my commandments’ is the opening line. The closing one is a bit longer: ‘Anybody who receives my commandments and keeps them will be one who loves me; and anybody who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I shall love him and show myself to him.’ What is love actually? I think the most basic and simplified definition would be: love is a dynamic relationship between two rational beings. Love needs to be offered, accepted and returned. Love must be two-directional; otherwise, it dies. Secondly, as a dynamic reality, love expresses itself in various ways, forms and shapes, influenced and affected by a multitude of internal and external factors. Love never is, love is always being… Incidentally, a misunderstanding of love’s dynamic nature is one of the most common causes of marital problems; people see their relationship has changed since the romantic fantasy of their wedding day and sometimes conclude that their love is dead.
There’s only one instance of unchanging, perfect love: the internal love of God, the Holy Trinity. Our love to each other is sadly tainted by the consequences of our defective, sinful nature. For each one of us perfect love is an aim to achieve; or more precisely, to grow and mature into. Because love is a dynamic relationship, it means it needs constant care by those engaged (in the widest sense of this word). That care of love must go inwardly and outwardly at the same time – those aspects are interwoven and inseparable. The inward aspect takes care of battling my own deeply rooted selfishness. Left unattended it overgrows my heart and eventually makes loving anyone impossible. The outward aspect takes care of expressing my love and doing it the right way. Neglecting either of those aspects (or both) is another common cause of marital or domestic problems.
Now we have arrived at the most challenging thing about love. What is the right way of expressing it? What if my way of expressing my love is perceived as oppressive by those affected by it? For example, is setting boundaries an expression of love or exactly the opposite? Those who have tried to rear teenagers know all too well what I’m talking about… Unfortunately, I can’t give you any definitive answer, mainly because love is a dynamic relationship affected and influenced by many internal and external factors (to quote myself…). However, I can offer you a (hopefully) useful piece of practical advice for discerning if your attitude is an expression of love or not. Ask yourself a question: does it cost me anything (I don’t mean it necessarily in a financial way)? If it does, it’s a good indicator that selfless love is driving you. Paradoxically, if each person involved is driven more by giving in than taking out, there’s enough for everyone and more. Jesus described it in these words: ‘Any of you who try to save the life you have will lose it. But you who give up your life for me will save it.’ (Luke 9:24) These words apply to Jesus as well as to anyone else, in line with this pronouncement by Jesus: ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40)
It all might sound a bit of a challenge and hard graft. Well, it is. If love were easy, everyone could do it! Actually, everyone can do it; we are created to love; to give and to receive love. The more you try, the better you get at it. Most importantly, as a believer and follower of Christ, you’re not on your own. At the beginning of my sermon I mentioned that today’s gospel reading is bracketed ‘by love’. The bit in the middle is Jesus’ announcement of the Holy Spirit coming down upon His followers and leading them. So, we grow in love, not by our own efforts only, but we are greatly aided in this challenge by the personified love between the Father and the Son: the Holy Spirit!