There’s something about human experiences that, well, amazes you. Quick impressions are a case in point: apparently, the effects of what we absorb in the blink of an eye, for example, are highly significant.
I read about an experiment that was testing this hypothesis. A group of high school students were given lists of unconnected words, and from those lists, were to pick four words and compose a sentence.
They did this but what the researchers were actually observing was what happened after the test. The students left the room together and moved as a group, walking slowly and lethargically down the hall.
Scattered throughout the rows of words were specific words that related to old-age, words like elderly, aged, senior, senility, and the like. Without knowing it, these adjectives had slipped into their thoughts and the young people waddled away like a mob of geriatric monkeys.
Being a bit of a wordsmith, wondering about the impact of words and thoughts is a matter of life-style for me. Even if those words seem to skim across our brains like flat stones across the water, they can have a significant impact.
In this context, then, the Gospel this week is quite remarkable. Throughout the Reading, John uses the word ‘love’ at least nine times. He’s making the obvious point that to follow Jesus is to enter into a deep and intimate relationship with him and, through him, to the Father.
Without this love, everything disintegrates and falls to the ground. Or, as last Sunday’s Gospel put it, we become like a fruitless vine.
People – and even Jesus himself – call this the “New Commandment” but I ask: what’s new about it?
Is it because it’s different from the love revealed in the Old Testament? That it contrasts with the love described there?
Hardly. The love of neighbours is strongly emphasized in The Law, as is the love of strangers and foreigners. Take a gander at the Book of Leviticus (not the most riveting piece of literature, I admit) and you’ll see this illustrated over and over.
John’s Gospel doesn’t have any contrasts with the Old Testament in mind. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, we get “You heard it said … but I say to you …” but there’s nothing remotely like this in John.
Instead, the command of Jesus to love one another gets quite an airing: we can overlook its impact but it’ll be there, none-the-less. Maybe the reason why it’s new is because it is a command of Jesus, not simply a feeling or just a good idea.
There is a further twist: not only is this love shown as something to be obeyed, it is also an intimate and personal gift from God to us.
It’s as if He’s instructed us to love then, almost in the same breath, given us the wherewithal to actually fulfil that commandment. How good is our God?
It is in Christ that the whole banana is peeled and laid bare and we see love as it is: he loves the unlovable. He loves the insignificant and wayward. He loves those who hate him and those who don’t. What’s more, he meant what he said by giving his life ‘for his friends’ (verse 13) because that’s what is meant by ‘no greater love’.
Of course, this has an effect on everyone, not just the Christians and to that degree, love is universal: it is up for grabs from everyone and is for everyone.
There’s more yet. The love of which Jesus spoke is new because it has been extended to each of us personally by Jesus. He lived in this world; he breathed this air; he knows our joys and satisfactions; he knows our sorrows; he knows our disappointments and defeats.
He invites us into an intimate and deep relationship with him. It is extraordinarily personal because it is offered to each one of us as if we were the only person in the world.