An American woman named Jessie was once touring England with a team of American handbell ringers. One night on their tour they were attending a formal dinner, and Jessie noticed that there was no napkin at her place setting, so she asked one of the waiters if he could please bring her a napkin. He seemed a little surprised, but nonetheless he went off to comply with her request. He seemed to be taking a long time about it, and Jessie wondered what was happening. Eventually the head waiter came to her with a strange looking package in his hand. “We have no idea why you would need this, Ma’am”, he said, “but here is your napkin”. He then proceeded to hand her a baby’s diaper.
Winston Churchill is reputed to have remarked that the English and the Americans were ‘two peoples divided by a common language’. One of the problems of being divided by a common language, of course, is that while your friend may be using the same vocabulary as you, she is probably using a different dictionary. You assume that you know what she is talking about, but then along comes an incident like the one Jessie experienced, and you realise that words can have many different meanings (in case you’re wondering, in England Jessie should have asked for a ‘serviette’!).
What about the word ‘love’? Surely we all know what that means, don’t we? After all, we’ve just had Valentine’s Day! But Valentine’s Day simply illustrates the problem. The Valentine’s Day version of love is mainly about romantic feelings, or ‘falling in love’ – an experience completely beyond your control that hits you like a bolt of lightning and feels so good that you pray it lasts forever – although, of course, you know that it often doesn’t.
If you’ve been educated in the Valentine’s Day version of love, as most people in our modern world have, you will have a lot of difficulty understanding what the Bible is all about. When the Bible uses the word ‘love’ it is rarely referring to feelings at all. The Greek word for our modern concept of love, ‘eros’, is almost never used in the New Testament. Instead, the most common word is ‘agapé’, which is about actions and choices and sacrificing yourself to bless others, whether they deserve it or not, whether you feel like it or not.
And so, in the third chapter of his first letter, the old apostle John feels the need to explain to us exactly what love is. ‘We know love by this, that (Jesus) laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (1 john 3:16 NRSV). Jesus’ act of self-sacrifice in giving himself on the cross to save the world defines what love looks like for followers of Jesus: it is unconditional, it is self-sacrificial, it is about actions more than feelings, and it is centred on the good of the other.
And we are called to imitate this sort of love. We may not be able to sit down and muster up a good feeling for the people around us, but that’s not the point; we can still act in a loving way toward them. John gives us an example of this right away:
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action (1 John 3:17-18).
This passage convicts me right away, because I am a person who loves words and works with words. But my words, no matter how eloquent they may be, are not impressive in God’s sight; it is my practical actions, my choosing to help those who are in need, that really count. As one of the characters in the recent miniseries of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ says, ‘It is not what we say or feel that makes us what we are – it is what we do – or fail to do’.
John sums it all up for us at the end of the chapter:
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us (1 John 3:23).
Of course, this can sometimes be more complicated than it sounds. Some people talk, for instance, as if love for others means letting them get away with anything they want, but Paul’s description of love says that it ‘does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth’ (1 Corinthians 13:6). Yes, love is indeed the most important commandment, but sometimes we need God’s other commandments to give us guidance as to how exactly we should go about loving a person in a given situation.
Nonetheless, at the heart of the matter stands love as Jesus defined it: not words but actions, not feelings but choices, not self-absorption but a resolve to be a blessing to others. This is how God loves us, this is what Jesus demonstrated when he died for us, and this is how we are called to love one another.