What Has Love Got To Do With It?
Reflection on John 15:8-13
by Fr. John D. Jones
My Father is glorified by this: that you should bear much fruit and come to be my disciples. As the Father loved me, I also have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends (John 15: 8-13).
“Love one another as I have loved you.” Or, as Jesus said to his followers another time: “Be merciful as your Father is merciful,” or “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36). Jesus exemplifies this mercy and compassion throughout his own life and in various parables: In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the father moved by compassion rushes out to welcome his wayward son home. So too, moved by compassion the Good Samaritan takes immediate steps to alleviate the suffering of the man who was beaten and robbed. Drawing on very early Christian theology, Orthodox Christian icons of the parable of the Good Samaritan always represent the Good Samaritan by Christ. St. Clement of Alexandria observes that “we call the savior our neighbor because he drew near to us in saving us” (Stromata IV.7). And Blessed Theophlyact develops this idea: “Our Lord and God…journeyed to us…. He did not just catch a glimpse of us as He happened to pass by. He actually came to us and lived together with us and spoke to us. Therefore, He at once bound up our wounds” (Commentary on Luke 10:29-37).
Mercy and compassion are not trivial or incidental characteristics of God. Before Moses went up to Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the law for the second time, he audaciously asked God to see His glory. On Mount Sinai, God displays his glory and goodness to Moses making Himself present to Moses by calling on His own name: “The Lord, the Lord, compassionate, gracious, long suffering, full of mercy and truth” (Exodus 34:6). Throughout the Old Testament, God makes clear that because of his compassion and mercy, he will not abandon the Israelites, but in solidarity with them, promises that he will restore them to the fullness of life.
In Isaiah, God promises to extend this compassionate restoration to all people through the suffering servant, the prototype for Christ in the Christian faith. The Son of God fulfills this promise in His incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. The express image of the Father, the Son of God incarnate as Christ reflects and radiates the glory of the Father among us. Abiding in the love of the Father, Christ radiates and reflects that love, his love, to us. It is through this love that we are saved––that is, healed from sinfulness, death, and estrangement and brought into the fullness of life in communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and with one another in the communion of saints. Salvation is never merely personal but always a matter of koinonia––communion and fellowship with God and others.
But as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes, “While Christ’s victory over death and sin…is indeed complete and definitive…, [our] personal participation in that victory is as yet far from complete” (How We are Saved, p.4). Put simply, we have free will. God won’t drag us into the fullness of life––eternal life—with him. God cannot compel us to love him. We must freely consent to the gift of life that he offers. This consent involves both faith and the fruit of works. As Blessed Theophlyact writes, “Faith truly comes alive only when accompanied by God-pleasing actions.… Likewise, works are enlivened by faith. Apart from one another, both are dead” (Commentary on Gospel of John 9:30-33.)
Why? We are created in the image (ikon) of God: We are created as icons of God. More specifically, we are created as icons of the Son of God, the express image of the Father, who is incarnate as Jesus Christ. The icons that Orthodox Christians produce always represent Christ, His Mother, and the saints in a transfigured state in which the glory of God, the Trinity, infuses and transforms earthly reality. All of our icons are painted or produced to reflect the uncreated light and glory of God: the compassion, grace, patience, mercy, and humility of God. That glory is manifest in the icon for the Nativity of Christ, His resurrection, and His Crucifixion. It is manifest in the icon of the extreme humility of Christ. We venerate icons because we venerate those persons in whom we have found the glory of God to be manifest amongst us. It is no accident that we refer to saints as our god-bearing fathers and mothers.
We produce painted icons only because the Son of God becomes incarnate and because we ourselves are living icons. As Christ abides in and reflects the glory of the Father, so we are created to abide in the love of Christ and to reflect that love in our loves. But in doing so, we are created to reflect the very glory of God––God’s compassion, graciousness, patience, and mercy—in our own lives. “God crowns us with compassion and mercy” (Ps. 103:4). In one sense, this means that God abundantly blesses us with the actions that flow from His compassion and mercy. But there is another, deeper sense to this crowning, as illustrated in an Orthodox Christian wedding service.
The sacramental highpoint of this service is found in the crowning of the bride and groom to and for one another. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, the bride and groom symbolically receive martyrs’ crowns. It might seem odd and depressing to bestow martyr-like crowns at a wedding ceremony. But a martyr, first of all, is one who bears witness to someone or something and who also is willing to lay down his or her life in response to that witness. At their crowning, the bride and groom are given grace by the Holy Spirit to mutually bear witness to one another of the self-sacrificial love that Christ has shown to them. They are given the grace to abide in Christ’s love and to bear the cross of a true self-sacrificial love. Thus, in their own love for one another, they are called to die to mere self-interest; they are called to mutually reflect Christ’s love for one another and any children which they might have in creating the community or communion of a family.
Being created in the image of God, all of us are crowned by him with his compassion and mercy. He shares something of Himself––we Orthodox Christians would say his “energies”––with us. But compassion always moves us away from ourselves to others. As parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan show, compassion for others expresses itself in actions for others and on their behalf. In being crowned with mercy and compassion, we are all of us, at the core of our reality, crowned to another. We are created to bear witness to the love, compassion, and mercy that Christ has shown us by laboring to reflect it through the love, compassion, and mercy that we show to others. As Christ says in the opening scripture text here “My Father is glorified by this: that you should bear much fruit and come to be My disciples.” We are called to do all things for the glory of God. But we are also called to reflect that glory––His compassion and mercy––in our own lives. We do so in our own small ways by, borrowing a phrase from Marquette’s Jesuit heritage, “becoming men and women for others.”
Being a living icon of God is a bit like being a wind spinner. The wind blows, the spinner turns, and it passes the wind on. A well-made spinner doesn’t try to hold onto the wind or hoard it. It responds to all breezes. But we humans have to be very vigilant about the “winds” and “breezes” to which we respond. There are the many breezes of our own passions and thoughts as well as the seductive influences of our society. These breezes blow us away from God and our neighbors into the prideful individualism of seeking our own self-interest above everything else. If we respond to these breezes, we become obsessed “selfies” cut off from any fullness of life. Rather, we must attend to the breeze, the wind, of the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies us and renews our lives. For that wind directs us to the kingdom of heaven, which Christ tells us is even now at hand, in which we are enabled to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and minds, and to love one another as Christ has loved us.
Allowing ourselves to be directed by the grace of the Holy Spirit is the ongoing struggle that we call repentance. Repentance involves a change of mind and heart and a desire for healing in which, with God’s grace, we open ourselves to really abide in Christ’s love and accept what it means to be a living icon of Christ. We are, however, living icons of Christ in community with others. Crowned to one another with God’s compassion and mercy, we are created to find salvation or fullness of life in communion with God, the Trinity, and in community with one another. Compassion is not a kind of feeling that we switch on and off. Compassion is an attunement to others without boundaries. This is the principal lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The true neighbor is a neighbor to all.
For St. John Chrysostom, being compassionately attuned to others “is most especially characteristic of the saints. No glory, nor honor, nor anything else is more precious to them than their neighbor’s welfare and salvation.” Compassion takes us beyond our own interest to the welfare of others and, implicitly, to the welfare of the communities in which we live—local and global. In reflecting Christ’s love in our own lives, compassion should make us attuned to the common good of all.
It is as St. John Chrysostom writes:
But how may we become imitators of Christ? By acting in everything for the common good, and not merely seeking our own…. Let no one therefore seek his own good. In truth, a person (really) seeks his own good when he looks to that of his neighbor…. What is their good is ours; we are one body, and parts and limbs one of another. Let us not live though we were torn apart. Let no one say, “such a person is no friend of mine, nor relation, nor neighbor, I have nothing to do with him, how shall I approach, and how address him?” Though he be neither relation nor friend, yet he is a human being, who shares the same nature with you, has the same Master. He is your fellow-servant, and fellow-sojourner, for he is born in the same world (Commentary on Gospel of St. John).
For nothing is so pleasing to God, as to live for the common advantage or good. For this end God gave us speech, and hands, and feet, and strength of body, mind, heart, and understanding, that we might use all these things, both for our own salvation, and for our neighbor’s advantage and good (Commentary on Gospel of St. Matthew). IC
This essay was delivered orally at Marquette Mission Week 2015 by Prof. John D. Jones, Department of Philosophy, MU. Fr. John is an Orthodox Christian Chaplain and is Associate Priest, Sts. Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church (OCA).