Two of our readings today stand in the tradition of St. John: our second reading is from I John 4, and our Gospel is a continuation in the Gospel of John 15, which told us last week about the vine and the branches. Both of today’s passages speak of love as a generous self-giving sharing and care for one another in community. (This is the Greek agápē, more like charity, and different from romantic or erotic love.)
It is easy to say, “Love is what we need, love is the answer to our problems: love God, love one another,” and who could object to such sentiments on the Mother’s Day weekend? (Happy Mother’s Day, all Moms!) To claim the importance of love, love above all, is not implausible, since we do experience the power of love, we need to be loved and to love. Every crisis, natural, medical, and human-made confirms the point: if there is no love, even justice falls short, even truth is not enough. But skeptics might say that talk of “love” is not enough in a hard and bitter world, that love on its own is weak, easly pushed to side by those who use their power to take action. But this is not the case, when our loves are strong and persistent, and grounded in reality, Reality.
This is what today’s readings are for, to make clear that Reality, that love shows us what the world and God and ourselves are really like. John 15 clearly binds together the living and dynamic love of and in God — Father and Son forever loving one another as the very heart of the world — with love in community, enacted in our worlds:
"As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now abide in my love. If you keep my commands, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and abide in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love one other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends… This is my command: Love one other. (John 15.9-13, 17)
As we saw last week, earlier in John 15 Jesus had used the metaphor of the vine and the branches to show that our lives are inseparable from the life of God. Now we have the payoff: the vital flow of love from God as Father to Jesus as Son into the community of disciples is what makes community possible. To love one another is to live out the love of God in the world. To love one another is not merely an option, any more than faith in Jesus Christ is just an option for us. This is why love is commanded, as a way of life and practice, even in the hard times, even when we do not feel like loving at all. To love is a way of life — God’s life, Christ’s life, our life, and in the end cannot be stopped. St. Paul is right when in his Letter to the Romans he boasts on this very point,
"Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8.35-39)
Yet I John 4 pushes even farther, because it tells us that when we love, we know who God is, because we are sharing in the life of God:
"Beloved, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (I John 4.7-10)
God loves us, and that love is the reason for the coming of the Son into the world. God is all-powerful, but in a way, God cannot help but love us since, as John insists, God is love; God without love is like fire with light and heat. To love — experiencing what God has done for us in Christ — is to plunge into the reality of God, entering into God’s inner life:
"Dear friends, since God has so loved us, so we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us… And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. (I John 4.11-12, 16)
We have so many things to do in today’s broken society and broken world, and we ourselves are needy in so many ways — but the ground for all that we do and need to do is love: love as personal, interactive, willing to give and receive, placing the needs of the other before one’s own needs — arising from intimacy, fearless and trusting enough to allow for indwelling, abiding together. (See I Corinthians 13 for more on what love is like.) Yes, we need to be more just, more generous, more truth-telling, more brave in risking our lives, more stubborn in breaking up a status quo that makes some of us comfortable and leaves many other children of God poor, helpless, unvaccinated. But without love, nothing else is enough, and will eventually run dry, grow bitter, self-righteous. Only if we overflow with God’s love, the reckless love of Christ, can we live truth and compassion in the long run, start to finish.
It is timely then that these readings for the 6th Sunday of Easter fall on Mother’s Day. It is at least 100% clear that a mother’s love is a very good, maybe the best model for the love that today’s readings speak of. With no insult to fathers, can we not say that mothers embody love as self-giving, life-giving care for their children, from conception throughout birth and growing up, and indeed for an entire lifetime? And not simply love in general or love in words, but love in cleaning and cooking, in changing diapers, in wiping away tears and giving encouragement, in simple presence in hard times, in being there for your children as long as you live. A mother’s love demonstrates for us the love of which John speaks in both readings.
And so while it is wonderful to speak of God as Father, we lose much if we cannot also see God as Mother, loving us from the beginning to end, giving us life, loving us even in those times when we do not return the love, giving us Her own flesh and blood. We are not used to praying to God as our Mother, we need to practice; we need to remind ourselves, “The God of Jesus Christ is my Mother too.”
This may be for many an unusual idea, given how endlessly we hear the “God is our father” as if it is the only way to speak of God. But to call God our Mother is not unheard of, even at the heart of the Church. One example: in a beautiful passage remarkably found right at the Vatican website, the great medieval mystic theologian Julian of Norwich richly weaves together her understanding of good and evil, love and protection, the Fatherhood and Motherhood of God, of Christ:
"It is a characteristic of God to overcome evil with good. Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him and this is where His Maternity starts and with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never ceases to surround us. Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother…
It is as if to say, I am the power and the Goodness of the Father, I am the Wisdom of the Mother, I am the Light and the Grace which is blessed love, I am the Trinity, I am the Unity, I am the supreme Goodness of all kinds of things, I am the One who makes you love, I am the One who makes you desire, I am the never-ending fulfilment of all true desires…
Our highest Father, God Almighty, who is Being, has always known us and loved us: because of this knowledge, through his marvelous and deep charity and with the unanimous consent of the Blessed Trinity, He wanted the Second Person to become our Mother, our Brother, our Savior. It is thus logical that God, being our Father, be also our Mother. (From “Revelations of Divine Love,” Julian of Norwich (1342-1416)
This is a passage worth re-reading many times, particularly on Mother’s Day, on a Sunday when we are told that love is the life force of our faith, because, after all, God is love.
(Note: the third picture above is a Rohingya mother and child, refugees who had to flee persecution in Myanmar; the fourth picture shows us mothers protesting violence, last summer in Portland, Oregon.)