The Gospel for May 21st, 2017: “The Advocate”
Reflection: God’s Love is Unselfish
Over the years I have heard preachers on more than one occasion explore the meaning of the Greek word “agape” as a particular kind of love that is in contrast to romantic or filial love. The Wikipedia article on agape defines it with the characteristic of “a universal, unconditional love that transcends, that serves regardless of circumstances.” While I have always found these explorations of etymology interesting, the distinction has often been lost on me. Love is love, right?
As I reflect on Jesus’ introduction of the “Advocate,” the Holy Spirit, into John’s Last Supper discourse, I see, perhaps for the first time, how the manifestation of our Creator as a Holy Trinity reinforces the path of agape love to salvation through the relationships based on that kind of love.
The description in lines 15-17, which is echoed again in lines 20-21, reads awkwardly due its recursive logic. Jesus states, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you will know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you.” The awkwardness is due to the number of actors He mentions who are related by a love that comes from keeping God’s commandments. The actors include the disciple, Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit.
Why all these relationships? The answer lies in the nature of agape love. It is the opposite of self-love and requires another to be expressed. If we follow the path of this unselfish love, the significance of our need to serve others–as Bishop Robert Barron often says, to will the good of the other–becomes clearer in God’s salvation plan for us. God created humans, the disciples, out of an act of unselfish love. He does not need us, but He desires to spread His goodness to His creation to share in His glory. Our relationship is maintained with God the Father when we follow the two overarching commandments: we put God and others before our own selfish desires, so that we participate in His unselfish love. However, with the gift of free will, we sometimes act selfishly and sin, which breaks our relationship with God through our own doing. So God acts unselfishly to rescue us by sending Jesus, God Incarnate, to us—not to punish, but to show us the true meaning of agape love. Jesus placed God’s will and our benefit first and died for our sins, the purest act of agape love in human history. When Jesus’ mission was complete, He knew we could only act unselfishly if we, as line 17 suggests, remained in Him. So another missionary of the Father, the Holy Spirit was sent back to us through the good will of the Son to complete the series of relationships that connects humans to their creator in the agape love of God’s glory. In every case, the members of the Trinity are acting with love for the other and are radiating this glorious love directly into our beings through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Hence, Jesus says “it remains with you, and will be in you.”
The web of relationships based on agape love that connects disciple, Jesus, God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and disciple again does not save all of humanity without our participation. We too are called to use this gift of agape love to love others—neighbors and enemies alike. It is a mission that only is possible if we put God’s will to love His creation above our own selfishness. We cannot do this without God’s help. And yet we have that help in “The Advocate.” When we turn to Him in worship and prayer the strength of the Holy Spirit helps us to love others unselfishly to carry out the mission.
As a conclusion to this reflection, allow me to take a step back from all this theorizing and look at a scriptural example of agape given by John the Baptist. John is preparing the way for Jesus’ coming by preaching repentance. He understands we will not recognize or know our Lord—we will be incapable of entering into a relationship with Jesus—unless we turn away from our own selfish desires and focus on loving on others. So John the Baptist gives this simple advice to the disciples: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise” (Luke 3: 11). This is simple advice for Christ-like action that even a child can follow. When all the theology and doctrine overwhelm us, we return to simple acts of unselfish love toward others. This is why agape, love of God and others, and Jesus’ death on the cross are fundamental to God’s salvation plan. He wants us to love each other as He has loved us from the beginning and still loves us. In this, His will is done.