“Love Divine, all loves excelling
Joy of Heaven to earth come down.” (Wesley)
Most scholars believe that John the Theologian, apostle and writer of the fourth Gospel, was the same John referred to in the Gospels as “the disciple that Jesus loved” but nobody can be completely sure of this. What is certain beyond any question, however is that John was “the apostle of love.” I do not have a concordance and cannot prove it statistically but my instinct is that the word ‘love’ appears more times in John’s Gospel and epistles than in any other book in the Bible.
Examples are too numerous for a short blog but the most beautiful and powerful summary of the Christian faith must surely be John's words: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (There is a beautiful musical setting of this verse in John Stainer's 19th Century oratorio 'The Crucifixion' - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkJGglj9opY .) This idea is repeated more thoroughly in one of John's epistles: “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.” So central was the importance of love to John that St. Jerome wrote: “when he was too old to preach, John would simply say to the assembled people: 'Love one another. That is the Lord's command, and if you keep it, that by itself is enough.'”
But what exactly does it mean to love one another? One important aspect is to think of people as individuals. Jonathan Swift once made a point which seems at first to be horribly cynical: “Principally, I hate and detest that animal called man; although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth.” However, if we think about it, we can only come to love 'humanity' through loving the individual, which I believe was the point Swift, a deeply religious man for all his oddities, was making. The old expression 'as cold as charity' expresses succinctly our tendency to weep for the poor of the third world but ignore the beggar outside our house. It's worth considering the idea that the 'neighbour' that Christ commands us to love might actually be the miserable old buffer who lives next door, is always complaining about our kids playing outside and whose dog keeps us awake at night!
Secondly, it is necessary to accept people for what they are. When I first read ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ in my teens, I had barely heard of Orthodox Christianity and thought that the Elder Zossima was a most wonderful creation of Dostoyevsky and the views he expressed were those of the author. Both, of course, are true but his sermon is, in fact, a brilliant distillation of much Orthodox theology. “Brothers, be not afraid of men’s sins. Love man even in his sin, for that already bears the semblance of divine love and is the highest love on earth.” If I believe that God loves me in spite of my sins, what right do I have to hate somebody else because of his? In this context, love doesn't mean the same as 'like' or 'approve' of. We love ourselves in spite of all our faults and that’s how we should love our neighbour, not as much as we love ourselves but in the same way as we love ourselves. Like most of Jesus' commands, this is not exactly easy, though perhaps not as hard as his modest demand that we “be perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect!” However, my old mentor C.S. Lewis comes to the rescue again: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”
We can go round and round in circles arguing about whether religion or atheism/scientific rationalism has caused the most suffering in the world. We can pitch the Inquisition and the Crusades against Stalin and Hitler. We can contrast the evil caused by the imperialist missionaries in Africa or South America with the destruction caused by the atomic bomb. We’ll probably find that it’s pretty much a draw. When we look at love and joy, however, the score changes. Where is the love in humanism? How many Schweitzers or Mother Theresas has atheism produced? Where is the joyfulness in scientific rationalism?