I always reminded my high school marriage course students, "There's no one action that everywhere, to all people, always shows love." Because love revolves around giving ourselves to others, we're dealing with two "variables:" ourselves and the others. No two people are exactly alike; no two situations are completely parallel. Besides, people and situations change. That's why couples take vows on their wedding day. If nothing in our lives changed, we wouldn't need to make such solemn promises. I presume those who are married for 60 years give themselves to their spouses in different ways than those married for five years. Once we give ourselves in love, we have to develop specific ways to show that love day by day.
This insight makes Jesus' gospel command, "Love one another as I have loved you," the challenge of our lives of faith. It would have made more sense, and would have guaranteed more compliance if, at the Last Supper, he'd simply passed out a handful of Xeroxed pages with the concrete actions he expected his followers to do for everyone, in every place, and on every occasion. As we hear in today's first reading, this generic love thing can lead to problems.
When the church of Antioch originally sent Paul and Barnabas out on their first missionary journey, they never expected the report the pair would give when they eventually returned to their home base. "They called the church together and reported what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles." Though the Antiochene community was one of the most liberal churches in early Christianity, sending missionaries to evangelize Gentiles as Gentiles certainly pushed even their envelope. We know from an earlier section of Acts that, "some Cypriots and Cyrenians ... came to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks . . . proclaiming the Lord Jesus." But their actions seemed to be the exception. Paul and Barnabas turned that exception into the rule. Gentiles were now being admitted into Christianity on the same level as Jews. Hearing their report, I presume many conservative Jewish Christians immediately employed Chester A. Riley's most famous radio quote: "What a revoltin development dis is!"
Yet I also presume those in Antioch who were concentrating on the love aspect of the risen Jesus' faith would have said, "It's a great development! That's what happens when you love."
Of course, we never know what's going to happen when we love. We're always discovering new dimensions in our relations with others.
Before 1920, when American women were given the vote, many men thought they were giving themselves to women by keeping them liberated from politics. They shouldn't get their pretty little hands dirty by engaging in such a necessary evil. Most loving husbands and fathers were willing to sacrifice themselves for their wives and daughters by taking care of that unsavory aspect of democracy. Only the most liberal saw how loving the women in their lives also demanded they open every aspect of their institutions to those women.
Though we smile at these well-intentioned conservative arguments today, we must admit that we have no idea what a loving future holds for all and each of us. Perhaps the author of Revelation hits the theological nail on the head when he continually speaks about a new heaven and a new earth.
We who follow Jesus have committed ourselves to follow a biblical God who always "makes all things new." But those "things" don't become new on their own. The newness only comes from communities who honestly believe their destiny in life revolves around loving as Jesus of Nazareth loves.