There's no doubt about the theme of today's readings. "This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you." John's entire gospel revolves around that message. Though a simple command, it can create problems. Love often means different things for different people.
My marriage course students always knew what the first question would be on every exam: "What's the difference between love and like?" If they got it wrong, I threatened not to correct the rest of the exam. They couldn't possibly pass a marriage course if they didn't know that distinction.
As we old-timers know, like is an emotion of attraction toward something or someone. I can like auto racing, or someone's hair style. I can even like certain individuals. But just because I'm attracted to them doesn't mean I love them.
Love is the act of giving yourself to someone else. It can include emotions of attraction; but you can also give yourself to a person you don't like. (I presume the gospel Jesus did so during the four Passion Narratives.) Love doesn't come so much from the heart as from the mind. We don't decide to like, but we do choose to love.
It's this kind of love the author of I John has in mind when he tells his community, "Let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God." As I always mention when we have Scripture readings containing the word "know," for a Semite, to know someone or something means to experience that someone or something, not just to have an intellectual association with them. In today's pericope, that means our sacred author is convinced we experience God in the act of giving ourselves to others.
Yet, all Christian love is simply an imitation of Jesus' love of us. John's Jesus clearly reminds us of how unlimited that love is. "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."
It's no accident that the evangelist immediately follows this statement with Jesus' assurance, "I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father."
When one begins to love another, the relationship between the two changes. You can't regard someone as an inferior after you've given yourself to him or her. They now "know" you and you them. You've experienced one another in a different way in the giving of yourself.
That mutual experience seems to be one of the reasons the early church eventually reached out to people they originally thought could never be members of the Christian community.
We see this process happening in today's Acts passage. Up until this point, Samaritans (Jewish heretics) have been evangelized, even Gentile converts to Judaism (the Ethiopian eunuch) have been baptized. But Cornelius and his family are the first Gentiles to be admitted into the church as Gentiles. The reason behind this dramatic change in church practice is clear. "In truth," Peter proclaims, "I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to God." By loving others, we begin to relate to them as God relates to them.
Through the centuries, Jesus' command to love has resulted in Christians being in the forefront of the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. But it's evident there are still other groups out there who have yet to make it into our "friends" category. And we're dealing with just this one planet. Lord (literally) knows what demands love will make on us if and when we discover other life forms in outer space. Our faith descendants might look upon us as "having had it easy."