If asked to say what is at the centre of Christianity, many would answer that obviously it is love.
This is not a view shared by all the writers of the gospels. Try to see how many passages you can find that refer to love (agape) in the gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke. It will not take you long. St Mark does not use the noun at all, while St Matthew and St Luke use it only once each. As for the verb 'to love', that is not exactly overused.
In St John it is different, but the kind of love involved is not that obvious or easy. Today's gospel reading from St John gives us valuable guidance on how to understand the place of love, and its demands, in our lives as Christians
We are commanded by Jesus to love one another as he has loved us. The context could hardly be described as either romantic or undemanding. The passage opens with a reference to Judas, setting in motion his act of treachery, Jesus has just washed the feet of his disciples in an unexpected act of humility that reverses expectations, and Jesus says that he will not be with his disciples for much longer. Death is in the air. Whatever glory can be expected, it will not be effortless.
Already then, we can see love presented in a context and a way that are unlikely to be obvious to many people. There is not much sense of emotional satisfaction or warm desire or the meeting of one's needs.
When Jesus tells the disciples to love another as he has loved them, he is telling them two things really. First, he is telling them that his life among them has set a pattern for what love is; he is saying, love one another in the same way as I have loved you. That is, love without reserve or calculation, let your love be constant and truthful, and know that it will be costing and even sacrificial. Jesus's whole life and death were illustrations, were definitions in action, of his meaning.
Secondly, in commanding the disciples to love one another as he had loved them, Jesus was saying that they should love because he had loved them. Christians are capable of this rather astonishing kind of love because they have first received it from Christ himself.
It might be worthwhile reflecting a lot more on why love matters, and having realised just how demanding it is then being less glib about it. This gospel approach will also revive in us wonder and gratitude at being loved by God in Christ to such an extraordinary extent. To be secure in the love of God will then increase our own capacity to love.
Later in St John's gospel, we shall hear Jesus saying:
I have loved you just as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love.
The reality of this love is precious beyond anything we can say in its praise, and in fact we can hardly understand it fully. This seems an important point, and it is put strongly in the letter to the Ephesians (3:19), stating the limits of any ordinary human grasp of the love of Christ. To those in such divine love, comes greater understanding.
It would be wrong to split our ordinary human experiences of love, themselves part of our God-created natures, from the kind of love that is a direct gift from God and is often called 'charity'. But it is also worthwhile, now and then, to pause and not to take love too easily for granted or underestimate how costing it is to love in the way Jesus did. Above all, love deepens our attachment to God.
We are right to put love at the centre of Christianity, and much of the New Testament does so. Still, the relatively infrequent references to love in the first three gospels, and the stress in today's gospel from St John on how demanding love is, are both useful purifications.