May 17, 2009
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was a kid I had a favorite sweatshirt with a picture of the Peanuts character Linus on the front. The picture showed Linus shouting and saying, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.” I’m not sure what the context might have been for Linus’ frustration. Maybe his older sister Lucy had hidden his security blanket yet again. In any case, Linus expresses a very familiar problem. It’s relatively easy to love people in general and in the abstract. It’s relatively easy to love people in general and from a distance.
This kind of love feels good and costs us nearly nothing. But it’s harder to love particular people in specific situations and when they are close at hand. Then we have to invest our time, we have to invest our energy, and we have to invest our emotions. We take the risk that we may be inconvenienced or even hurt in the process. It’s not always easy, it’s not always convenient, and it doesn’t always feel good.
But whether or not it feels good, this is the kind of love that Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus isn’t simply making a suggestion here. Love isn’t something we might aspire to practice someday, when the time is “right,” when it doesn’t seem like it will involve messy complications. Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” If we’re not careful we might miss the word “commandment.” After all, we’re used to thinking of commandments as “thou shalt nots.” This commandment, though, tells us what to do.
We shouldn’t really be surprised, though. We’ve heard this commandment before. “Love one another” is at the heart of Israel’s religious tradition. In Matthew’s Gospel, when the Pharisee asks Jesus which is the greatest of the commandments, Jesus replies: “You shall love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus hasn’t only told us what makes a loving relationship with God and neighbor. He has shown us throughout his ministry on earth what these relationships are like when they are lived out. Jesus has shown us what love looks like and what love acts like. He has shown us that love is close up and personal. He has shown us that love can have complications. He has shown us that love isn’t always easy.
Jesus fed the hungry of body and spirit. He shared meals with sinners, with tax collectors, and others whom his community considered untouchable. He healed the sick, and he didn’t hesitate to do it by laying hands on them. Jesus exposed himself to contagion and risked becoming ritually unclean so that others might be free of their suffering. He even healed on the Sabbath. Jesus considered a loving act to be worth the risk of making the local religious officials angry.
Jesus never stopped to consider whether those to whom he extended love were worth it. He didn’t ask himself or anyone else if the people he helped were deserving of his assistance. On Maundy Thursday he washed the feet of all his disciples. He didn’t skip over Judas, even though he knew Judas would betray him. Jesus didn’t exclude Peter, even though he knew that Peter would soon deny him. Jesus’ inclusion of Judas and Peter tells us that the love of others for us and their loyalty towards us aren’t a prerequisite for our love of them. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that we should love even our enemies, saying, “for if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”
It isn’t even easy, though, to love even those who love us. It isn’t always easy to love those we think of as our nearest and dearest. Recently I came across an excerpt from a book called Children’s Letters to God. One of them went like this: Dear God, You say we are supposed to love all people. Don’t you know how hard this is? There are only four people in our family, and it’s almost impossible to love them sometimes.” Our comic strip friend Linus would agree. Once, after Lucy had annoyed him again, he said, “Big sisters are the crabgrass in the lawn of life.” The Bible offers examples of sibling relationships which are more strained than that of Linus and Lucy. Consider what the elder brother thinks about the Prodigal Son, and how Joseph’s many brothers behave toward him. Think, too, about the story of Cain and Abel.
But as difficult as family or other close relationships can be, Jesus isn’t letting us off the hook. Jesus commands the disciples and us to love one another. No loopholes, no ifs, no buts. There can’t be any real love of God without love for our fellow human beings. Verses from chapter four of the First Letter of John make this point quite clearly. “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
Jesus shows us that this love must go beyond the level of warm feelings only. Love must be active and embodied. Love must demonstrate concern for the material well-being of others. Also in the First Letter of John its writer asks: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” Take a look around you when you leave church today, and you’ll see immediate evidence that we have far to go as a society in meeting this standard of loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Assumptions of scarcity may prevent us from loving others as Jesus has commanded us to do. We may tend to think, erroneously, that there is only a finite amount of love to go around. We may see material goods as a limited resource and think that means that love, too, is limited. We may worry that giving to others of our love and of our goods means that there will be less of both for us.
But unlike us, Jesus operates from an assumption of abundance. He’s told us over and over about abundance in the Gospel lessons this Eastertide. There is no limit to the love that God the Father has for Jesus. There is no limit to the love that Jesus has for us. We can pass this love on to others freely because it comes from a source that will never dry up. This source will last until death, through death, and even beyond death.
In today’s Gospel Jesus tells us, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This is what Jesus does for us. And not even death can put limits on the love of God in Jesus. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams explains this limitlessness in his book called Resurrection. He says, “death is normally a drastic severing of relations, death isolates, but for Jesus it is through death that a new and potentially infinite network of relations is opened up.”
We’re not all called to lay down our lives as Jesus did. But we all are called, commanded, to love one another as he loved us. Jesus never said it would be easy. Fortunately, there is more good news: we don’t have to fulfill this commandment on our own. Jesus provides us with the love to give and with active assistance in giving it. He showed us how to love throughout his earthly ministry. To help us after he has gone to be with his Father, he sends us the Holy Spirit.
Jesus has also given us help in a form that we can see, touch, and taste. God nourishes us and enables us to serve God and our neighbor by feeding our bodies and souls in the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist each Sunday. In the Eucharist, we remember Christ’s death and resurrection, we offer our own bodies and souls to God, and we receive Christ’s body and blood in the bread and the wine.
But the Eucharist isn’t finished when we leave the altar rail. The post-communion prayer tells us that now that we’ve been fed spiritually, we have a responsibility to fulfill. The second post-communion prayer in Rite II, the one we use less frequently, is especially explicit on this point. We pray, “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” At the dismissal, I’ll charge you to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” I pray today that you and I will indeed go in peace to love and serve the Lord, that we will go and love others as we ourselves have been loved, with a love that knows no limits, because it comes from God, whose love will never end. Amen.