by Pastor Sarah Stadler
At the center of our religion, love.
What heals us, love.
What heals our communities, love.
Also, the stated motive of most religious people, regardless of actual outcomes, love.
I agree with the Beatles: “All you need is love.” But what love looks like, in practice, in flesh and blood, in the very real circumstances of our lives is not always simple. For even though I stand up here and encourage us to consider the views of our neighbors on the other side of the aisle, as it were, with openness and curiosity and respect, I think I’m right. I think I am the one who is truly loving. Of course. Whether we grieve or celebrate the actions of our sisters and brothers in the state of Alabama this week as they passed laws limiting abortion, whether the United States’ backing of Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela cheers us or infuriates us, and regardless of how we use our money to support what we believe are worthwhile causes, we believe we’re right. And as people of faith, we believe our actions are the most loving actions. Of course we do. Otherwise, we’d support something or someone else. Otherwise, we’d do or say something else.
In the echo-chamber that is my personal Facebook page, I can begin to think that my views are shared by every rational person, certainly every loving person. I can begin to think that those who disagree with me are irrational and unloving, the irony so thick and syrupy that I could spread it on my pancakes. People who embrace the same religion can embrace different political, social, fiscal, and ethical views. All the while, these religious people, us, claim to love one another, all humanity, and God. How do we make sense of it?
In today’s gospel, Jesus commands the disciples to love one another as he loves them. Maybe we suspect Jesus easily commands this, but then, we look at the context in which he speaks these words. Just before he utters: Love one another as I have loved you, he identifies Judas as the one who will betray him, as the one who will turn him over to the authorities. Just after Jesus utters: Love one another as I have loved you, he tells Peter that Peter will deny him three times. As predicted, Judas and Peter end up betraying and denying Jesus, respectively. They had in the past and at least Peter will in the future claim to love Jesus, but they end up betraying and denying their close friend, their teacher, the one they call Lord. And Jesus still loves them. He still washes their feet, right in that very moment.
In trying to make sense of what it means to love, all I can do is look at the life of Jesus, the life of the One who loved more fully than any other. What did he do?
Jesus does not defend his ego. When people don’t understand him, he lets it go. He stands before Pilate and says: “You say that I am a king,” but he doesn’t rush to identify himself one way or the other. It doesn’t matter.
Jesus forgives people who have hurt him. He hangs on the cross and pleads with God: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.”
Jesus heals people on the Sabbath—because even when there are religious rules for good reasons, like the proper observation of the Sabbath, even then, the health and wholeness of people trump those rules.
Jesus makes friends with people ostracized by others. He goes to their home to share a meal, like he did with Zacchaeus. He touches people he’s not supposed to touch, like women and children and the man born blind who desire healing and sight.
Jesus does not control what others do. The disciples make one mistake after another, and patiently, Jesus explains their mistakes to them. When the disciples complain that someone not a part of Jesus’ inner circle is doing good works in Jesus’ name, Jesus says: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
Jesus practices good boundaries. Even though Jesus spends a good deal of his last three years of life healing and preaching, performing miracles and teaching, he takes time to pray and rest and eat. When instructing his followers how to minister in his name, he tells them to shake the dust off their feet if a certain town doesn’t welcome them, not forcing their way but instead seeing that not every battle must be fought.
Jesus does not limit his contact to those with whom he agrees. Even though the Pharisees battle him at nearly every turn, he accepts an invitation to eat with a Pharisee in his home and, in a different passage, entertains the sincere questions of Nicodemus the Pharisee.
Jesus sees people in the complexities of their circumstances. In the Sermon on the Mount, he preaches against divorce, remarriage, and adultery, but when he meets the Samaritan woman at the well, he sees her situation, her 5 marriages, and does not condemn her but instead shares the good news. Similarly, when the people of Jerusalem threaten to stone a woman for committing adultery, he says to the people: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” When one by one they leave, Jesus tells the woman, “Neither do I condemn you.”
When we watch closely what Jesus does, actually does, we see love, and today, Jesus commands his disciples to love one another as he has loved them. To love others as he loves, not love as we determine it but love as Jesus determines it. To be clear, it’s not a matter of endlessly seeking righteousness because we will certainly fail, and Christ is the One who makes us righteous anyway. Instead, it’s a matter of seeking love and when we fail, seeking it again. We’re not going to love perfectly, but we have been loved perfectly. Therefore, when we fail, we will be forgiven, accepted, our circumstances taken into account.
The command to love is hardly controversial, yet when we find ourselves in difficult circumstances, we sometimes decide that we will give up love to do the expedient thing, the fiscally responsible thing, the easier thing. We might even convince ourselves, in scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, that calling others names, attaching someone’s worth to their views, or not listening to those with whom we disagree is somehow the most loving action.
The whole of Jesus’ life teaches us what love looks like. Far from simply a lesson in loving, this love is for us. Since Jesus has perfectly loved us, let us love one another. Amen.