FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you teach us that without love, our actions gain nothing. Pour into our hearts your most excellent gift of love, that, made alive by your Spirit, we may know goodness and peace, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35.
Anyone familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures knows that the commandment to love is not new. It is a central tenant of the Torah. Leviticus 19:18. Moreover, as illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, the commandment applies as much to the stranger, the foreigner and the outsider as it does among God’s chosen people. Leviticus 19:33-34. Such love is not to be construed as mere sentiment or as some unachievable ideal. It is central to human thriving. As the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning observes, “[w]e cannot live, except thus mutually [w]e alternate.” The commandment to love is “new” only in the sense that it was actualized in human flesh within time and space by the Incarnate One. Henceforth, it cannot be said that divine love is humanly impossible.
But it’s damned hard. For one thing, love is dangerous. It got Jesus killed. Jesus warns us that the same fate may well await those who follow in his footsteps. John 15:18-20. Furthermore, even when love is not lethal, it can hurt like nothing else. Nobody is capable of wounding me like those I most love. A stranger can insult me, criticize me and call me all manner of demeaning names and it won’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. But when someone I trust betrays me, someone I admire criticizes me, someone I care deeply about turns away from me-that hurts. Perhaps that is why appeals to blood, soil, race and nation are so appealing to so many. Maybe that is why remarks such as “charity begins at home” resonate with us. By keeping the circle about those we love and trust small and well defined, we reduce the chance of getting hurt.
For most of us disciples, love does not take the shape of martyrdom in terms of a violent death. It is more like being nibbled to death by ducks. Church leaders, who thought they were agreeing to a three year term on the council, find out instead that they have been sentenced to life without parole when no one steps forward to take their place when the term ends. And for all that, they frequently receive more criticism than praise for their sacrifice. There are plenty of Church musicians who seldom know a Sunday when someone doesn’t complain about the choir anthem or which hymns are or are not being sung. There are pastors who find themselves held personally responsible for declining membership, sermons that rub people the wrong way and decisions of their national church over which they have little control. And of course, there is no shortage of stories about people who have been judged, rejected and deeply wounded by the words and actions of church people. Church is not for the faint of heart. I can understand why so many people leave it in disgust. Churches are typically not communities in which you find the kind of love Jesus is speaking about.
But the church is not the place you come to find love. It’s the place you come to learn love. You can’t learn to love people different than yourself if you surround yourself with people like you. You can’t learn forgiveness if you surround yourself with people who don’t offend you. You can’t learn to love your enemies if you insist on surrounding yourself with friends. So if you are looking to find in the church the loving, accepting and affirming family you never had; or if you are looking to find in the church a safe place where you can’t get hurt, you are bound to be disappointed. The church has never been such a place. It is, instead, a place where people chosen by Jesus are brought together. They might not be people who like each other. They might not be people who agree with one another. They might not be shining examples of kindness, compassion and dedication to justice. But if we believe what Jesus is telling us in John’s gospel, the church is made up of people chosen by him. John 15:16. That means, hard as it may be to swallow, everyone in every congregation is there because Jesus called them. Everyone in my congregation has something to teach me that I cannot learn from anyone else.
Once again, I understand why people give up on the church. I have been tempted to give up on it more than once in my life. But just about the time I am ready to throw in the towel, something happens to change my mind. The meanest, most bigoted and seemingly heartless person in the congregation knocks my socks off with a selfless act of heroism, courage and kindness. A congregation hopelessly turned in upon itself discovers a new purpose and is renewed by responding to a critical need in its neighborhood. The young person I thought would never darken the church door again after confirmation expresses an interest in ministry. Somebody tells me about how something I said or did that I cannot even remember inspired them in a transformative way. These things don’t happen very often. But they happen just often enough to convince me that the love released into the world through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is real and active in the church.
Here is the poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning to which I alluded above.
We cannot live, except thus mutually
We alternate, aware or unaware,
The reflex act of life: and when we bear
Our virtue onward most impulsively,
Most full of invocation, and to be
Most instantly compellant, certes, there
We live most life, whoever breathes most air
And counts his dying years by sun and sea.
But when a soul, by choice and conscience, doth
Throw out her full force on another soul,
The conscience and the concentration both
Make mere life, Love. For Life in perfect whole
And aim consummated, is Love in sooth,
As nature’s magnet-heat rounds pole with pole.
Source: This poem by Elizabeth Barret Browning is in the public domain. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) was held in high regard throughout her lifetime surpassing nearly all other female poets of the English speaking world eclipsing even the work of her poet husband, Robert Browning. She had a formative influence upon American poet, Emily Dickinson who hung her portrait in her bedroom. Browning was highly skilled in multiple languages reading voraciously the Greek and Latin classics as well as the Hebrew Scriptures. Though the beneficiary of a privileged upbringing, she was a passionate advocate for the oppressed on the issues of slavery, child labor and the exploitation of colonized peoples. You can read more about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.