|"love one another" by niznoz on flickr|
If you were in worship last week, you might be scratching your head just about now, wondering if we messed up the readings in the bulletin today. Because today’s readings are pretty similar to last week’s. Lots of talk about love, and about God’s love, and about abiding in God’s love, and about living God’s love.
There are worse things to talk about than love, I suppose.
Today, it’s not just the writer of 1 John who talks about love. Jesus, in John’s gospel, also hops on the love bandwagon, and both readings elevate love from feeling to action, from emotion to imperative. 1 John says: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” And Jesus in John’s gospel says: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
The idea is simple: if we love God, then we will keep his commandments. And there really is only one commandment, that we show love for one another.
These passages tell us the beautiful truth that loving others is a way of loving God. And this isn’t the only place in the Bible that we hear this. Elsewhere in the gospels, when pressed about which commandments are greatest, Jesus tells us that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Every other commandment that God gives us has its roots in this commandment to love. If you truly love your neighbor, you will protect his life. If you truly love your neighbor, you will not slander him or steal from him or take glee in stealing his respect or honor.
Moreover, if you truly love the stranger (who also happens to be your neighbor), then you will feed her and clothe her and show her mercy. If you truly love your enemies (which Jesus tells us to do) then you won’t do them physical or emotional or economic violence. Love is the motivation behind all of the virtues and values that God dreams for us.
And we, as people of faith can be this love because we have already been shown the greatest of all loves. “No one has greater love than this,” Jesus says, “than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And that’s exactly what he did. God so loved the world – we all know the verse – that he gave his only son Jesus to be a living, breathing, dying, rising embodiment of divine love. It was out of love that Jesus walked this earth, and it was out of love that Jesus reached out to the sick and the broken, and it was out of love that Jesus died. Do you believe that good news? Friends, Jesus loves you enough to die for you. This is what gives you the power to answer God’s call to love the world and love it deeply.
We say it every week at the end of worship here at St. Timothy – that we are called “to live the love of Christ.” And it doesn’t just mean that we love the world in some abstract way. Living the love of Christ means getting specific and getting real, which is a direct challenge to a world more focused on “liking” than “loving.”
We create identities by talking about what we like. We like different kinds of food, we like our jobs, we like our homes or our cars, we like our kids’ friends. Spend any amount of time on the internet and you will be asked to “like” something on Facebook or mark an article as your “favorite” or decide to like somebody’s work enough to “follow” it. These are all gestures of like.
And the problem with living in a world of “like” is that “liking” demands nothing of us. “Liking” is how we preserve our self-image and create for ourselves shallow identities based on our affiliations. But an obsession with “liking” and “being liked” drives us toward selfish ambition and vain conceit, and not toward real love for our neighbor.
Love is deeper and more vulnerable and more sacrificial than clicking a “like” button on our computers or spending time and energy trying to be “likeable” to others. Love, Jesus tells us, involves obedience and self-sacrifice, a willingness to put others’ lives ahead of our own. Love is a commandment that asks us to give something up, and to give ourselves away.
We have in Jesus a perfect model of love getting down dirty and love being misunderstood and love being an act of sacrifice. And following Jesus means that we make the choice to surrender ourselves in love and to aim for something higher than “like.” Because it’s not about like. It’s about love.
In a New York Times opinion piece entitled, “Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts,” Jonathan Franzen says:
The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.Surrender is the part of love that they don’t talk about on Valentine’s Day cards. But surrender is at the heart of love. And it is the hard part of love. Because surrender isn’t always so much fun. Surrender asks us to put others’ interests ahead of our own, to sacrifice some of our ambition to open a door for somebody else who needs a leg up, to give up a good night’s sleep because somebody without a home to call their own needs somebody to cook them a hot breakfast. Surrender is always at the heart of love.
Suddenly there’s a real choice to be made, not a fake consumer choice between a BlackBerry and an iPhone, but a question: Do I love this person? And, for the other person, does this person love me?
This is not to say that love is only about fighting. Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.
Now there is good surrender and bad surrender, good sacrifice and bad sacrifice. Self-giving love doesn’t mean that you stay in an abusive relationship. And self-giving love doesn’t mean that you cross inappropriate boundaries and put yourself or others in danger, physically or emotionally. And for goodness’ sake, self-giving love doesn’t mean that you do something stupid or dangerous just to impress a girl. Self-giving love is love that makes us more real, that gives us more life, and that speaks the truth. And if we are making sacrifices that don’t accomplish those ends, then we need to take a step back and ask ourselves some deeper questions.
Jesus is our perfect model of sacrificial love. But if we want another good, life-giving example of sacrificial love, and a good model for the way that love and surrender can be an absolutely beautiful thing, then we probably need to look no further than the mothers sitting next to us in the pews today.
Mothers – and all parents – know firsthand that real love also requires real sacrifice. They know that babies are cute, but that birth is messy. They know that the perfect lives they have created also will demand of them sleepless nights and bottles and changes of clothes. They know that babies smile and laugh, but that they also poop. Being a parent is being a mixed-up bundle of joy and frustration that continues forward as babies grow into toddlers and kids and youths, and love will get mixed up with scraped knees and sibling rivalries and broken curfews and girlfriends or boyfriends they don’t like.
Not one of us here would say that parenting doesn’t involve dedication and sacrifice, and requires a sort of love that goes far beyond the intoxication of new-baby smell. Some parents will admit that having kids is the hardest thing they’ve ever done. But if you asked them, “was it worth it?” of course the answer is yes.
And one day when you get to sit down with God, face-to-face, if you ask him whether it was worth it to bring creation to birth and to deal with our messes and skinned knees and our faithlessness and our sin, and if you asked whether it was worth sending his own son to die for our sake…and of course God’s answer would also be yes. Because that’s how much God loves us.
True love, love in action, the real love to which we are called: it always involves sacrifice. But in that sacrifice, love cuts through everything in our world that is shallow and unfulfilling. Love combats the lies and façades of a world focused on self-image instead of self-sacrifice. Love takes us to the heart of the matter – straight to the heart of God. And Jesus promises that when we, in faith, go out there and get dirty for the sake of love, he will make our joy complete. And so at the end of the day, when someone asks us “was it worth it?” we too are blessed to respond, “of course the answer is yes.”