A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2018
If it’s not about love, it’s not about God,” our Presiding Bishop is known to say. The First Letter of John is all about love.
Because God has loved us, the letter writer advises, we should love one another. Because Jesus has shown us the depth and height and expanse of God’s love, we should extend ourselves, should invest ourselves in loving God and loving one another. Because in the love of Christ we have seen the extent to which God will go to love us, we should not hold back on loving one another.
It sounds so simple, on the one hand; but we know that as soon as open our eyes from prayer, we will find ourselves mired in the complications of real relationships, and the silos of our segregated world, and the barriers, internal and external, that we construct and fail to deconstruct, that keep us from loving our siblings.
First of all, we have the semantic problem. What does it mean, to love one another? We are not supposed to love every person in the same way as we love our spouse, or our child, or our dog. We are not commanded to prefer the company of every individual, or to have warm, fuzzy feelings about every passer by. We are not obliged to approve of every action, word, opinion of those whom we love. We are obligated to love them, anyway.
If we are to try to work out some kind of working process for what that love looks like, we know where to look. “Abide in me,” says Jesus. “Have this mind in you, which was in Christ,” we are advised elsewhere. “God is love,” writes the letter writer.
Jesus demonstrated by plenty of words and actions what he meant by love. He healed people, sometimes without even thinking about it. The woman who touched the hem of his robe was able to steal his healing power, and he let her have it. He was as limited and as rationed in his time, his presence, his reach as any of us, during his walk on this earth; but he gave to all who asked of him, and healed all who presented their need to him, because he loved them, because he had compassion for them.
Compassion was the word that described his feelings towards the thousands gathered on the hillside to hear him speak. Unprepared and under-resourced, they had nothing to eat, but instead of sending them away empty, Jesus fed them out of the providence that he found in God’s love.
Jesus was not discriminatory in the dispensation of his love, but neither was he indiscriminate. He was not afraid to criticize the people he loved.
He rebuked his host at a dinner party when that host was rude to a woman in attendance. He rebuked his disciples when they shrugged away the children who were pushing forward to see Jesus. He rebuked Peter when he suggested that Jesus might want to take a less loving, a more practical, political, savvy route to salvation.
Which leads us to the more difficult part of this passage.
“Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or 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,” warns the letter writer, and if we are in any way human, our heart sinks. We know whereof we are guilty.
A century ago, Margaret Plath, writing about Judas Iscariot, remarked,
Another practical religious need to be kept in mind … [is] the need to hate – for not a few the most preferred, indeed perhaps the only form they have of showing their love for their Lord; many can still muster honourable hatred against the traitors and enemies of Jesus even though they find it difficult to express in deeds their love for their Lord through following him in the attitudes he demands: meekness, purity of heart, and peacemaking.*
I would add that for some of us our preferred form for loving ourselves, as our neighbours, may be to muster that same honourable hatred against those who have done us, or others, wrong. This is how we love what is right, we argue.
After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples in multiple attested places and occasions. He breathed peace upon them – those who had fled at the first sign of trouble, those who had abandoned him to a lonely death on a hard cross on a desolate hillside reserved for criminals and outcasts. He returned even to those disciples and breathed peace upon them.
He even appeared to Saul, later known as Paul, who was persecuting Jesus’ first followers. Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus, and, refusing to let him continue in his abusive and murderous ways, converted him through the demonstration of Christ’s enduring power and of his overwhelming mercy.
“Love your enemies,” he told his disciples, “and pray for those who persecute you.”
He did not, as far as we are told, visit Pilate. He did not, as far as we know, seek out Herod, or the high priests. We do not know what he said to those soldiers standing guard when he first emerged from the tomb.
We know, from his own words from the cross: “Father, forgive them,” that Jesus, in his perfection, forgave them. He would not let his righteous anger, his appropriate indignation, his ready rebuke be reworked into hatred. Neither did he find it necessary to present himself to them for further abuse in order to prove it; he had no time to waste.
Here’s the thing: you all have families, of one kind or another. You all have friends, colleagues, acquaintances against whom you are mentally measuring the balance of hate versus love. You are wondering how far you have to bend to limbo into the righteous column.
I know this, because I have family, and without going into any kind of unnecessary detail, mine shakes out somewhere on the difficult side of normal. I have spent plenty of time wondering how to reconcile those difficulties with the admonishment to love the brothers and sisters and siblings whom we see, who carry the image of the unseen God, however distorted it may seem at times.
I have come to realize that I need to rest in Jesus’ advice: Abide in me. Abide in me, through prayer, through any and all acts of generosity where they are called for, through the self-preservation of staying away from Pilate, and did I mention prayer? Above all, the practice and perfection of love, its giving and its receiving, helps insulate the heart from hate.
And for the whole human family, the need for mitigation is obvious.
Yesterday, I heard of the death of James Cone, credited as the father of black liberation theology. In recent years, I travelled to hear him speak on his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, but a credible threat of violence against the venue and his person prevented him from attending. Now, I will not meet him in this lifetime, because hatred kept him from us that day.
Cone died in the same week that a national memorial to victims of lynching was unveiled. Through his words and work, he brought into the light of Christ the consequences of our history, and the constant conviction and strange comfort of the cross. Like the visitors to that new monument, we hardly dare look away now.
Hate will not have the last word. Whether we speak it, out of our pain and bitterness, or whether we hear it addressed to us, the resurrection is our assurance that God’s love, which endures all assaults of the enemy, is stronger, more resilient, more radical, more righteous than the most outrageous acts of ours that we can imagine.
We abide in the love of a God who heals us without our asking, and feeds us out of God’s own hand, in whose image we are made, who has made us for love and reconciliation, who loves us unconditionally.
Without that love, we are lost.
* Margaret Plath, “Warum hat die urchristliche Gemeinde suffer die Überlieferung der Judaserzählung Wert gelegt?”, quoted in William Klassen, Judas (Fortress Press, 1997)