How do you love?
This week’s lesson finds us back with the Pharisees in their final attempt to
trick Jesus. They approached Jesus with their not-so-innocent question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” I can imagine the other Pharisees standing around, nudging each other, and whispering, “Huh! Let’s see him answer that one if he thinks he’s so smart!” They have finally come up with a question they think Jesus has to get wrong. How could anyone, even a great teacher like Jesus, penetrate to the core of the commandments and select the one that was the greatest of all? It would be impossible!
Yet Jesus did. He gave them a simple answer that stunned them and left them speechless. It’s the last time they dare to challenge him; from now on, they just accelerate the plot to do Jesus in.
What’s his answer? He reaches back into the ancient tradition, back to the Shema, the phrase that God called the Israelites to wear on their hearts and responds, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
When Christ says that the second is like it he means similar in importance. This does not mean merely that it is similar, but that it is of equal importance and inseparable from the first. Implied in the Greek is a similarity in theological depth and an interrelationship. By loving the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, you must also love your neighbor as yourself. The great command to love God has as its inseparable counterpart the command to love neighbor. One cannot first love God and then, as a second task, love one’s neighbor. To love God is to love one’s neighbor, and vice versa
There you have it. That settles that. Not 613 commandments, not 10 commandments, but two—two great commandments that sum up and support the whole teaching of the Old Testament.
But what does Christ mean by telling us to love?
Two friends are discussing the possibility of love. “I thought I was in love three times,” one friend says.
“How so?” his friend asks.
“Five years ago I deeply cared for a woman who wanted nothing to do with me.”
“Was that not love?” his friend asks.
“No,” he replies. “That was obsession. And then two years ago I deeply cared for an attractive woman who didn’t understand me.”
“Was that not love?”
“No,” he replies. “That was lust. And just last year I met a woman aboard a cruise ship to the Caribbean. She was smart, funny, and a great conversationalist. And everywhere I followed her on that boat, I would get this strange sensation in the pit of my stomach.”
“Was that not love?” his friend asks.
“No,” he replies. “That was motion sickness.”
There are many kinds of love in our lives. There’s the love of a parent for the child. The love of a child for a parent. There’s the first love of teenagers and there’s the love of a couple that has been married for many, many years. We can love our pets, and we can love our country. Some of us even love our possessions.
All of these loves center around our emotions. How the other person makes us feel. When Christ calls us to love God and our neighbor, does this mean we have to produce feelings of love inside us for everyone we meet? No. The love that Christ calls us to is an action. What it means is that we must love as 1st Corinthians describes it. When you love, you never give up. You care more for others than for yourself. You don’t want for things you don’t have. You don’t have a swelled head, or force yourself on others and get bossy. When you love you aren’t always “me first.”
This famous wedding passage isn’t talking about the romantic love, but instead about the actions of agape love. Agape is selfless love, unconditional and active. In some ways I think it makes it all the more appropriate for wedding couples. You see, the bridal couple is usually in the stage of love where their partner can do no wrong and they are filled with good feelings for each other. The love in 1st Corinthians is a kind of love that lasts far after the romantic feelings have fled.
When we as Christians use the word love, be it with God, the deepest human relationships, or the stance we are called to exercise toward the world, the word is from the understanding of God’s nature made known in Christ.
Complicated sentence. Let me say that again another way. When Christ calls us to love, he calls us to love God, each other and the whole world in the same way as he did.
It is from the perspective of Christ’s life that we come to know love as unmotivated and unmanipulated, unconditional and unlimited. Such love is not a matter of feeling, which cannot be commanded, but of commitment and action.
Fredrick Buechner has a great little book called Wishful Thinking in which he defines a number of words from the Christian point of view. He has this to say about love, “In the Christian Sense, love is not primarily an emotion, but an act of the will. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling. You can as easily produce a cozy emotional feeling on demand as you can a yawn or a sneeze.
On the contrary, he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well being even if it means sacrificing our own well being to that end, even if it means sometimes just leaving them alone. Thus, in Jesus’ terms we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking them.” In short, love is a verb for Christians, not a noun.
So above all else, we are called to love God and each other. Not in the fluffy warm feeling way, but in the sense of caring about their well being. We aren’t being asked to like our neighbors, just love them.
It’s so simple!—yet so hard. Simple to say, hard to do.
At least it’s hard for me. What about you?
It should be east to love God—love God with our whole being, all our heart, all our soul, all our mind. I mean, this is our God we are talking about who is good and gracious and kind and loves us no matter what we do. Yet too many things get in the way of our devotion to God.
I admit it. When I pray alone or worship with the community, my mind sometimes wanders. When I make decisions about how to spend my money, it is too easy to put personal wishes ahead of the claims of God. When I choose how to spend my time, I find it easier to escape with a book or movie than to involve myself in making the world a better place.
Our selfishness, our sinfulness, and our distorted sense of what’s good for us make it hard to love God completely.
And loving my neighbor? That’s really tough. Sometimes my neighbor is that homeless guy begging on the street who smells kind of funny. Or the guy over there that I think is voting for the wrong candidate. I have to care about their well being more than my own? It’s hard enough to love God, who is perfect; so how can Jesus expect us to love our neighbor, who is sinful and imperfect—just as we all are!
The great Russian author Dostoyevsky tells of a woman, an evangelist, who traveled around Russia telling people about the love of God. She was captured by God’s love for her, and on a mission to tell others about Jesus. But she had a problem: she could never be in the same room with another person for very long without becoming annoyed and disgusted. Others were always doing something that offended her: one woman had a shrill, ear-piercing laugh, and that drove the evangelist up the wall; then there was a man who slurped his soup, and she just couldn’t tolerate that; there was a fellow whose obnoxious snoring turned her off. She wanted to tell them all about Jesus, but she couldn’t get next to them, couldn’t love them as they were. They just drove her crazy!
Dostoyevsky’s comment was simply this: “Although she loved God in general, she couldn’t stand human beings in particular.”
God calls us to love human beings in particular. It is by loving each other that we love God.
I’m going to tell you a story about a man named Bill. He has wild hair, wears a T-shirt with holes in it, jeans and no shoes. This was literally his wardrobe for his entire four years of college. He is kind of esoteric and very, very bright. He became a Christian while attending college.
Across the street from the campus was a church, the members of which are well-dressed and very conservative. They want to develop a ministry to the students but are not sure how to go about it.
One day Bill decides to visit that church. He walks in wearing his jeans, T-shirt, wild hair, and no shoes and starts down the center aisle looking for a place to sit. The church is completely packed, and he can’t find a seat. The members look a bit uncomfortable, but no one says anything. Bill gets closer and closer to the pulpit, and when he realizes that there are no seats left, he just sits down on the carpet.
By now the members are really uptight; tension fills the air.
Then, from the back of the church, a deacon slowly makes his way toward Bill. Now in his eighties, the deacon has silver-gray hair, a three-piece suit, and a pocket watch. He’s a godly man, very elegant, very dignified, very courtly. He walks with a cane, and as he heads toward Bill all the members are saying to themselves, “You can’t blame him for what he’s going to do. How can you expect a man of his age and background to understand a college kid on the floor?”
It takes a long time for the old man to get down the aisle. All eyes are focused on him. The church is utterly silent. The minister can’t even begin preaching until the deacon does what he has to do. When he reaches the front, the congregation watches as he, with great difficulty, lowers himself and sits down next to Bill so he won’t be alone.
That is loving how Christ calls us to love. It doesn’t matter if the old man likes Bill or approves of his choices. What matters is that he loved Bill not with a fuzzy feeling, but by his actions.
We want to put conditions on our love. We’ll love those who are like us, or whom we know, or who meet our standards. We’ll love those for whom we feel some warmth or affection, but won’t give the time of day to those we dislike or don’t understand.
But that’s not loving our neighbors. That’s not loving how Christ calls us to love. The word Jesus uses—agape—is about unconditional love. It’s love without limits, love without strings, love for the unlovable.
We may have trouble loving like that. But the joy of it is that God does love like that.
God loves with agape love—love for the unlovable, and love for those who find it hard to love others. God loves all of us like that—unconditionally. God even loves us, in spite of our failure to love God and others.
When we realize how incredible, undeserved, and awe inspiring God’s love is for us, we respond with our love and devotion to God, as feeble as it often is. And when we realize God loves even us, we are strengthened and empowered to share that love with others.
No, it doesn’t come easily, the action of love. The actions of love are like any other action – it needs practice to perfect but that is what we are called to do.
We are called love, because God has first loved us and our lives are made richer by that love.
Rev. Cara Gee
October 26, 2008