When you take the readings as they are given to us, which is to say, out of context, it’s difficult to get the whole picture of what is truly going on. Jesus is still talking with his disciples, much like our reading last week. But he is actually in the middle of what is known as his “farewell discourse.” He is trying to prepare his disciples for his eventual departure from this earth. He is trying, as hard as he can, to prepare them for what will be a gruesome death and a victorious resurrection. And it has to make the disciples feel good that what Jesus is telling them is simple, “I love you.” Those are glorious words that anyone would long to hear. Ellen is learning some sign language thanks to daycare and for the first time the other night she was sitting on my lap, facing me and signed I (pointing to her eye) love (arms crossed across her chest) and you (while pointing at me). I cried.
At that point in time, she could have asked me for whatever she wanted and I probably would have given it to her. You all know that I love music but I have never heard anything so amazing to my ears as her little words enthusiastically telling me “I love you.” I hope that is what it feels like to hear the same thing from Jesus. I have said it before to all of you, but I feel like I need to tell you again, I love you. From the moment I received the paperwork for this church I knew I loved you but I had no idea how deeply I love you. Seriously, I love you all an obnoxious amount. It’s ridiculous!
Jesus says “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” I would like to think that everything Jesus said was said with intention and with great thought. In some ways, I am grateful that Jesus calls this a commandment. In other ways, it is really frustrating that Jesus calls this a commandment. Why couldn’t Jesus have said “this is my suggestion” or “this is my request”? But no. Instead Jesus says “this is my commandment.” Much like his other commandments it is something we should take seriously. And if we’re serious and honest about it, loving people is one of the most rewarding things we can do but it’s also one of the most challenging things we can do.
Here’s the other thing. Jesus didn’t put conditions on this commandment. He didn’t say “love one another…except for this person or that person.” He just said “love one another.” Loving one another is easy when it is someone that you actually do love, like your spouse or a parent. Loving one another gets awkward when you talk about casual relationships like your dentist or hairdresser. Loving one another gets down right difficult when you talk about relationships filled with betrayal, despising, or hate. I am going to be honest with you, brothers and sisters, and I don’t expect you to feel the same way I do, but if you do, that’s okay. Just know that you’re not alone in your thinking. I think it’s easy, really really easy, to love someone who looks like me, thinks like me, talks like me, acts like me, votes like me, reads like me, eats like me, and on and on and on. When I have trouble is when I try to love someone, or moreover, when I am commanded to love someone, who doesn’t fit into my nice little box of “people I think I should love.”
We talked about this a bit in confirmation and it was amusing. You all should watch 7th and 8th graders squirm when we start to talk about love. I wove our conversation about love in with our conversation about the Lord’s Prayer. We hear “love one another as I have loved you” and later we will pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Both have implications of an expectation, really. Jesus says to us (paraphrasing) “You know how I love you? Yeah. Do that to one another.” And at the same time, we ask God to forgive us while at the same time we forgive those around us.
We are not in this alone, brothers and sisters, we are created to be in relationship. We are created to be in community. The difficult part is that sometimes those relationships and communities don’t look like anything we expected. It’s easy for me to love you, believe it or not. But how can I love someone from my past who has done nothing but hurt me or the ones I love? Let me put it on a larger scale for you. Jesus is commanding us to love the president—even if you didn’t vote for him. Jesus is commanding us to love John Boehner—even if you don’t agree with him. Jesus is commanding us to love Freddie Gray (the African American male killed in Baltimore) while at the same time forgiving and loving the officers arrested for his death. Jesus is commanding us to love the single, unwed, pregnant teenager, and the abuser who put her in that situation. Jesus is commanding us to love the gay young man and his parents who kicked him out of the house. Are you starting to understand the complexity of God’s love?
Here is the difficult and awesome thing about God’s love: it never looks like we expect it to and honestly, that’s a good thing. Because when the rubber hits the road, brothers and sisters, we don’t deserve love any more than anyone else. Yet we receive God’s love. We receive that love from the moment we hear “you’re forgiven” all the way through the alleluias because death doesn’t have the final word. We receive that love from the moment of our first breath until our last; from the splash of baptismal waters to the closing of our caskets. And beyond, really. God’s love is super offensive because God’s love is extended to people that society says aren’t worthy of love. God’s love is super offensive because it’s extended to people we say aren’t worthy of love. Most of all, it’s offensive because it’s extended to us.
And yes, it is difficult to have this kind of love for one another and especially for those we don’t think should get our love. The language used here isn’t “go love one another” it really is translated such that it could say you are capable of loving one another because you are grounded in the life giving Christ. So when we think of a commandment, especially this one to love one another, it isn’t commanding. It’s a promise. The promise is from Christ that because we are grounded in him, our only response will be love. Jesus said we should love one another, and this includes our enemies. The way I look at it is this: what do I have to lose? I could spend the rest of my life loving the hell out of my enemies or refuse to do so and make my life a living hell. I’m not willing to take the risk.
It’s not easy work, friends. Thanks be to God we have one another, Christ, and enough food for the journey in the form of bread and wine.