From The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett, Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Ashland, Oregon. Reprinted with permission. The 6th Sunday in Eastertide:
"In the name of the Living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Forty-four times. If my count is correct, that’s the number of times we have already heard the word “love” this morning. Forty-four times, and it’s only...what? Sixteen minutes into the service?
So when did you start spacing out? Listen, I’ve been living with these scriptures all week,and as soon as I get about halfway through the epistle reading, my eyes still glaze over. I’m thoroughly checked out for the Gospel, even though it is beautiful. This ‘love’ Gospel from John is often chosen to be read at weddings. I delight in telling a bride and groom that God is commanding them to do exactly that which is their hearts’ desire to do, which is to love one another.
So, maybe because it’s springtime, or maybe we’re so far into the Easter season that the jolt of the Good News has lost some of its sharp edge, or maybe because the language of the Gospel of John and its derivative epistle are so circular and poetic that we go happily ‘round and ‘round inside them like bees lazily buzzing inside a open flower – love, love, love, love, love – whatever the reason, it’s easy this morning to be lulled into sleepiness or sentimentality. But the message of these texts, though repetitive, is clear as crystal. Let me try to summarize the theological argument. God is love. Therefore, wherever love is, there is God. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Babies know what love is being loved. So it is with our spirits. Though we will never fully understand God, we are capable of growing in our understanding of what love is, and therefore capable of growing in our understanding of the nature of God.
God loves us first: unconditionally, unequivocally. We are loved by God, not in response to anything whatsoever we have done or have not done but only because of whom God is – Whose nature it is – unbelievably, incredibly – to love. To love us. All of us. And of course, that is precisely what we don’t believe: that there is a God, a personal, relational God, who loves me, who loves you, who loves each one of us, whether or not we are even aware of being loved, whether or not, Lord knows, we are worthy of being loved.
So that we might get it, God came to us, we Christians say, in such a way, in Jesus Christ,to show us what Love looks like, acts like. In Jesus of Nazareth, we Christians say, we have seen the very nature of God in human form, as he lived and died as one of us, so that we might live awake to the reality which is all around us, all the time, but which we usually only snatch in glimpses, as through darkened glass. Look, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, said Jesus. Wake up, wake up into your own lives and see the holiness that is all around you, even in you, and of which you are a part. All of you.
Have you spaced out again? See how hard it is to stay with this language, this theology of grace? Give yourselves a little shake and listen to words written by an Episcopal theologian, William Countryman. It’s a long quote, but worth paying attention to.
'Too often, Christians have spoken as if God’s love were available only to those who respond to it in the ‘right’ way – by believing the doctrines of this creed or that confession, by following this or that rule of life (the more repressive the better), by having just the right kind of conversion experience, by being ‘born again,’ by belonging to the right denomination (taken by its members to be the only true church) or to some group of especially pious people, by reading the Bible in a certain way and drawing only the ‘right’ conclusions from it. [Usually the Book of Revelation! Sorry.]'
Such teaching is a betrayal of the good news. Not because creeds or rules of life or conversions or theologies or pious associations are necessarily wrong. Some of them, in fact, may be admirable. They may help us think about what the good news really means for us. They may give us guidance in shaping lives that reflect the good news. They may support us on our human journey of growth and change. But God’s love for us does not depend on us ‘getting it right.’
‘This is what love consists of, not that we have loved God, but that God loves us.’ God’s love is not conditional on anything. It is expressed in forgiveness. You can ignore or oppose God, if you really want to. It will probably do you no great good, but it won’t deprive you of God’s love, either. God’s love has already taken any possible wrong or error or failure on your part into account. You are loved anyway. You have been all along. You will be all along. It does make a difference, though, that this good news is true. It makes a difference not in God’s love, [that’s a given] but in your awareness of yourself and your world. The difference it makes takes the form of two gifts that we receive along with the good news and that grow along with our acceptance of it: a gift of honesty and a gift of authentic and appropriate self-love. It seems we are, in essence, beloved creatures. Once we wake up to the good news of God’s grace and find ourselves – consciously – inside this Celtic love knot of the Father of the Son of the Spirit of us for one another and back again, world without end; the more we wake up to the fact that the Kingdom of God is near and that a state of holiness is ever surrounding us and in us whether we know it or not; the more we increase our capacity to accept the gift of our own belovedness – and of each other’s belovedness – well, then, at some point we begin to make the connection that we too have been given a part in the action of the divine economy of love.
Which is a fancy way to say that at some point we realize that God’s love, while unconditional, invites us to participate. Which is a fancy way to say what we already know from our own lives, which is that love changes us and limits us and focuses us and purifies us. When we love; when we love a parent, a spouse, a partner, a child, a friend, an animal, a stranger – whenever we love we willingly give up a degree of our own freedom; and, we make ourselves vulnerable to suffering. That self-sacrifice and that vulnerability is love’s obedience.
Are you with me? I’m speaking of what we all know, though we may not talk in these terms very often. We cannot choose whether or not to be loved by God. But it is our choice whether or not we will love and whom we love. And it is a daily choice, isn’t it? When we choose to love, we willingly give pieces of ourselves to another: we give some of our attention, our time, our energy,our resources, our bodies – to the other. When we love, we limit the range of our future choices. We put a parameter around our personal freedom, out of love for the other.
No, I will not sleep with another person no matter how attracted I may be. No, I will not speak the hot-tempered words that will cause you such pain. No, I will not withdraw my attention from you when I really wish you would just go away. No, I will not pretend that supplying your material needs lets me off the hook emotionally. No, I will not pretend that taking care of your emotional needs means I have no obligation for your physical wellbeing.
The bar is set so high that to love means that we are always failing to some degree, and therefore to love also means we will be asking forgiveness. A lot. And that we will be asked to forgive others who are trying to love us. A lot. And that we will be asking God’s forgiveness.
A lot. For the judgment of God is as constant as the unconditional love of God, and that’s a paradox and a Mystery. We’re going to be loved, regardless, all of us, which makes some Christians crazy, especially the more fundamentalist, conservative ones. We’re always being judged, all of us, and that makes some Christians crazy, especially the more liberal, progressive ones. And the judgment is about the quality of our loving. The quality of our loving is not about passing feelings but about the choices we make, the actions we do or we don’t do, the words we use, the money we waste, the resources we squander, the poor and the sick of the world we take care of or ignore, the cups of cold water we give – or don’t give – to people who are dying of thirst.
As Christian individuals, and as this parish, and as a diocese, and as the Episcopal Church in the United States, and as a part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and as the Church universal we are being judged on the quality of our loving.
Jesus himself told us the terms of judgment: Did you take care of each other, especially the ones who are outside the circle of wellbeing? Jesus did not say we would be tested on our literal adherence to creeds or to doctrine, but by whether we are loving one another as Christ loves us. And though the loving starts in our most intimate relationships and in our families and within our small circle of friends, it must not end there, for if we’re serious about following Jesus then we will find ourselves loving beyond our comfort zones. If we don’t feel stretched in our loving – in every aspect of our lives -- we have either given up, or fooling ourselves, or we’re dead. The theological word “ortho-doxy” is being thrown around a great deal these days, not very helpfully by either side, it seems to me. Orthodoxy refers to “right belief, or right speaking.” The test of love isn’t orthodoxy, it’s ortho-praxy: right practice.
Loving one another is hard work, difficult orthopraxy, which is one reason why our eyes glaze over and we fall asleep in the pew when we hear the commandment to love. To be a loving person requires self-discipline, self-control, obedience to a way of life that does not come naturally to most of us, a profoundly countercultural stance against our own selfishness and inflated selfinterest. No wonder we would rather pretend that these “love” scriptures are pure poetry without practical implications. The truth is that the practical implications of love scare the living daylights out of us. To love means we cannot isolate. To love means we cannot distance ourselves from the burning heart of the Christian faith until we’ve figured in all out in our heads. To love means we have to hang together. To love means we are to become more and more honest, which no doubt will cause conflict some of the time. To love means the circle keeps getting bigger and will include those who make us uneasy, who make us crazy, whom given the devices and desires of our own hearts we would never choose to be around.
To love as Christ loved us means that we are always going to be coming up against the limits of our own capacity to love – our own sinfulness – and so our self-images will suffer as we’re stretched to our breaking points and beyond. But then we’ll discover that by being broken we are able to love more freely, a little less judgmentally. And God whom we will never understand –but that’s not the point, is it? Whether or not we understand God? – and God, whom we do not understand but who made us, and who loves us, and who travels with us, will never, ever let us go, until we are all safely home at the last.