What Does Love Look Like? – April 24, 2016
In the name of God, who made and knows us, Jesus, who redeems and befriends us, and the Holy Spirit, who enlightens and sustains us. Amen.
A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons, Kevin, age 5, and Ryan, age 3. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Their mother saw the opportunity for a lesson about love. “If Jesus were sitting here, he would say ‘Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.’” Kevin turned to his younger brother and said, “Ryan, you be Jesus.”
What does love look like? Love has been described by poets and philosophers, by musicians and theologians. It has been articulated in many ways: “Love is blind.” “Love is like war: Easy to begin but hard to end.” “Love doesn’t make the world go round, but it’s what makes the ride worthwhile.” “Love is patient. Love is kind.” “Love is a many splendored thing.”
We talk of “falling in love” as if it were the abyss. (Well, that’s another sermon!) We say we love apple pie as easily as we say we love our pets or a friend. In the famous musical My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle cries out in great frustration: “Words, words, words! I’m so tired of words. Don’t talk to me of love, don’t talk to me about anything at all, just show me.”
The short Gospel passage we read today is a clip from the longer talk Jesus gave to his friends on the night before he died, the same night that he took a basin of water and towel and washed their feet—even the feet of a person who was going to betray him, even the feet of a person who would deny knowing him—not once but three times.
What his friends and followers saw in his words and deeds was a radically loving heart. Already harassed by the religious leaders of his time and aware that they have set out to kill him, Jesus doesn’t speak with rage or about retaliation nor does he lash out with rancorous language. No, he talks about unconditional love and gives them this new commandment that they love another as he has loved them.
And I strongly suspect what attracted so many to those fledgling new church communities in the first few centuries after his death was what they observed in the lives and behaviors of its participants. Tertullian, an early Christian writer, claims that outsiders often made the comment ‘See how these Christians love one another’.
It begs the question, what does the world say about Christians today? How easy is it to find love in the practice of Christianity? I suppose the best answer is, “It depends.” My life experience has informed my conclusion that there are several brands of Christianity on the market today-some of which I believe bear no resemblance to the Christianity of Jesus.
It is over simplifying the matter to call the divide at “liberal” versus “conservative.” There are people in conservative denominations who practice unconditional love and there are people in liberal denominations who do not. I think the litmus test is about authenticity: how close to the way Jesus taught us to live are we, in fact, living? How closely to what Jesus taught are those who profess Christianity teaching those same values today? How committed to the standards of love, mercy, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace is anyone who assumes that label “Christian?”
The litmus test for authentic Christianity is not based on how much scripture we know or how much sin we did or did not commit but on how successfully we have kept that new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus wanted to be sure that the world would recognize us in doing just, simply that. There has to be congruity between what is said and what is done for any creed to be credible to the world.
Seraphim of Sarov was a renowned 18th century monk and mystic in Russia and proclaimed a saint by the Orthodox Church in 1903. He lived in peace with everyone around him and sometimes fed a wild bear from his own hands. “We cannot be too gentle, too kind,” he said. “Never condemn each other. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves.”
Contemporary Christianity would do well to follow the teaching of Seraphim, to follow the teaching of Jesus—to be authentic in its witness to the Gospel they preached, not the Gospel some have distorted and convoluted to support their perverse agenda.
As flawed as Christianity admittedly can be and as disheartening is that reality, we find promise of hope in the reading from Revelations, the vision of a first or second century disciple named John. It is a strange book, full of symbolism and metaphors and yet some beautiful imagery. It speaks of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, the beautiful, heavenly metropolis of God. We moderns tend to take all this tongue in cheek. The ancients got their important data through dreams and visions. We get ours off the internet.
John’s vision is more than “pie in the sky.” It is God’s promise to renovate, restore, and repair creation. It is not a vision that invites us to abandon this earth and go to some distant place in the clouds. God’s city is coming down to us. God with us: no more hunger or poverty or homelessness or violence or illness or grieving or heartbreak or death.
If we can expand our vision, our deeds and behaviors will be related to the world in which we believe we are living. The earth is not just full of hatred, disaster, and fear. It’s full of diversity and beauty and creativity. If we will take seriously the commandment to love as Jesus loved, we will be willing to evolve, to change, to try new ways of living and relating to one another.
Thomas Long, professor of Theology and frequent contributing writer for the Christian Century, has said it well: “We are citizens of that hope and the way you hope changes the way you vote.” The city in which we live changes the way we live.” We act according to a world that we can see. Our deeds are related to the world in which we think we are living.
What does love look like? I think it looks very much like feeding the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless, being a friend to someone who is lonely, protecting the endangered, caring for Mother Earth, embracing the downtrodden, welcoming the marginalized and refugee, continuing in relationship even when we disagree about almost everything, offering safety for the battered and frightened, being patient with those who are aging, raising one’s voice in support of the despairing, accepting the peculiarities of friends, sharing the first pancake with our sibling.
Eliza Doolittle was quite correct: “Words, words, words! I’m so tired of words. Don’t talk to me of love, don’t talk to me about anything at all, just show me.” Love, in the end, transcends words. It is always something I do.
I think love looks a lot like Jesus and how he lived and died and what he taught us to do in his name. I think it looks like the Kingdom of God, that heavenly city John saw—the kind of world we have been asked to build brick by brick, step by step, so that no one escapes this planet without experiencing at least a taste of what God looks like.
“Love one another as I have loved you.” That’s a mighty tall order, Jesus. And you knew very well that it wouldn’t be easy. Sometimes it’s so hard that we only get there by the grace of God.