No easy love

Easter 5 2013

John 13:31-35

Marian Free 

In the name of God who loves freely and abundantly and ask that we do the same. Amen.

I’m sure that many of you will remember the first record, cassette tape, CD or iTunes that you ever owned. I was nine years old, not tall enough to see over the counter when my mother bought my first record. It was the year that the Beatles had come to Brisbane and I was determined to be part of the action. All I wanted that Christmas was a record by The Beatles. My mother duly took me to a record store in the city where she naively asked for a Beatles record. Of course the shop assistant asked: “which one?” The nine year old Marian could only respond: “one with ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’” – that being all that came to mind. So it was that for Christmas that year I was given the EP with She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah, on one side and something like All you need is love on the reverse. The sixties were all about love and peace.

The beatniks and hippies preached love not war and even the Christians got on the bandwagon with car stickers and other paraphernalia covered in flowers and proclaiming: “God is love”. Love and peace were the counter-cultural response to the establishment and especially to the war in Vietnam. The spirit of the age was one of flower power, communal living, non-violent resistance and John Lennon’s famous love-in.

Love, or the promise of love is very seductive. Studies have shown that infants and children need love to grow up feeling strong and secure. Those who do not receive the affection that they crave often go to all kinds of extremes, even criminal behaviour, to get that attention. Apparently, negative attention is better than no attention at all. Worse still, I’m sure we can all think of awful crimes have been committed by people whose need for affection is so great that they allow themselves to be led by their spouses or their friends to do horrendous things that they know to be wrong.

Because love is so essential to our well-being, it is also a powerful force for change. Sister Helen Prejean recounts her journey with Matthew Poncelet, a man sentenced to death for his part in the rape and murder of a young couple. Despite the heinous nature of Matthew’s crime, the fact that he is a particularly unattractive person and the fact that the wider society and in particular the victim’s families cannot understand her position, Helen persists not only in her relationship with Matthew but also in her public opposition to the death penalty. The movie Dead Man Walking, is a reasonably accurate retelling of Helen’s story. She recounts that it is thirty minutes before midnight, the time of the scheduled execution when she finally witnesses a break through in her relationship with Matthew. All of his defenses come tumbling down when he comes to understand that despite all that he has done and the terrible nature of his crime, God loves him.

Helen’s love and persistence have broken through Matthew’s outer shell of defiance and defensiveness. In the safety of that love, Matthew can finally admit that he did rape the young woman and that he did kill her boyfriend. At that moment he takes full responsibility for his actions and stops blaming of his co-accused for the offense. His acknowledgement of his guilt and his acceptance of God’s love do not save his physical life, but his life is saved none-the-less, for in that moment he becomes fully the person God intended him to be and he opens himself to the fullness of God’s love.

The love that Helen showed Matthew is quite different from that so easily proclaimed pop songs. It is a love that is demanding, difficult and often time-consuming. It draws on all our resources and can earn the disapproval of society and even of our friends. Helen’s love for Matthew was fueled by her love for God, her belief that all people – even those most despised by society – are created in the image of God, and her conviction that when we are commanded to love, we are commanded to love everyone, not just those whom we choose to love or those who are easy to love.

Jesus’ command is to love one another as he has loved us. “I give you and new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” In order to fully understand this commandment we have to fully grasp the nature of Jesus’ love, which is also God’s love for us. Jesus’ love began with his ability to be vulnerable. From the cradle to the grave, Jesus demonstrated that he did not need to be in control. He trusted life itself to those whom he loved. At great cost to himself, he allowed others responsibility to make their own mistakes – even when the mistake was to betray him. Jesus’ love demonstrated complete acceptance of other people. Whether they were his disciples, the tax collectors or a variety of other sinners, Jesus accepted them as they were. No one was outside his love.

At the heart of Jesus’ love was forgiveness – whether it was the woman caught in adultery, Peter who denied him, the thief crucified with him or those who nailed him to the cross, Jesus was able to put their misdeeds behind him and restore their relationship with himself. Jesus’ love was also risk taking. In choosing to love everyone, Jesus dared the disapproval of the establishment. By including everyone in his love, Jesus offended those who wanted to exclude people who didn’t fit their criteria of goodness or acceptability. By associating with outsiders, Jesus caused offense to those who wanted to determine who belonged and who did not. By extending his love to all, Jesus risked rejection, hurt and betrayal and still he loved without reserve.

Jesus’ command to love is much harder than it appears –  keeping the Ten Commandments is easier. The command to love as Jesus loved insists that we keep our own egos in check, that we suspend our tendency to evaluate and judge the behaviour of others, and that we understand that our standards and expectations are not necessarily God’s standards and expectations. It means that we must love with no thought of that love being returned, that we should not withdraw our love no matter what the loved one does or does not do and that we should overlook continually another’s flaws and betrayals. This sort of love is not trite or superficial emotion; it involves the will as well as the heart.

The context of John 13 is very specific. Jesus is speaking to the disciples, to community of faith, to us. In today’s churches we have very few opportunities to demonstrate our love for one another. We do not rub up against each other in the way that we might if we had to spend more time together. This makes it hard to demonstrate our discipleship of Christ by our mutual love, understanding and support for one another. That said, the wider church is far from being a model of Jesus’ love. It is a broken and fragmented body, torn apart by differences of opinion, a desire to be in control and an unwillingness to tolerate difference. If the world is to know Jesus by our love, we need to work harder to trust each other, to encourage each other and build each other up. We need to learn to value diversity, to welcome debate and struggle together to understand the love that Jesus showed, so that we can put that love into practice. It is not necessary that we be the same, or even that we agree, just that we love.

As Leunig says: “Love one another. It is as easy and as difficult as that.”

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