St James, Marion
As some of you may know, I began my ordained ministry, 23 years ago this summer, as a chaplain and religion instructor at a parochial day school. The curriculum that I was using to teach the first through fourth graders included a unit on what are known—although I didn’t use this term with them—as the “three cardinal virtues,” referring, of course, to faith, hope, and love. We had done very well with faith and hope, and so it was finally time to talk about love. So I asked them, “What would you say love is—what would be a good definition for love.” I received quite a variety of answers to this question, but the consistent thread that ran through every class was something like this: “Love is when you like someone a whole lot.” In other words, to put it in more grownup language, love is a particularly intense feeling of affection. As long as the feeling lasts, love endures. When the feeling dies, love vanishes.
Our Lord says, unequivocally, “Love one another.” I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of intimidated by commands like this. I don’t always feel very loving. I don’t always feel an intense affection for everyone I meet, even my brothers and sisters in Christ. As long as we understand love to be a feeling, we are only going to end up frustrated, angry, and feeling guilty. So you can see the bind that we’re in. Christians are exhorted to love each other. None of us, though, is capable of feeling intense affection for all the people in our lives, so it’s humanly impossible to keep the command to love one another. And nothing is more damaging to one’s self-esteem than to be constitutionally incapable of carrying out a clear command from God.
So, perhaps my students at St Luke’s School were wrong. Perhaps love is something other than “liking someone a whole lot.” Perhaps the sort of Christian love that we are called to is something more what we call “giving to charity.” If this is love, then we certainly have plenty of chances to show it. Every day we’re flooded with charitable appeals, from the United Thank Offering box sitting on the kitchen counter to Episcopal Relief and Development, to the United Way, and hundreds of thousands of other worthy causes. Yet, “giving to charity” is, in the end, just as frustrating as trying to like everybody a lot. The world is always needy, and getting more needy all the time. The demand for “charity” is unending, a bottomless pit. The earthquakes, the wars, the floods, the droughts, the famines—all create an endless cycle of need that we simply cannot keep up with. If we cannot satisfy the commandment to love one another until we have satisfied these needs, then we are hopelessly guilty, hopelessly incapable of meeting such a requirement. Indeed, what failures we are! We are not able to love one another as God commands us to. We can’t feel intensely affectionate toward all the people in our lives, and we can’t give enough to charity to take care of all the victims of this world. God must not like us very much. And, if loving is just a more intense version of liking, then it must logically follow that God doesn’t love us either!
Now we’re really in a conflict, because the scriptures assure us time and time again that God does love us, completely and irrevocably. I hope God also likes us—although I suspect that there are times, at least, that he doesn’t. But that’s beside the point, because his love for us is declared and demonstrated in the strongest possible terms. The measure of God’s love is declared and demonstrated in the act of the Son of God’s laying down his life for us, for his friends, for those whom he loves. “No one has greater love than this,” says Jesus in the fifteenth chapter of St John’s gospel, “than to lay down one’s life for those one loves.” And in the same breath, Jesus says, “This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.”
As I have loved you.
How has Jesus loved us? By laying down his life. How, then, are we to love one another? The same way: by laying down our lives. Christian love is not essentially about feeling, and it is not about giving to charity. Christian love is essentially about sacrifice, about laying down one’s life. In this time, and in this place, of course, it is extremely unlikely that any of us will be asked to spill our own blood for the sake of Christian love. But there are countless other opportunities for us to lay down our lives in ways that fall short of physical death.
We lay down our lives when we yield a place of honor to someone who may be less deserving of it than we are. We lay down our lives when we perform a service but give up being recognized for what we’ve done. We lay down our lives when we make an anonymous gift—and, I might add, we lay down our lives when we consent to graciously receive thanks and recognition for a gift or service when we really would rather remain anonymous. We lay down our lives when we devote time or attention or just a listening ear to someone who may not even be all that needy, but nevertheless asks this of us. We lay down our lives whenever we are generously willing to give the benefit of the doubt when it comes to assigning blame or responsibility. We lay down our lives when we give up our right to be right, when we give up what is justly due us.
We lay down our lives when we refuse to participate in petty quarrels and “turf” battles, especially within the church community. We lay down our lives when we give up the sublime and sweet pleasure of not being on speaking terms with, or feeling superior to, another member of the body of Christ.
We have the opportunity to lay down our lives, to love one another as Christ loved us, every hour of every day. When we realize and claim God’s love for us, manifested in Christ laying down his life, we are empowered to lay down our lives and let the love of Christ flow freely through us. This habitual laying down of our lives in love, every day, day after day, eventually benefits us, as well as those who are the objects of our love. It allows us to identify with Christ in his death, which is at the heart of the process of the salvation of our souls. It allows us to experience that peace which passes all understanding. It may even—within the economy of God’s love and even his liking of us—enable us to feel deep affection toward those for whom we lay down our lives.
And, we may even, on occasion, be permitted to see the results of the sacrificial love which we offer, just before it’s sucked into a black hole. But whether or not we are ever allowed these momentary glimpses, we can rest in the assurance that we are indeed able to keep the command that we love one another. It doesn’t demand that we feel anything.
It doesn’t demand that we fix anything. It does invite us to claim the faith and the courage, both of which God offers us in his word and in his sacraments, to lay down our lives as Christ laid down his life for us. Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.
Alleluia and Amen.