THINKING ABOUT LOVE    The Rev. Brian E. Backstrand    2-23-14

There is a Christian folk song, very popular during the 1970s, called ”We are One in the Spirit, We are One in the Lord” that concludes presumptuously  “  And they’ll know we are Christians, by our love,  by our love.  Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

Others might disagree.

What is it about Christians who, despite professing themselves followers of Jesus Christ, nevertheless manage to show themselves capable of monstrous acts of hatred, intolerance and even violence all in the name of love?

How does one explain a pathology of cruelty and hatred that stems from a religion based on Christian love?

One thinks of Germany in the middle of the previous century.  How does  this Lutheran Christian nation turn against its Jewish minority in the 1930s and 40s and agree to a plan of ethnic cleansing that results in Holocaust?   How do good people ignore what is happening?

But we don’t have to travel that far.   American declares itself One nation under God.    But how do we explain the phenomenon of lynching?  .   The lynching of black American males in the South in the twentieth century by white Southern Christians, especially during the period 1910 to 1940?  Then the Ku Klux Klan—a group still very much active in our world—attracted many supporters from the Southern clergy and it was said that “Jesus Christ himself would have been a Klansman.”  (See Peter Gomes, Living the Good Life.)  Culture and Christianity were melded together in acts of hatred.  Nor has this thing entirely died away.   Recently the statue of James Meredith, that brave young African American who integrated the University of Alabama, was discovered to be wearing a noose.

What about Fred Phelps, a Baptist preacher from Kansas, who gathers his congregation, mostly members of his own extended family, and protests the funerals of gay men who have died of AIDS with hate-filled placards.

There is an old aphorism that says We have just enough religion to know how to hate, but not enough religion to know how to love.

Today Jesus says that we are to love.   The message is pretty clear and pretty astounding if we are even willing to consider it.   We are to love everybody.  Jesus says that we are not to resist an evil doer –a bold act of resistance and not one of mere passivity.  Struck on the cheek we are to offer the other.  Asked for our coat (that is an inner garment like a tunic) we are to offer the outer one, the cloak, as well.

On and on it goes.    Jesus takes the Levitical understanding (that we heard read this morning from the 19th chapter) and stretches it to the breaking point.   It turns out that everybody is our neighbor.   Listen to Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher writing about the neighbor:

The neighbor is neither the beloved, for whom you have passion’s preference, nor your friend…. Nor is your neighbor, if you are a cultured person, the cultured individual with whom you have a similarity of culture…. The neighbor is every person…He is your neighbor on the basis of equality with you before God….”  Soren Kierkegaard

If we do all this, Jesus says, we will be children like our Father in heaven.  And so we must face another question, one meant for reflection well beyond this sermon.  What do we mean when we say that God is love?

Do you have a concept of God’s love that admits vindictiveness?   Or is God’s love complete?   Enveloping?   Eternally hopeful?   I John (chapter 4) tells us  God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.  This is a pretty big canvass to be talking about.   Love connects us to God and to God’s being and purposes.   And I suspect that all of us have a pretty puny idea of the meaning of love and a pretty puny idea of what it means to say that God is love.

The first thing that we have to rule out when it comes to love is the popular notion of love as an emotion or inner feeling.   Again, Soren Kierkegaard:  “Christ’s love was not an inner feeling, a full heart and what not, it was the work of love which was his life.”   This sounds pretty much like I John when in chapter 3 verse 18 we find this admonition:  Little children, let us love not in word or speech but in truth and action.  Or James:  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.  Or Micah:  What does the Lord require of you but to do  justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God  And so we must consider that feelings are not at the heart of what it means to love.   Action is.  Behavior is.  And that makes love pretty much will and nerve and discipline.   Christ’s love was the work of love that was his life and it is out of this context of doing love that we are called to love.

But it is not just all about the steel of will and nerve and action.   Perhaps we ought to consider the power of love.  Here is St. Paul writing in Romans chapter 12.

Let love be genuine.  Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.  Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.   Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

But then he later says:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. …  Beloved, never avenge yourselves but leave room for the wrath of God. … No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink;  for by doing this, you will heap burning coals on their heads.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

For me,  this passage prompts all sorts of questions.  Do we understand the power of love?   Ghandi blessing his assassin before his murder?   Jesus forgiving on the cross?   Is it possible that the God of complete love is experienced as being wrathful only when love is denied,  when love is resisted?   Burning coals.   What would happen if we truly loved?

Here is a big one:   What would our world be like today if we had decided as a nation to love our enemies following 9-11?   There was just a chance for love then.   There was a moment before more violence and blood shed and war when the whole world was with us?  When people round the globe said “Today, everyone is an American.”

Let us not forget the choices we make.

And so we are called,  summoned.  Told to do things that seem impossible.  Called to face the impossibility of love, we are nevertheless called.   In following our master, let us be willing to reframe our conception of the context and substance of this four letter little word called  LOVE.   Not merely to think it,  not mere to philosophize about it.  But truly to do it.  And when we fail, to confess the failure and turn round and try again.

In the name of the God of Love,  Father Son and Holy Spirit.

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