Monday, April 29, 2013

All you need is love – or maybe not

Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter:

“All you need is love, love; love is all you need.” So sang the Beatles. I saw a bumper-sticker once that proclaimed a similar sentiment: “My religion is kindness.” My first thought upon seeing this was a twinge of guilt and sadness, because I took it to imply an indictment on Christianity which many have experienced as less than kind. Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The measure of our faithfulness to Jesus is our love for others. And St. Paul affirms that love is kind. So, when people think of Christianity, they should immediately think, “Ah, yes, the religion of kindness.” That they don’t is a scandal.

But, upon a little more reflection, something else occurred to me regarding the bumper-sticker. “My religion is kindness” suggests that I need not be bothered by all the other trappings of religion – ideas about God, creeds, doctrines, prayer, worship, church, etc.  Love and kindness is all there is to it. But is it? It certainly is an attractive notion. But, is it that simple?
The Christian religion – the religion of love and kindness – asserts that the answer is ‘no’. Christians can affirm that the Beatles song and bumper-sticker are definitely onto something. Our story is that the world was created out of God’s love and humans, created in the image of God, are created for love. And we do well to remind ourselves of that basic truth. Our fundamental rule of life is Jesus’ new commandment to love one another as he has loved us – serving one another self-sacrificially.
To be followers of Jesus – to be his disciples – means to pursue the disciplines of love, e.g., humility, kindness, gentleness, reverence, forgiveness, mercy, patience, hospitality, generosity, reconciliation, self-control. We need to take that much more seriously. The classic spiritual disciplines like prayer, worship, fasting, Sabbath, etc. are meant to open us to receiving more of God’s love and making us better channels of that love.

But that is only part of the story and insufficient by itself. Our problem is not simply that we need to know that love (or kindness) is the most important thing. If it was, then Jesus and the church would be unnecessary. The Christian insight is that our problem is much deeper and more serious than that. Our problem is our inability to love as we should. Or even as well as we want.

Just as St. Paul says we do not know how to pray as we ought, we don’t know how to love as we ought. There are lots of ways we confuse other things with love – co-dependence, manipulation, conflict avoidance, being nice, or even being mean and calling it love. We sometimes define love in the framework of modern western individualism. We decide that some are worthy our kindness and love and others, not so much.

We do not just need to know that love, or kindness, is the point. We need to know what that means. That is why Jesus doesn’t just say, “love one another”. He defines love. In fact he declares himself the very definition of love. To know what love is, we look to Jesus. That means we need to make the effort to know Jesus and his way of love rather than how we might imagine him to be. By becoming familiar with the Gospels for starters.

And what is that way? It is not primarily about how we feel about others, though Jesus does demonstrate deep feeling toward others. Love is about desiring good for others. It is the way of self-sacrificial service. It is the way of forbearing, cheek-turning patience. It is love, not just of family, not just of fellow believers, but extends to all neighbors and to enemies. It is indiscriminate, profligate love like the love God demonstrates in the rain that falls on the good and the wicked alike. It is mercy. And our mercy is to be perfect as God is perfect.

I can pat myself on the back for being loving. But, if I look to Jesus as the definition of love, I know that where he has gone I have not gone. And cannot go on my own.

And that is another part of our deep and serious problem. We know love is what we are supposed to be about. But we aren’t very good at it. We’re not good at the kind of love Jesus is about. But we’re not even very good at love by more mundane measures. If we were, the divorce rate would be much lower. We would all have wonderful, uncomplicated relationships with our parents and children and extended families. The church would not be divided.

Our love is skewed by our own fears, suspicions, and insecurities. Our love limps due to our own emotional wounds. We are masters of rationalization by which we excuse or deny our own failure to love. We convince ourselves that our words and actions are loving when those on the receiving end experience them as less than loving. We are often selfish and self-absorbed. We are busy, distracted, and inattentive.

Most of us are aware of the painful realization that even our attempts to love those who we love are so broken that we end up hurting one another. The Beatles sang, “All you need is love” and then they broke up. As St. Paul famously wrote in Romans 7:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

Our religion is kindness – the love of Jesus is kindness and then some. But, we are, to one degree or another, failures at love. That is why I am glad one of the lines in the Apostles’ Creed is “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” (“We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” in the Nicene Creed). I need forgiveness for my failure to love. I need to be honest about that failure and repent. The assurance of forgiveness frees us to do that.

Jesus doesn’t just say love one another. Jesus doesn’t even stop at showing us what that means. Jesus bears all our unlove on the cross and makes a way for us to enter into the forgiveness of God who is love (1 John 4:8). Receiving that forgiveness does not just free us from the guilt we feel for our failure to love. It frees us to love better and more fully.

And freedom is what we need. We need deliverance and healing because we are bound by our fears, insecurities, and all the emotional wounds that get in the way of our loving freely and fully. And it is freedom and healing that Jesus brings. Not all at once perhaps. Not without our participation. But, by the power of his Holy, healing, liberating Spirit he will work in our hearts to that end.

That transformation can begin now. But some of it will not come until the End that we hear about in the Revelation to John when there is a new heaven and a new earth. The world is a mess. We are a mess. We are not very good at giving or receiving love. And the mess of the world is testimony to that. Our fractured or broken relations are testimony to that. The violence and destruction that is so much a part of the world is testimony to that.

Even more troubling, we know that while each of us loves in more or less broken ways, for some the ability to give and receive love is more profoundly broken – people suffering from personality disorders, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and other mental illnesses that will only experience partial healing this side of the kingdom. "All you need is love" and "My religion is kindness" are inadequate in light of such brokenness. Without the hope of healing that is just sentimentalism. There are therapists who work to bring emotional and psychological healing. But, for many that healing will only be partial. But, we are still celebrating Easter and the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection is the first fruits, the down payment on the promise that all creation will be healed, restored, transfigured, and renewed. In the end, love wins.

And that is another reason why we need Jesus. We need the resurrection hope of healing and restoration.

“My religion is kindness” is a good start. But it is not enough.

“All you need is love” is a good start. But it is not enough.

We need to know what kindness and love look like. They look like Jesus.

We need forgiveness for our failure to love. Jesus cries out on our behalf, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

We need freedom from and healing of all those things in us that get in the way of and sabotage our being able to love as we desire to love. Jesus gives us his Holy Spirit to heal, liberate and empower us to love.

And we need hope that love triumphs in the end. Jesus’ resurrection is the assurance that we will all know resurrection and restoration.

That is the promise of Jesus. That is the promise of Christianity.

That is the promise of a faith that is kindness and love – and much, much more.

We are called to live into that promise.

We are called to live with love at the center. Jesus is at that center and he will enable us to grow in that love.

By this everyone will know that we are his disciples, if we have love for one another.


Rob Scot said...

Beautiful and true! This is an excellent presentation of the gospel in light of the increasingly prevalent sentiment of so many that 'all you need is love and that religion stuff just muddles things up'. Thanks for this, Fr. Gunter.

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Rob.

There is a faithful approach that is other than the sentimentalism that suggests that religion muddles things up and the using religious faith to justify behavior that is unloving - however much such behavior might be defended as love.