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Monday, May 18, 2009

Commanding Love

Easter 6B; John 15:9-17
5/17/09

When you have a dog, one of the things you learn is about giving commands. Ideally, your dog follows your commands, regardless of distractions or what he might rather be doing. [At this point, my husband brought our black Lab Finn up the center aisle to me] Finn is a generally obedient dog, and he usually complies with our commands.
[To Finn:]
Sit.
Down.
Stay.
Come!
Love! [a command about which he has no clue]

That’s a puzzling command, isn’t it? We know what to expect when someone commands a dog to do something like sit or stay, or for that matter, when we’re commanded to sit or stay! But love? That’s not so clear…

That, however, is exactly what Jesus commands his disciples to do: Love. More specifically, in this instance, to love one another as he has loved us. He seems to be big on this, because elsewhere he commands us to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind…and, once again, our neighbor, this time as much as ourselves. Also, and not incidentally, to love our enemies!

Commanding someone to love sounds contradictory. Isn’t love only meaningful when it’s freely given, when it springs from the depths of one’s heart? Hallmark would certainly have us believe that, and most of us agree. Think about the command parents have been known to give their kids after a fight, to hug one another and make up. As a general rule, that’s a total sham, an attempt at commanding love, feigned affection derived only from fear of further parental intervention!

Understood that way, love can’t be commanded. Most of us have tried at one time or another to manufacture particular feelings, either because we thought the sought after ones would be more palatable to the world or easier to live with ourselves…and it doesn’t work that well, if at all. Feelings are notoriously slippery and uncontrollable things; they pop up at inconvenient times or inspire unfortunate behavior. Didn’t Jesus get that? Sure, sometimes we feel like loving someone, but then we’re simply responding based on our own inclinations, with no reference to Jesus’s command. As he himself points out, it’s easy to love your friends.

There’s an alternative, though, and I think it makes sense of Jesus’s words. If we understand love as an action based on a deliberate decision, rather than as a warm fuzzy feeling, then it can be commanded. We don’t have to feel love; we’re called to act love. In fact, I’m not sure we even have to think love. We’re supposed to act love…because Jesus commands us to, because it’s what he has done for us.

In the Episcopal marriage vows, TV and movies to the contrary, each of the parties doesn’t say, “I do”; they proclaim, “I will.” There’s a world of difference in those two statements, and they reflect the command of this gospel: not just that I’m agreeing to do these loving things now, when it seems wonderful and marvelous, but I commit to continuing to do them—“I will”—even when I’m less than enthralled with my partner. As an act of will, I’ll act love even if I don’t feel it.

Jesus anticipates our arguments, our plaintive cries of “I can’t do that. It’s too hard. That would be deceitful and pretending…” He essentially says, “I’ve loved you the way God has loved me; now you love each other the way I have loved you, with the strength and the courage and the vision you get from my love. You’ve seen me do it; now go forth and do likewise.” He calls us to do love; to make love an act of will that comes, not from having a positive personal relationship with someone or even any relationship at all, not based on what the person has done for us or hasn’t done to us, but from the desire to love the way he loves us. If we feel like it, that’s a bonus, but it’s not a prerequisite or even the point.

And how is it that Jesus loves us? Yikes…here’s the real rub: “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And, presumably, one’s enemies. It’s not just about doing nice things for nice people; love, Jesus-style, is about doing hard things, things we really really don’t want to do or don’t think we can do, for anyone. They probably won’t be as big as laying down our life; they’re more likely to be along the lines of picking up socks off the floor again, or pausing to let another car into the lane when we’re in a hurry; buying extra food for people we might not even know at the Food Pantry rather than getting pizza one evening, or biting back the well-deserved retort to someone who’s rude to us. Our natural inclination is to think of love as getting or having something—a person, a feeling, an object—when in fact, Jesus’s love is about giving, giving without strings, without calculation, without self-interest. Simply giving.

The reality is that Finn doesn’t have to be commanded to love; he does it naturally and unconditionally. He’s not thinking about his mood, or whether he likes you, or what else he’d rather be doing; he is totally in the moment. If we’ve caused him any offense or if he’s done anything wrong, it’s already in the past and over with. We’re not so great at that kind of love; having more than a 15 second memory complicates matters! But maybe as we practice Jesus’s command to love others as he loves us, we’ll get better at it, we’ll learn to love his way, with fewer limits and more grace, and our joy will be complete.

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