During this season after Epiphany, this bridge that takes us from Christmas to Ash Wednesday, I am going to be talking about the Christian virtue of love. I will also be writing some articles on the Cape Cod Lutheran blog that you can read to go a little deeper. In some ways, preaching on love should be simple. We talk about love quite a bit in church these days. God’s love for us, shown to us in the love of Jesus. Jesus sums up the whole Christian ethic with his discussion of the greatest commandment. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.
But if we really take the virtue of love seriously, we will quickly discover that love is complicated, bringing us into conflict with other beliefs and values, even the scriptural tradition itself. Some Christians claim they are centered on the love of God and therefore cannot tolerate same-sex marriage. Other Christians claim they are centered in love and therefore feel compelled not only to tolerate, but affirm and bless such relationships. Some Christians, in the name of love, use their buildings to offer sanctuary to illegal immigrants. Other Christians drive into the southwestern wilderness, maintaining water stations to help people on the journey, but also bringing those people they find directly to the authorities, all in the name of love.
And what are the limits of love? At what point do we say, enough? At what point does love become enabling? At what point can we stop being the patsies for those who would take advantage of the loving?
I do not have a simple answer to any of those questions, perhaps because the model for love in the church was the ultimate patsy, someone who died falsely accused, died so that the authorities could feel a little more secure, died voluntarily so that those who follow him might see the ultimate meaning of life. When this is the model for love, love becomes very complicated. It’s easy to say, “Feed hungry people” or “Share with the needy” or “Hug your neighbor.” It is very difficult when love is associated with sacrifice, giving all that you have for the sake of others.
This is where the story of the call of the disciples in John’s gospel is helpful. Three words are uttered a few times in John’s gospel, “Come and see.” Today we hear Phillip say them to Nathanael, but it is Jesus who speaks them the day before, inviting his first two disciples to the place he is staying. I think these words convey what happens when words are not enough. I cannot tell you what is happening in a satisfactory way. I can only invite you into what I have found, to meet this person who has welcomed me. Come and see the meaning of life. Come and see the meaning of love. Come and see Jesus.
I have had several conversations over the years with people who ask me, as a religious professional, “What do we believe about the resurrection of the body, gay marriage, abortion, life after death?” I always find these conversations a bit awkward because, while I can speak to the social statements of the ELCA or our historical creeds my lived experience is we believe a lot of different things about a lot of different topics depending on the day. This is nothing new. Anyone who studies a little church history will come to find that Christians have rarely spoken with a single a voice on matters of faith. And the problem is that Jesus didn’t tell people what to believe. He didn’t write a book. He lived a life, shaped by the love of God, shaped by the promise of life, shaped by compassion, contentment and peace. He lived it and then said, “Come and see.”
This idea should give us pause when the impulse of the church is to find gimmicks. Come and see our Tiffany stained glass windows. Come and see our wonderful music program. Come and see our junk (yard sale). Come and see our excellent preacher. Come and see our state of the art facility. It’s not that Jesus won’t be found in such places, but we must never forget that our primary reason for invitation, for programming, for a church’s existence is to be a place where people can come and see Jesus. If people come to a community and only see stained glass windows, hear pretty music or experience a state-of-the-art program, they may not be encountering Jesus, which is the reason that the place exists.
In our tradition, worship takes a central place because we have this understanding that worship is a time when we come and see Jesus. We see Jesus in the community gathered. We hear Jesus in the words of scripture and words of forgiveness and words of peace. We encounter Jesus together at the communion table. We are empowered to go out and live a “Come and see” kind of life.
But it is not a “Come and see my church” kind of life but a “Come and see Jesus” kind of life. And when we step out of church where can people come and see Jesus out in the world? In acts of love and compassion. When people accuse the church of being hypocritical, it is usually because we have forgotten a simple truth, to know love is to know Jesus. Where love is at work, Christ is at work. So the first place where people should be encountering Jesus out in the world is not in a church building, but in you and me, in Christians whose lives become a place where the world can come and see Jesus.
And while this may include special acts of caring and outreach, most of it is simply how we see, treat and acknowledge other people. It’s how you treat the teenage kid who just started a part-time job at the grocery store and hasn’t quite figured out the system and is taking a little too long. It’s how you treat the acquaintance who rubs you the wrong way, who tells those interminable stories that don’t seem to have a point. It’s how you treat your ideological opposite in a divided political context, having compassion for their misguided ideas. It’s how you treat the person who is different from you in belief or culture. It’s how you treat the person in need. It’s how you treat anyone who gets to wear the label of human being no matter what country they come from.
Are we going to get this right all the time? No. The context in which we encounter people matters. The way we are treated by others matters. Our history with the person matters. I believe that Jesus presents us with an ideal of love to direct our path rather than a law of love which we will consistently fail. Just like awe and wonder, Christian love is a virtue that we develop over time. We are disciples, students, learning to love.
At our Still, Small Voice gathering yesterday we talked a little bit about this. How are we supposed to love everybody when we can look at history and there are such bad people who do terrible things? I even know a few jerks today. There is a logic that says, “I can’t love Hitler, therefore I will never be able to love everybody. So why bother?” We tend to look at the extremes. But as I have said, love is something we are learning, a virtue in which we grow as disciples. Start with learning to love the person in front of you. Then move to the confused kid in the grocery store and the annoying acquaintance. Learning to love takes time and practice.
Jesus has said, “Come and see” to us and led us here this morning. And then he will send us like Phillip to say, “Come and see” to the world. And sometimes we will get it right and sometimes we will get it wrong and next Sunday Jesus will say, “Come and see” once more. By exposing ourselves to the love of Jesus here, we are empowered to share that love the rest of the week. So come and see Jesus in this place. Come and see the meaning of life. Come and see the meaning of love. Come and see Jesus.