Some of you may recall former Presidential Candidate Ross Perot. I’ve been hearing his name in the news recently, probably because in 1992 Perot, a Texas billionaire, stepped into an ideological gap in the Republican Party and launched a self-financed run for the presidency. One of Perot’s most quoted remarks was, “It’s just that simple.” He used it to refer to the federal deficit, the prevalence of drug abuse in the United States, and tax reform, among other things. And in today’s reading from the letter to the Galatians, St. Paul seems to be channeling him. “The whole law,” he says, “is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” It’s just that simple. Or not.
I think that one of the primary problems with grasping the seemingly straightforward concept of loving your neighbor as yourself is knowing what “love” is – and defining “love” is more complicated than we might think. The Greeks defined four types of love – “eros”- romantic love; “phileo” – friendship-based love; “Storge” – kinship love, and “agape” – love of humankind. It’s that last type of love, agape, that seems closest to what the author of Paul’s letter is trying to describe to the Galatians. This is love “in the Holy Spirit,” – love that brings “joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” It is not the love Taylor Swift sings about.
Agape – godly love – is set apart by its unselfishness. It is the kind of love that must be offered without any expectation of it being returned. This is not the irrational love of passion, nor the reciprocal love of friendship, or the possessive love of family. It is love that is meant to be given away without reservation or qualification. Just as God gave it to us – freely and without measuring our worthiness to receive it –we are now free to give it to others.
It is a potent gift – and a tremendous responsibility. Possessing the love of One who creates life and permeates all being literally gives us the ability to control the world – but only if we give it away. My family and I were watching “Dr. Who” the other night. In this particular episode, a character who has died is given a one-person, one-way “ticket” back from the afterlife. Several weeks after his death he appears as a bright light to his beloved and she reaches out to him, telling him she loves him and encouraging him to return. His form solidifies so she can see him for one moment –and he says he loves her – and that he’s sorry – because he is not returning to her. He is instead sending someone back in his place – an innocent, young boy he accidentally killed when he was serving as a soldier in war. This character decides to give away the greatest power he has ever – or will ever – have to give the boy a chance to live. Afterward, I wondered if the character actually could have come back himself – if he had not made the self-sacrificial decision he did – whether the “return ticket” would still have worked.
For Paul, the answer is “yes.” God, he says, has given us the freedom to use the power of Godly love as we will; but, he warns, do not become confused and start using it in the wrong way. We put our very souls at risk when we choose to focus on our own passions and desires. God’s love is a gift to be used with discipline, self-control, and selflessness.
Jesus provides his disciples with the same lesson in today’s gospel. They are passing through the Samaritan village and Jesus sends messengers ahead to the Samaritans to say he’s coming. When the villagers do not offer Jesus their attention and hospitality, the disciples are angry and ask Jesus’s permission to “command fire” from heaven to consume the Samaritans – but Jesus rebukes them, He lets them know that they cannot retaliate against those who refuse to learn his way. Because Jesus is preparing them for what lies ahead. He is teaching them that although they may be tempted, they may not respond to rejection and persecution with anger or violence – that they cannot use their power – the power of God’s love – out of anger.
This, according to Gene Robinson, is the hardest thing that Christians are asked to do. “Love,” he says, “is the central theme of the Bible, and yet we find it so hard to live lives of love… Responding to hate with love is one of the most daunting tasks of those who claim to follow Jesus.” Robinson knows what he is talking about. As the first openly gay bishop consecrated in the Episcopal Church, Robinson has received cartons of hate mail, including multiple death threats. His advocacy in the church and beyond for the dignity and acceptance of all people – and all kinds of love –nearly ruined his life. But he remained faithful, and today the Episcopal Church recognizes the value and importance of all loving relationships. We are proud of and grateful for his work – and for his example. Gene Robinson never stopped trying to love the people that threatened, mocked, and tried to destroy his life. Like Mother Theresa before him, who was shunned by her own family for choosing to live among those of a lower social caste, Bishop Gene knew that, “People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered,” but, as Christians, we are called to “love them anyway.” Because God’s love is a sacrificial love, and it is even more powerful when it costs something to give it.
That doesn’t mean that all love has to be sacrificial. Paul doesn’t tell us to love our neighbor and not love ourselves. I think it gives God immense pleasure for us to be happy – and loving our friends and families and romantic partners can give us great joy. Loving – in all its forms – is not wrong; what is wrong is believing we have the right to keep that love from others. What is wrong is thinking that what we love is more important than what others do. What is wrong is using love as an excuse to hurt others.
The truth is that we are often at our worst when we do things “for love.” People hurt and kill one another “for love” all the time. And the hardest part to acknowledge is that those who do such things are not necessarily bad people. These people believe their cause is just. These people are trying to do what is right. “These people” are us.
So, how do we know when we are truly following the way of God? Our scripture readings for today suggest that the answer is in recognizing not only what it means to love, but what it means to be a Christian. When Elisha wants to kiss his father and mother before assuming his place as God’s prophet, Elijah tells him, “If you think you can go back to your old life, then you don’t understand what it means to be God’s prophet.” Paul tells the Galatians that as Christians they must not fight with one another but “be guided by the Spirit.” To his disciples, Jesus says, “Following me means putting aside your personal desires and learning to love – and live – in community.” What these scriptures tell us is that we cannot merely believe in the way of Jesus; we must live it. We may not be called to give up our families and homes as his disciples did, but we have been challenged to live our own lives by imitating the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ as best as we can. Jesus reminds us that our identity as Christians is not about loving those things that benefit us – loving those who love us – giving to those who give to us. Instead, our role as Christians is to love what seems unlovable; to love when it seems impossible; and to love those who cannot or will not love in return. It’s just that simple. AMEN.