One of my favorite theologians, Linda Gavenda, told me that today is all about love. She is, of course, right. Not only because today is my last Sunday at St. Clement’s and we are expressing gratitude for the love that we have shared these last four years, but also because Hallmark has nothing on Christianity when it comes to celebrating love. After all, the willingness of Christian clergy to advocate for the idea that love is love is love did not start in the twentieth century but back in the third century when St. Valentine defied the Roman Empire by performing weddings for Roman soldiers who were prohibited from getting married. After being arrested, tortured, and imprisoned for his “crimes,” Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s blind daughter, who promptly regained her eyesight before he was executed. So, Christians have been falling in love for a long time. But is that really what Jesus meant when he said, “love your neighbor as yourself”?
The desire to love and be loved is so integral to our human nature that over the years our bestseller lists have been populated by hundreds of books on understanding, attracting, possessing, and even surviving love. And, of course, that bestseller the Bible is full of love stories: Abraham and his soulmate Sarah, who he told people was his sister; Jacob and his two wives Rachel and Leah; and that old Nazarene carpenter Joseph and his child bride Mary – come to think of it, maybe these aren’t the best examples of romance, which makes sense, because the truth is that what we call “romantic” love – “eros,” is rarely referred to in the Bible, other than as a metaphor for another, more important love – the love of God.
And yet how we love each other is, for Christians, the primary way in which we demonstrate our love for God. Because the bottom line is this: You cannot hate your neighbor and love God. Of all the radical ideas that Jesus preached, the most countercultural of them all was the notion of loving others as yourself. And not for the reasons we might think. The individualism that is so much a part of American culture is a relatively modern thing, growing concurrently with our developing nation during the seventeenth through twenty-first centuries – but we still can’t help but view everything around us through its lens. When we read Jesus’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” we instantly connect his words to our individual selves. We think that God is telling each of us how to be better people.
But for the Jews of first century Palestine, like their Israelite ancestors, loving themselves meant loving and protecting their people – their tribes and families. The rules presented to Moses in Leviticus that we heard today are part of a much longer treatise – the Holiness code- that was established by God not for the purpose of turning the Israelites into better individuals, but into a better –and safer –community.
They are practical: don’t strip your land bare – leave some for the poor folk or else they will rebel against you. Don’t steal and lie because it makes people mad. Don’t cheat and swindle others because you’ll end up dead. And definitely do not hate your families and friends, because if you do your community will fall apart, and you will die.
It was the same law that Paul had to remind the Corinthians about. “Here is what you do,” Paul says, “if you want to survive.” Except Paul’s people were facing a different kind of extinction – a spiritual death.- because they were so busy fighting among themselves over which of their leaders had the right “rules” for being Christian that they were losing sight of the teachings of Jesus. We are not, you see, the first people of God to fight amongst ourselves, to experience ourselves as knowing the “correct” interpretation of God’s word, to believe our brand of Christianity to be “right.” The Corinthian church was splintered into factions and Paul knew that the “wisdom” of the world – the cares and confusions of their age – would destroy it if they did not understand that whatever their differences were, whatever “additions” each of these builders had added to their doctrine, the foundation of their belief was the same. The foundation of their belief was love – love among and with all people.
This is still a radical idea – now in a time and a culture in which we are told that it is alright to mock someone if we have good reason, that hatred is a family value, and that truth is a relative concept. That is the “wisdom” of our age. But God’s way is different. Because God is not a private God. God does not belong to one person, one culture, one community, one religion. The holiness cods, the words of Paul, and most especially the words of Jesus, exist so that we know how to survive together. Our likeness to God – our holiness – is something different. That comes not from our ability as individuals to follow any set of rules or dogma, but by direct transmission from God, who is completely unique. Our holiness is “a likeness to the otherness of God, a way of being distinguished from the rest of humanity…a way of life that is pointedly different from the ways of the world.” It is this “otherness” that makes us a community. It is this otherness that makes us part of the divine.
And it is this otherness that demands that we care for one another in a different way – not in a way that protects what is ours or improves who we are, but in a way that redefines what it means to love. By all means, Jesus says, follow the ancient rules that you have been told again and again – they will help you survive. But that is not enough. It is not enough to try to be a “good person.” It is not enough to “do your part.” It is not enough to do what you can, given the limitations you have.
Because God has no limits. That is the difference between secular humanism – the belief that human beings can behave ethically and responsibly using the strength of our own natures – and Christianity. Our scriptures teach us that whatever innate goodness we have is not enough – that it is impossible to live together merely by “being the best you you can be” – that it is, in fact, fatally arrogant to believe that our own “goodness” is enough to combat the ignorance and evil that prey upon and hold sway over those who rely on themselves. Scripture tells us that the only way to transcend our humanity and share in the holy perfection that is God is to live the completely countercultural, “alien” way that Jesus has identified for those who truly love him.
That means considering all people – of all colors, races, genders, and beliefs – to be our neighbors. And that means sometimes loving those neighbors not for who they are, but in spite of what they believe – loving our neighbors- no matter how hard it may seem – loving our neighbors until they see God in themselves and one another. Loving them zealously, fiercely, and without fear. There is an astounding freedom in knowing we are dependent on God. We can accept that we will never be perfect individuals, by understanding that we are already a perfect community in Christ, through one another. It is what it means to be a Christian. It is why I love you. It is how I love you. It is all about love. AMEN.
Sheldon W. Sorge, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 364.