May 6, 2007

Tough Love

A sermon from St James Fordham • Easter 5c 2007 • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Jesus tells us that people will recognize us as his disciples by our love for one another. This love will be our passport, our I.D. card. There will be some quality in our relationships that glows in the dark, and makes people sit up and take notice.

But what is this quality? What is this love? What kind of love indicates, “These are Christians,” to all who pass by?

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If one were to attend meetings of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention, or many a parish vestry meeting, to say nothing of the Lambeth Conference, or the Primates’ Meeting, or were one to peruse the many angry weblogs on the Internet that spend as much time belittling others as proclaiming the faith, one might well wonder if these people were recognizable as Christian disciples — if, that is, by love we simply mean kind affection.

But there is far more to love than kind affection. One can have affection for a dog or cat; one can shed a sympathetic tear for a character in a TV show. Surely the love of which Jesus speaks to the disciples is far deeper than mere affection, far broader than civility, even higher than empathy. For the love by which Jesus says his disciples will be known is the same love he had for them. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples.” This love which meant laying down his life for them — this love we are to share and imitate is nothing less than the love of God.

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There is within this reality a deep irony, and it involves all love, all real love — not just within the church, but between loving spouses and partners. The reality is that love is sometimes tough. Love is not always cozy. Sometimes it is downright unsettling! The world regards the squabbles within and between the churches — whether a thousand years old between Rome and Constantinople, or freshly minted among Anglicans — the world sees these wounds as proofs of religious folly, the bruises which naturally result when stumbling about under the influence of what Karl Marx called “the opium of the people” — but perhaps ought to have called “the amphetamine of the people”! The world says, “Of course these are Christians; you shall know them by how much they disagree with each other.”

Those who level this charge do not understand the true nature of love, at its deepest level, where it is not simply a matter of getting along, but of true peace, which emerges — not out of simple compromise, but from the will to suffer all things and bear all things for the sake of the truth that can only be comprehended in a wide embrace. Our disagreements, however trivial or serious they may seem to the worldly, however painful they may be for us as we engage in them — these struggles and strifes are signs of our true love for one another when we engage in them as persons deeply committed to the search for truth, deeply committed to each other as a community of faith which is determined to be the body of Christ as surely and as permanently as the two who swear to be one together for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to have and to hold until death. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Only people who love one another very much can argue like that! The living out — the fleshing out, one might say — of any truly deep relationship will mean some struggle. We struggle because we care too much just to shrug and walk away.

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This is why the old saying is true: schism (the division of the church) is worse than heresy (which is division in the church). Heresy does not mean doctrinal error but party-spirit, and in Galatians 5 Paul lists it among the “works of the flesh.” But even so he recognized that party divisions have their use: and certainly engaged in partisanship himself, as leader of the Uncircumcision Party, and minced no words in his urgent argumentation, in writing and in person.

Look at him in today’s reading from Acts, turning his back on his own people. Now, at first that seems like walking away; but as he would explain in his letter to the church in Rome, it was not his — or God’s — purpose to abandon his people but to make them jealous of the Gentiles. Paul turned away, with the artful knowledge that giving your beloved the silent treatment may be the best way to bring them round! He deliberately turned away from his former friends and associates — his own people by birth — in the hope that out of the conflict the truth might be better revealed, and in the hope that he could provoke them from the bad kind of jealousy to the good kind — the kind that makes you want to do better..

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Paul told the church of Corinth that factions, while not good in themselves, “must exist in order that the genuine may be revealed.” The important thing is not to fall so in love with arguing that we forget the purpose is to reach a conclusion, and to discover the truth in the process.

Sometimes, though, it does seem that we’ve forgotten the purpose of debate, and have come to love our disagreements more than we love each other. I saw a cartoon in the paper last week. It showed two children yelling at each other: “You’re not following the rules!” “No, you’re not following the rules!” “Am too!” “Nuh uh!” Finally Mom says, “Oh, just forget about the rules and play the game.” And the kids look at her wide-eyed and say, “What game?”

Does that sound like the church sometimes? — so caught up in arguing about rules it has forgotten the point of the game? For the purpose of argument is to lead to a resolution: to arrive at what Paul called “genuine.” And in order for arguments and factions to be constructive rather than destructive, several things are needed. Both sides need to realize that they don’t possess the truth in its fullness, but only from a certain perspective. Both sides need to admit they could be mistaken — affirming with Saint Paul that “Our knowledge is partial.” Both sides need to place the good of the other above itself, to struggle towards the common good. Only then can the good that is best for both have a chance to emerge.

As Saint Paul admitted, we struggle towards truth, and the division of opinion exists so that what is genuine may be determined. But it is not finally we who determine it. It is the Spirit who leads us into all truth.

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What is vital is that the Spirit of love — God’s Spirit — should be with us even when there is strong disagreement. And if we find we cannot truly love at all times — for we are imperfect creatures and those we love can be so unlovable sometimes, and surely we ourselves are not always sweetness and light! — if we cannot truly love at our best at all times then it is important that we at least act as if we loved at all times.

I’m reminded of a story told by counselor George Crane, who once gave strange advice to a woman who not only wanted a divorce, but to make her husband suffer. So he said that if she wanted to hurt her husband, she should give him the old sucker punch. What’s that? Start by treating him as if you really love him — be especially thoughtful, praise him for even the slightest good point, be as generous as possible — and then just when he thinks he has it made give him the hard left jab and tell him it was all a sham and you’re getting a divorce. “Great,” she said, “that’ll teach him a lesson he won’t forget.”

Two months went by and Crane hadn’t heard a word, so he called and asked if she was ready to file for divorce. “Why, no,” she said. “The funny thing is, the more I acted like I loved him, the more lovable he became, and we’ve never been happier together!”

Now, of course, in this case the love was simulated, at least to start. The wonder is that if even a simulated love can become genuine, how much more can a real will to love, an enduring, patient love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things? This is the hard love, a love that weighs something, and it is often not easy to bear. But it is important, so vitally important that we bear it — that we bear with each other.

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For we have been invited to a place where love is most purely expressed; we have been invited to a wedding, a very special wedding(the one John saw in Revelation) and we dare not arrive empty-handed. And the wedding invitation we will have to show at the door to heaven is each other, our love for each other. The price of admission is the weight of each other, as we bear each other’s burdens — as indeed we all have been borne up by Christ. This is how we love each other as Christ loved us: by bearing with each other and bearing each other up: forgiving and forgiven. In our journey to the heavenly wedding we are always either carrying or being carried. All the church — in all its divisions and disharmonies, still bearing with each other even when the stress and strain of the 2000 year rough honeymoon make it seem that it’s going to fall apart — all that whole church of Christ, throughout time and space is a huge inverted pyramid of people carrying and being carried by one another. And that pyramid focuses its point on a man nailed to a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem, a man who knew division and conflict, but who triumphed over it all by bearing with it to the end. This was the weighty love of God, the weight of forgiveness, and though that weight pushed him down to the very depths, yet the power of God working in him raised it all up again, and the power of God can push that whole great pyramid of charity right on up and out of time and space and into eternity, to the everlasting wedding banquet. And the first shall be last: the firstfruits of the resurrection, Jesus the Bridegroom, is behind us all and bearing us forward, ushering us into the heavenly banqueting hall.

God is full of surprises. We thought we were coming to the wedding banquet as servants, then found we were no longer servants, but friends. We were then even more surprised to find that the bridegroom would act as usher! But a far greater surprise awaits us. We had just settled into the notion that we were to be guests as friends of the bridegroom. But no, it seems we are to be much more than friends.

We are the bride! We, in company with all those who have gone before, the argumentative apostles, prickly prophets, single-minded martyrs and insistent saints, all the holy people of God, the blessed bickering company of all faithful people, who in spite of all the arguments would not give up on each other, but would forgive each other and be forgiven, we are the Bride! We are the new Jerusalem, a new city built not with hands, not made of stone, but constructed out of unnumbered human souls, clothed with the dowry of the righteous deeds of the saints, and adorned with the sparkling diadem of grace and forgiveness that is the bridegroom’s gift.

This is what it means to love and to be loved, truly, broadly, deeply. This is the weighty love we celebrate at this Eastertide feast, and every time we gather to foreshadow that banquet at which we will one day dine in earnest. This is the love, the enduring and not-easy love that comes from God. This is the love that doesn’t give up, the love by which the world will know that we are his disciples. This love, and no other. +

The story of Crane’s marriage counseling is loosely based on an account from J Allan Peterson in The Myth of the Greener Grass.


Anonymous said...

So you read Baby Blues AND C. S. Lewis! (not unusual, but you learn from them, which is rare!)

d (that's a thumbs up -- VF, Tobias!)

Anonymous said...

It was Thomas Aquinas, was it not, who defined "love" as "always willing the good of the other"?

It has nothing to do wih how one "feels" about another or how much one disagrees with another, but whether one wills (wants) good for that other one.

Lovely sermon. Good thinking. Actually, the core of the problem these days.

June Butler said...

Tobias, did you see that I posted a link to this wonderful sermon and quoted from it on my blog? Are you aware that I get thousands upon thousands of visitors from all around the world every single day? My taking notice of you could produce a tide which, taken at the flood, could lead to fame and fortune for you.

I'm quite sure that you will use the fortune for good works, but perhaps you might want to set aside a portion of it to purchase a bishopric. That could lead to - I'll just let my imagination run wild - why it could lead to your becoming Primate of All Internets! Wouldn't that be splendid?

Seriously, it was a lovely sermon.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear GM,
Thanks for the note, and I await the onslaught of visitors!