Practicing "loving one another"
EASTER 6 | Acts 10:44-48; 1 Jn 5:1-6; Jn 15:9-17
The other day I saw a story in the news about a woman proudly announcing what she does to people she doesn’t like. She says that she makes hot dogs—she makes them the way my mom used to make them, by boiling them in water. Then she removes the hot dogs and puts the pot aside until the water has cooled. Then she pours the used hot dog water into ice cube trays.
Then she has a party. She invites both people she likes and people she doesn’t like to her home. To people she likes, she makes drinks using regular ice, but the folks she doesn’t like, she serves their drinks with ice made from hot dog water.
Now, I don’t know about you, but…that seems like an awful lot of trouble to go to just to be unpleasant. I can only imagine how much twisted joy every stage of the process must have given her, how much glee she must have felt watching her “frenemies” drinking from their glasses. How satisfying it must have been to watch their faces fall and their noses crinkle at the taste.
I think it’s normal to like some folks and not like others. It’s human. And even if we work at it very hard, there’s always someone who is going to rub us the wrong way. And this cuts both ways, too. I figured out a long time ago that, no matter how nice I was, there were going to be some people who just weren’t going to like me. I don’t understand it, and it hurts when it’s clear someone doesn’t, but it happens.
And even when it’s me who doesn’t like someone, I often don’t really understand it. I mean, I usually like people, but when I don’t, it isn’t because of their skin color or their religion or the way they talk or their educational level or, often, anything you can even really POINT to. Sometimes people are aggressive or boorish or annoying, which is easy to understand, but sometimes folks just rub me the wrong way. It pains me to admit it, but there are some folks that I just don’t like. And I don’t always know why.
Let me tell you about Shelley. I was at a retreat, and Shelly was assigned the room next door. Shelley was nothing if not exuberant. She talked a blue streak—usually about nothing, and I found her almost impossible to bear. To be frank with you—you who are my confessors today—she irritated the hell out of me.
And I know that she got on other peoples’ nerves, too. I watched people shun her, and this was even in a spiritual environment. And despite the fact that she drove me crazy, my heart broke for her. And it occurred to me, “I might not LIKE Shelley, but I can CHOOSE to love her.”
Now that all sounds very noble, but I can’t actually take credit for very much, because I did not succeed at loving her very consistently or even very well. I loved her…spottily. But, I think, more than she was used to.
And I think that my lame, poorly executed love was actually transformational for her. She started hanging out with me…dammit. Which was fine…kind of. But more so, in retrospect I can see that it was transformational for me.
I didn’t choose to be on that retreat with her. I didn’t choose to be put next door to her. But there she was. And the fact that she was there REQUIRED something of me, something I am not always prepared to give, something I often struggle to give.
And this is, I think, one of the chief benefits of belonging to a church, or any other spiritual community. You don’t get to choose who shows up. You don’t get to choose who sits in that pew next to you, or who talks to you at coffee hour. You don’t get to choose who breaks down and reaches out to you for comfort or help or advice. Wildly random people show up at church, and suddenly, the only commandment Jesus ever gave us falls in our lap like a sack of root vegetables. Jesus told us to “Love one another.” And here, sitting next to us, sometimes the last person we would ever choose to speak to, THIS is the person we are called upon to love.
Peter struggles with this very thing in our reading from Acts. The first Christians were Jewish, and they didn’t think gentiles should have anything to do with Jesus or his movement. Jesus was a rabbi, they reasoned, and his message was for Jews.
But then something happened that rocked Peter’s world. He saw that the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on these lowly gentiles—he heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. And the sight of it broke Peter’s heart. He realized that his prejudice was just that, and that if God wanted to do a new thing among these uncircumcised folks, who was he to object?
“Can anyone withhold the water of baptism from these people—these precious people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And no doubt against the objections of several of the Jewish Christians in his party, Peter ordered that these gentiles should be baptized. Despite everything his culture told him, despite centuries of tradition, despite the protests of his closest friends, Peter decided that these un-Jewish people should be admitted to the Fellowship of his own faith. He realized that HE did not get to choose who would be part of his community. That decision was God’s and God’s alone. And the fact that Peter did not have a choice was actually GOOD for Peter. It changed him, it made him a better, more tolerant, more open kind of person. It made him a better Christian.
I saw a banner on a church not long ago that really brought this home to me. Their church motto was, “People who don’t belong together, gathered around Jesus, for the benefit of others.” Wow. That is just about the best definition of church I have ever heard.
“Love one another,” Jesus said. And you know as well as I do that’s easier to do with some people than it is with others. I mean some people are just easier to love, right? But this is the genius of spiritual community—it is precisely the fact that we are forced together with random people and commanded to love them that forces us to grow spiritually. I mean, people are easy to love in the abstract. But in person, in the messy, annoying flesh, loving people—especially people who are hard to love—it can break your heart, it can crack you open, it can make you grow into something more than you are now. At least, if you do it right, it will.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Do we need to be COMMANDED to love one another?
Well, few of us are going around making hot dog water ice cubes,
but when we’re trying our best, we kind of suck at it,
so obviously, we do. Is it EASY to love one another?
It is the hardest thing in the world, even after a lot of practice.
Should we PRACTICE loving each other? Oh, heck yeah.
And one of the best places to practice is right here. Because this—church—is the one place I know where everyone is trying—spottily, maybe, but trying—to do the same thing, where everyone is practicing this “love” thing. THIS is the place where everyone is trying—not perfectly, and maybe not even well, but TRYING—to love one another. And when we fail…as we will…this is the place where forgiveness is eagerly extended, even as it is sheepishly received.
And it’s important that we learn to do it in here, because once we get the hang of it here, we can do it OUT THERE. Out there—where there IS no expectation of reciprocity, where NO ONE is bound or committed to this commandment, where there IS no expectation of forgiveness. But if we can learn to do it here, we CAN do it there. And if we can do it there, we can bring a little bit of the transformation we’ve experienced HERE into the world.
“Love one another,” Jesus commands us—
not just the people who look like us,
not just the people who pray like us,
not just the people who vote like we do,
not just the people we like,
not just the people who are easy to love,
but everyone, everyone, everyone.
“I have appointed you to go and bear fruit,” Jesus said.
“Love one another, as I have loved you.” Let us pray…
God, I’m not sure why loving is so hard,
But from our earliest childhoods we learn that some kids are cool and some are not
Some people are “in” and some are “out”
Some people are loved and some…not so much.
But you are the one who came to seek out the lost and find them,
You are the one who came to seek out the lonely and befriend them
You are the one who stepped over the line,
who went to the people at the margins and loved them.
And now you want US to be YOU, to do the loving that you did,
especially when it’s hard.
Help us to take your commandment seriously, help us to take it to heart,
Help us to “get it,” that THIS is the one and only thing you really require of us
—not right belief, not correct rituals, not having all the answers,
JUST THIS, that we love one another as you have loved us. Amen.