The Risk of Love
Caroline E. Perry
Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C, 2010
O God, Take our minds and think through them.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and set them on fire.
Have you ever had a moment when you realized the Bible wasn’t telling you what you wanted it to tell you? I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this Gospel reading. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Growing up, I loved this passage. It seemed to me that, in spite of all my doubts, Christianity got this part right in a way that most of the world didn’t.
And then, as I got older and wiser and angrier, I began to notice the hypocrisy with which this passage is so often deployed. What does it mean to proclaim the message of unconditional, self-sacrificial Christian love in a world where so many people live in conditions of terrible oppression, oppression sustained and even actively promoted by the very Christians who claim this Gospel of Love? “Do not rise up in violence. Love your enemy! Your reward awaits you in heaven. Be patient!” How empty the appeal to Christian love becomes when used in this way! Most of us cannot claim to have lived through the sorts of gross, daily assaults on our human dignity that a slave, for example, might experience. But smaller violations occur all the time, instances where the unjust actions of one human being lead to such intense and needless suffering for another that love, quite frankly, doesn’t seem like an appropriate response. Give me the choice between justice and love, and I’ll choose justice any day of the week. I believe in a Messiah who liberates the oppressed, feeds the hungry, and ultimately calls us into the co-creation of a more just world. Love is empty without justice, and how often the former is substituted for the latter when the demands of justice threaten the status quo.
This was the message I meant to preach today. I wanted to salvage the vision of Christian love, which is really quite beautiful if properly understood, showing that the New Testament God of Love does not replace the Old Testament God of Justice, but rather justice is the foundation of real and authentic love. Love means having the courage to speak out for what’s right.
But where is Jesus in all of this? Where is Jesus, concretely, in this Gospel reading? John tends to be very abstract, and we are in danger of reading him in the same way. But looking at this passage in context, it becomes clear that Jesus’s call to love is anything but abstract. John opens Chapter 13 of his gospel by saying, “Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end.” Thus begins the story of the Last Supper, in which the reading we heard today is sandwiched immediately between two prophecies. The first is that of Jesus’s betrayal at the hands of Judas. The second is the denial of Peter, one of Jesus’s most beloved friends, at the time of Jesus’s greatest need. I can’t begin to imagine what it might have been like for Jesus to prophesy these things, even knowing that they were part of a larger plan. John tells us that Jesus was “troubled in spirit” at the moment he told his disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The Jesus of John’s Gospel does not fear his own crucifixion. John paints the image of a Jesus always in control, marching boldly to Calvary, finding his glory in his death. John, at least, would have us believe that Jesus was not too troubled by the prospect of his own suffering on the cross. But betrayal and abandonment by the ones he loved the most . . . these caused him exquisite grief.
Have you ever been hurt so badly that there was nothing left inside you for love? Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the offending party meant to do, or how or why it happened. The cold, hard fact is that forgiveness seems impossible and indeed unjustified, utterly incommensurable with the pain inflicted. At least, that was how it felt to me not long ago. I knew, maybe, that the person in question didn’t mean for it all to turn out exactly the way it turned out. And I knew that I still had obligations toward him because he is a human being. I couldn’t satisfy my thirst for pure revenge. There are ethical demands that must be met, and that whole “love your enemy” thing is important too. So, faced with these competing motivations, I, the philosopher, capable of self-righteously justifying almost anything, came up with a solution. I did not have to summon any manner of positive feelings toward this man. Inner hatred, even, was permissible. What was important was that I acted always in accordance with the concrete demands of justice. So long as I did not do anything objectively unethical, I was in the clear, and I could hold on to my righteous anger, too. It seemed sensible, and it worked for me, at least for a time.
But Jesus. Oh, Jesus. Jesus suffered more pain on account of those who were supposed to be his friends than I can possibly imagine. And he did not let them off the hook for their sins. Jesus prophesies the transgressions of Judas and Peter in very stark terms. The gravity of their sins is clear, and atonement must be made. But what does Jesus do then? He washes their feet. He calls them “little children,” τεκνια, the diminutive of a word for child that emphasizes natural birth. Like a mother, he calls them his own. And he dies for them. Jesus’s plea that his disciples should love one another conveys a certain urgency, and for good reason. He will be dead by late afternoon.
This is the kind of love we’re called to demonstrate. I don’t think it means we’re not supposed to get angry. There are times when anger is justified, and it can be transformative, both for the one who experiences it and for its recipient. It can force us to speak the truth in love, and to hear it. Certainly, it is better to give voice to anger than to stuff it up inside. But wrapped up in this experience is the possibility of genuine personal encounter. It means being able to see another person as a human being, as more than just his or her transgression, and to open oneself up to that reality. This is, I think, one of the most profound places of vulnerability in which we can find ourselves. Perhaps we will be challenged. Perhaps we will be transformed. Perhaps we will find ourselves facing the possibility of real repentance, μετανοια, which means most literally “to change one’s mind.” It conveys not just a shift in opinion, but rather a fundamental change in the way we view the world, ourselves, and on another.
I don’t know if you find this prospect as terrifying as I do. But I think Peter does. He doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet, posing as a servant when he should be Lord. Similarly, in the reading from Acts, we find that he does not want to eat non-kosher meat, even at God’s direct command. In each instance, he first responds, “By no means.” Peter knows the rules. He knows how the world is ordered, and he’s comfortable with that. But the really wonderful thing about Peter is that even though he so doesn’t get it so much of time, ultimately he’s open to hearing the voice of God and proclaiming it. If he hadn’t been, the Gentiles might never have been welcomed into the Church. It is highly possible that they—excuse me, we—would never have had the opportunity to struggle with this text, to be confused and frightened and maybe even transformed by it.
I think I responded the way I did a year ago because I was scared. My response was to don protective armor that would shield me from further blows, from more pain that I just couldn’t handle. I was afraid to be vulnerable to someone who had hurt me for fear that it would happen again. And I was afraid that, if I let go of my anger, I would have nothing left. Appealing to the objective demands of justice was comforting because I understood clearly and logically what I had to do, and I could leave my emotions safely out of the equation. I don’t think I was unjustified in that. Please don’t think I’m telling you to be absolutely vulnerable all the time. Sometimes you must protect yourself as a matter of safety. But at the same time, I think it’s important, once you’ve gotten your footing in a place of relative security, to enter into that space of potentially transformative vulnerability, at least before God. For the past few weeks, I’ve been praying daily for this person who hurt me so badly. I’m still very angry. But I think that if I can at least begin to see him as a human being, as more than his transgression, that’s something. I am indeed finding myself open to transformation, to at least a hint of the repentance that leads to new life.
Has it happened to you?
“Little children, I am with you only a little longer . . . I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”