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Love’s Reach

from the “Sermons and Services” collection

Acts 14:8-18
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:22-22:5
John 14:23-29

All Souls Church
Washington, D.C.
May 13, 2001

Our Gospel this morning is a portion of the long speech that Jesus gave at the last supper with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion, as related by John the Evangelist. The speech is usually called the “Farewell Discourses,” in the plural, because John edited together several speeches on related but different topics together. Perhaps the speeches in fact were given on different occasions toward the end of his life, but they add up to pithy statements of Jesus’ summary message.

Our text comes from the section on love. Jesus, you remember, told his disciples that he left them with a new commandment, “that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). This was an intensification of the Great Commandment, that we should love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus called his disciples’ attention to the ways he personally had loved them, which were at least two.

One way he had loved them was to teach them the reciprocity of love between God the Father and them. (The texts are complicated and confusing.) Jesus said he loved the disciples because the Father loved him. He also said that he loved the Father and that, if the disciples love him, Jesus, they will also love the Father. The Father loves the world through creating, more specifically through the graces within creation that enable the sanctification and fulfillment of human beings, and most specifically through the creation and nurture of Jesus who teaches us love. The disciples—we--love the Father through giving our hearts in gratitude, service, and spiritual longing, specifically as mediated through our love of Jesus. This is a Christianization of part of the Great Commandment, to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength.

The second way Jesus had loved the disciples was to teach them to love one another. He had taught them to be such friends that they would lay down their lives for one another. Moreover, the “content,” if you will, of loving other persons is to help transform them into better lovers in turn. Loving other persons is not only to nurture, protect, and please them, but also to make them better persons. Jesus’ ministry defined a better person as a better lover.

So here in the Farewell Discourses we have the charter for the Church: First, to be a community of people who gratefully receive God’s love and cultivate the loving of God in return, in many variations from simple thanksgiving to mystical union; Second, to be a community of people expert in loving other people by turning them into lovers as well, a mission that runs from the pursuit of justice to hospitality to strangers to intimacy with one’s beloved, exhibiting all the depths of human relations. Jesus knew that his disciples loved him, but he also saw that they were confused and dismayed by his statement that he was leaving, in fact to be killed. He accepted their panicked love and transformed it to a commitment to divine and human loving. We glory in the heritage of that message of love today.

Why, then, if we are the people of love so richly textured, are Christians desperately riven with conflict among ourselves and obsessively given to the support of war, hostile patriotism, and selfish claims that we alone know a way to God? Ask your Jewish friends if they think Christianity is a religion of love, and they will give you an earful.

The answer to this question is not difficult. There is a conflict within Christianity between one form of religion that focuses on the protection of the in-group, demonizing the out-groups, and a nearly opposite form of religion that focuses on the love of the God of all people, the love of all people, and the pursuit of justice for all people, not only those within one’s in-group. In the evolution of human psychology, culture, and religion, the early conditions of human life involved living in small family, clan, or tribal groups, competing with similar small groups for the means of survival. To be able to distinguish those within the tribe from the others who were potential enemies was necessary for survival. In these conditions religion evolved the virtues of love and care, but limited to those in one’s in-group. Social psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt argue that most groups also evolved virtues surrounding justice and fairness, but limited to the in-group. Personal identity was defined by one’s location within the in-group, and the virtues surrounding obedience, group service, loyalty, and honor evolved. Moreover, the identifying cultural traits of one’s particular group having to do with purity in food, sexual behavior, and dress and manners were evolved into internalized disgust reactions at the transgression of those traits. The transgressions, of course, were simply the mores of the out-groups who had different purity rules. These evolved characteristics of human religion are with us today. Would you not find it disgusting to eat a diet of bugs and worms? That was, you know, the preferred diet of our very ancestors who evolved the religions of the in-groups in the first place. One group’s disgusts are another group’s delights.

But then about half a millennium before the Common Era the conditions for human life had radically changed across the Eurasian landmass. Competing tribes were beaten into larger affiliations, eventually into empires that imposed uniform languages over tribal languages and forced tribes who had been traditional enemies to join in larger social, economic, and military units. Big cities arose with mixed populations, and tribes in China, India, and the Eastern Mediterranean were forced toward unity by successive empires. In these conditions, in-group thinking and hostility to the neighboring tribes were, and are, distinct liabilities. People began to imagine the world as a whole, not just their valley. They imagined that there is one God, one Dao, not just their tribal deity competing among others. And the Axial Age religions of Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, prophetic Judaism, and Western philosophical religions elaborated a wonderful new theology. At the heart of each of these religions is the dual claim that love should be toward all, because all people are children of Heaven, and that justice should be toward all, because of the same reason. Ethnic boundary lines became suspect, as when Jesus told the Samaritan woman that the time would come when the Jerusalem Temple and the Mount of Samaria would not matter, and people would worship God together in spirit and in truth.

Christianity as we think about it, and as our text on love expresses it, is an Axial Age religion. But it is laid down on top of the deeply evolved religious passions of our in-group ancestry. We should love everyone, yes, but perhaps not the Jews who rejected Jesus. We should be just to everyone, yes, but perhaps not to those whose poverty is a condition of our prosperity. We should join with everyone in love of God, yes, but perhaps not with those who do not worship in our way. We so easily slide from the righteous building up of the particularities of our culture of love to thinking that this culture is our in-group that need to be protected from out-groups whose cultures are different and therefore inferior. Jesus said we should love even our enemies, because all people are our brothers and sisters. Yet we so easily slide into objectifying, demonizing, and hating our enemies because deep-down we think of ourselves as justified merely because we belong to our in-group.

Christianity and the other Axial Age religions are radical innovations in human history because they seek to over-ride evolutionary instincts with learning about the essential commonality and unity before God of all human-kind. To override evolved instincts with a mere gospel is very difficult, however. All the religions are incomplete in this task, and the hatreds expressing in-group thinking break out all the time.

We Christians, therefore, need critically to discern the difference between the demands of the Gospel for universal love and justice, and the barely conscious but habitual practice and thinking of in-group identity. Jesus taught that. But he was leaving this life. Our text says that he promised to send the Holy Spirit to lead in the discernment of how to follow his commandment of love.

Jesus in our text had some harsh words for the disciples. They thought they loved him, but he said they really love him only if they do what he says, namely practice the way of love. We think we practice the way of love. But do we truly welcome the strangers, the enemies, the people of different out-groups into our share of God’s bounty, treating our own in-groups with a sense of humor and humility? Do we truly love God, or do we love God only when things are going our way and curse God when God seems to side with the enemy, or to be the enemy? Do we open ourselves in thanksgiving and joy to God, welcoming God’s judgment that flays the flesh from our bones even as it restores us with chastened mercy, or do we hide from the Judge and tell ourselves that mercy is needed only for those other sinners?

On this Mother’s Day, we are exhorted by Hallmark and others to think of our mothers as saints, which deep down we know to be at best a half-truth. Can we be grateful to our mothers, first, for our sheer existence and then also for their efforts to nurture us that included their personal limitations, their sometime needy selfishness, their sometime withdrawals from our emotional space, their sometime ambivalences of love and rejection? We cannot truly love our mothers unless we love their faults as well, just as we cannot love God without loving the lives God gives us of sometime suffering, sometime loneliness, always inevitable death. Can we love our intimates and neighbors when we admit to ourselves their flawed affections for us? Few of our lovers ever do better than our mothers. Can we love ourselves when we admit to ourselves our own flawed love of others, limited, needy, withdrawing, and ambivalent as we are? Jesus said we are only hypocrites if we say we love him and cannot do all those things.

Nevertheless, thanks be to God for the message that we are overwhelmed with God’s love no matter how flawed we are as lovers, no matter how hypocritical! God loves us even if we cannot truly love our parents. God loves us even if we truly cannot love our children. God loves us even if we cannot truly love our partners, intimates, and friends. God loves us even if we cannot love the strangers and the enemies in the out-groups. God loves us even if we cannot love God unless God acts like Super-Mom. Because God loves us that overwhelming way, accepting our failures in love, we can get on with Jesus’ commandment to improve our loving step by step. Figure out one place where you could love better, and fix it. And watch for the Holy Spirit out of the corner of your eye.


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