We robustly sing “They will know we are Christians by our love” believing that these words accurately reflect our profession of faith in Jesus Christ. But is this accurate? Is our love of God and others truly authentic? And what is the mark of this love that we profess? Are we willing to lay down our lives for our friends?
When we think biblically about love, we often turn to the Greek word agape. I think the best definition of this word is offered by theologian Tom Oord, who defines agape as “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being in response to that which produces ill-being” (Oord, The Nature of Love: A Theology, p. 56). He calls this “in spite of love.”
Agape does good in spite of evil previously inflicted. Just as God loves us in spite of our rebellion, complacency, and sin, so we ought to love others and ourselves in spite of the pain, suffering, and destruction others and we have done.
Oord’s definition of love begins with intentionality and commitment to the overall well-being of the other, and in the case of agape it is the one who intends evil to us. It’s a high calling, but one that is transformative.
In similar vein, Richard Beck, a psychologist, speaks of love in terms of hospitality. We tend to create boundaries that separate us from others, but those boundaries (purity laws?) can prove detrimental to love, especially the kind of love envisioned by Jesus. It’s one thing to love kin and clan, but what about those outside the borders? How willing are we to extend hospitality to the stranger?
In all of this we see how the practice of hospitality is the antithesis of sociomoral disgust. Where the dynamics of disgust and dehumanization foster exclusion and expulsion, the practice of hospitality welcomes the outcast and stranger as a full member of the human community. Hospitality seeks to expand the moral circle, to push back against the innate impulse that assumes “humanity ends at the border of the tribe.” [Beck, Richard. Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, (p. 124).]
The relationship between faith and love is key. We show our faith in God through our love for God and the other. Our love for the other ultimately is rooted in God, who loves in the community of persons we call the Godhead. Our ability to love is a reflection of the image of God, in which we are created.
In the texts for today we hear words about God’s love and God’s hospitality. There is a richness of opportunities present in the Hebrew Bible readings, but since I’m preaching from Lamentations 3:22-33, that’s the reading I will explore here. In this passage from Lamentations, a book of poetry that emerges out of exile, we hear a word of hope. Then, in Paul’s letter we hear a call to sharing gifts so that all might be equal in the community. Finally, in the Gospel we hear two healing stories that are expressions of compassion and love. So, what does it mean to love in such a way that people look at Christians and know that they are Christians because of their love?
We begin with the word from Lamentations. Tradition suggests the authorship of Jeremiah, but that’s unlikely. The context may not be that important, but it does appear that this series of acrostic poems comes from the period of the exile. In this passage we wrestle with the question of finding faith in the midst of despairing situations. For a moment in time, this series of lamentations breaks forth into words of hope and trust, such that this passage inspires one of the most beloved hymns of the church. “Great is thy faithfulness, O God my father, there is no shadow of turning with thee, thou changest not thy compassions, they fail not, as thou has been thou forever wilt be.” There is a certainty present in the hymn that isn’t as present here in the text. It expresses both faith and doubt, but ultimately it expresses confidence in the God who is faithful, whose compassion will not fail, for “they are renewed every morning.”
We live in difficult times. A strong majority of Americans believe the nation is going in the wrong direction. It doesn’t matter that the statistics tell another story, people just can’t get their heads around the possibility that things are better now than they were a few years ago. We just don’t feel it in our bones. We seem to have lost hope. Not even God seems capable of lifting our spirits. But is our situation as dire as that of the exiles? Have we lost everything? Do we feel as if God has in this moment of time put our mouths in the dirt? We may not have the same sense of Divine providence as the days of old, but do we feel God is present? Do we believe that God will ultimately reveal to us God’s compassion and covenant loyalty? Can we “wait in silence for the LORD’s deliverance?” Indeed, can we sing with joy “Great is thy faithfulness”?
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church suggests that there has been much resistance to his message and leadership. There is a lot of defensiveness in the letter, but he also persists in offering a word of grace and love. Here he seeks to test the “authenticity of your love.” In doing this he offers Jesus as their example, reminding them that “although he was rich he became poor for our sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty (2 Cor. 8:9). In reading this passage we get another reminder that there were serious problems present in this congregation regarding social stratification. We see this in the first letter, where he has to speak to their table habits and even regarding their understanding of spiritual gifts. Here, Paul seeks to remind them that in Christ there is equality, and not just “spiritual” equality, but true equality. He calls on those with much to share with those who have little. It seems as if they had started working on sharing their resources, but need further encouragement. He suggests that “at the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficient so that in the future their surplus can fill your deficit. In this way there is equality” (8:14). You could call this socialism, which is a rather unpopular ideology at the moment. But the point here is the authenticity of love. Am I willing to love my neighbor enough to share? Is it voluntary? I suppose, but the principles seem to call forth from us the need to develop a heart for the other, and if that involves a social safety net provided by the tax payer, then perhaps that would be a faithful response to the call to share. Remember that our current separation of secular and sacred wasn’t the pattern in the first century or back in the day of Moses. What is authentic love? How do I experience and express it? That is the question.
In our gospel reading we happen upon two healing stories that get intertwined. There is a young girl, who is dying, and as with Lazarus in John 11, Jesus will get there too late – but happy results are in store. It’s important to note that there is a religious leader involved. Jairus’ daughter is ill and though he’s part of the ruling class, he finds himself at a difficult point and so he seeks out Jesus, and Jesus is willing to go with him.
As he journeys toward the home of Jairus, a woman approaches him. She has been experiencing bleeding for twelve years. That’s the same number of years as Jairus’s daughter has been alive. The woman has suffered from a malady that robs her of energy and makes her “unclean” and thus unable to be part of the worshiping community. Purity had trumped mercy (Hos. 6:6). She has also suffered at the hands of her doctors. How fitting that this text appears in the same week that the Supreme Court hands down its ruling on the US health care reform act. America has the best health care system money can buy, which means that a goodly number of people can’t gain access to this wonderful system. She has suffered mightily at their hands and now the money is gone, and she has no other hope. That is, until she hears about Jesus. And so, she sneaks close, knowing that if discovered she’ll be shooed away (at best). Her only hope is to touch his robe and hope that this act of faith does the job. And sure enough it does, but Jesus also recognizes that something has happened and he calls out to her, inviting her to make herself known. And instead of condemning her for touching him, thereby making him unclean, he commends her for her faith. He does what the doctors failed to do, and he didn’t take her money. He risked being made unclean so that she might be made clean – and thus drawn into the circle of faith.
But the journey isn’t over – having restored this woman to health, he continues on to Jairus’s home. But, there has been this delay, and his daughter is dead. I suspect that Jairus was a bit frustrated. He was a man of influence and of means, and yet the commotion around the woman had delayed Jesus, and thus delayed the healing of his daughter. How dare she? I don’t know if that’s what he was thinking, but it’s possible. By the time he arrives the girl is dead and the professional mourners have arrived. They tell him – don’t bother it’s too late. But Jesus’ response is one of compassion and promise. He tells the people, “don’t be afraid, just keep trusting (Mk. 5:36). And them putting out everyone but the parents, he goes into the girls room and calls her back to life, after taking her by the hand. Note once again that he takes an action that makes him unclean – that is, he touches the dead body. But in doing so, he gives it life again. And she gets up, starts to walk, and Jesus suggests that she be given something to eat. Oh, and don’t tell anyone – as if they could keep this quiet!
God is love and God acts on behalf of the people who live in exile, who live in difficult times, and he shares with rich and poor equally, though in sharing with the poor he seems to talk from the rich! This God values mercy rather than sacrifice, so how shall we respond to God’s call to embody authentic love?