First let me admit that the thoughts that make up this reflection are not original or even news for most folks sitting here and on Zoom this morning. We have all heard and read these words many times throughout our lives. I am indeed preaching to the converted here. I will also confess that some of these words and ideas are not mine. I have shamelessly borrowed from a friend in the Anglican church’s recent reflection because he can put these thoughts into words so eloquently.
Why have I chosen this topic then at all? Because it has been a constant thought in my head for many years and took root when I was teaching English literature in high school or even before when I was student in grad school and reading lots and lots of literature. The high school curriculum that I taught contained books such as Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Crime and Punishment and many of Shakespeare’s plays such as Othello and Macbeth. I began to notice a similar theme in these works as different as they all were from each other. This theme can be summed up as something like: It is easier to hate than to love and this is due to some basic flaw in human nature. This is a huge generalization of course but I am not a philosopher or a psychologist; just someone who has read and thought a lot about why the world is so full of conflict. As my friend put it in his notes: “A world broken and divided where there is a tendency all the time to limit and define: who is in, who is out; who is for us and who against; a world torn apart by war and terrorism; heightening tension and increasing polarization within and between nations or within nations; between political parties and their adherents who cannot make up their minds whether to include or to exclude; where differences in values or beliefs can create enemies. “
Why is it easier to hate than to love? Surely there must be some explanation and possible solution?
When I arrived at West Point Grey United Church some years ago, I became reacquainted with the Scriptures I had heard when I was in Sunday School in another United Church many years ago. They were like old friends who I had not seen for a long time. Hearing and reading the familiar words led me to think more about the questions I had about hate and love. In particular, when Jesus says: Love one another as I have loved you. Compared to the Ten Commandments this commandment is strikingly different. Eight out of the Ten Commandments are about what you should not do. You should love your parents and go to church on Sunday but you should NOT kill, steal, lie, commit adultery, covet someone else’s wife or their property. In contrast the words Love one another as I have loved you are phrased in an affirmative, positive way. Jesus says, Do this as opposed to Don’t do this. And it sounds like something easy to do. Of course , we will love one another just like Jesus loves us!
BUT: if it is an easy commandment to obey, then why is it so hard to do? I mean if everyone followed this commandment perhaps we would not need the other Ten and the world would not be torn apart by conflict and violence. But it is. Why is it so hard to love and so easy to hate?
Let’s go back and look more closely at the words. Love one another. Who or what is the “one another”? We assume Jesus means the disciples since he is talking to them. But taken out of context the “one another” is us and presumably humanity in general. That makes a big difference don’t you think? Can you really commit to loving everyone else on the planet? Maybe this is not so easy. How about “as I have loved you”. So let’s take a look at what else Jesus has to say about who we should love and how we should love them. The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus is asked what one should do to obtain eternal life. He asks What is the Law? His questioner replies Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these. And Jesus says that’s right so go do it. But who is my neighbour? asks his questioner. In response, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan in which the only person to help the Jew who was attacked is a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans are not friendly to each other. Jews despise Samaritans for religious and cultural reasons. But despite their differences the Samaritan goes out of his way to help the stranger who is in trouble. After telling this story Jesus asks: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Of course, we are told, it is the Samaritan who reached out to show mercy and compassion to the Jew who probably despised him and his people.
So, loving one another means showing love – compassion and mercy – to someone who is very different to you. Someone who might despise you or someone you may find hard to like much less love because they are different. Easy to love our family and friends but complete strangers who need help? That is a much bigger challenge. But this, I think, is what love one another as I have loved you means.
But there is an even bigger challenge. Jesus is reflecting on an old saying. He says: You have heard it said to love your neighbour but hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This part of the commandment to love one another may be why we struggle to love the way Jesus loves us and the way he wants us to love others. On the Cross, Jesus asks God to forgive those who have put him to death: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Not only does he forgive his enemies he also asks God to forgive them. Be perfect. Love perfectly even as God is perfect.
And so I find that this is the hardest commandment. To love one another even though that other may be a stranger and utterly different to you in every way. Race, religion, nationality, culture, age ,gender, sexuality, education, even political beliefs! And many other differences because the human race is infinitely diverse and varied. And not only a stranger who is different and alien to you but even someone who is hostile and wishes only evil to you and yours. To love these others is to love perfectly.
But here is what I think about it. Jesus knows we are human and fallible. We are weak and selfish. We are ignorant and therefore fearful. And being afraid makes us hate each other. The other is not only different but evil and therefore hateful because they are different. To love your enemy means overcoming this deep animosity to difference that seems to characterize human behaviour. And this is maybe the hardest thing to do. But it is the only way. We will fail. I fail on a daily basis to even love myself much less my family and friends. But Jesus has told us to try to do it. To aim for perfect love and perhaps even coming close will be good enough.
To close with a paraphrase of a vision of heaven attributed to St Augustine courtesy of my Anglican friend. “If God is love then God is a circle whose centre is nowhere and whose circumference is everywhere.” This vision of an ever -widening circle, opening to draw everyone in – all kinds and sorts of others – reminds us to strive for being open and inclusive too. To love one another as Jesus says he loves us. It reminds us that God’s love is unlimited- no one and nothing is outside of this circle of love and we are called to share and demonstrate this truth in our lives. If we can strive to fulfill this commandment we will find the other ten will also be fulfilled. It is the hardest commandment of all but also, I believe, the most powerful.