The first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles tells of the Holy Spirit coming upon the Gentiles —Romans, mostly— while Peter was still preaching. And with that all the parts of Jesus’ commission and promise “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” begin to be fulfilled. For once this still very Jewish Church crosses the enormous cultural hurdles to preach to the Gentiles it’s a relatively short step to the ends of the earth. Once the doors are open to the Gentiles, it doesn’t matter much if they’re in Samaria, Salzburg, or Sun Prairie. “And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith” indeed.
If we ask about the motor for that victory, there are two obvious answers. The first is the Holy Spirit. Who else but God’s Spirit could have given the apostles the backbone to stand before the Jewish leaders and the Roman Empire? But the second equally obvious answer is the love that has been the constant theme in our readings these past weeks. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” And in another context Jesus said “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you…have love for one another.” All the things that Jesus could have said but didn’t: “if you have flawless theology; if you are without sin; if you…” Well, we might as well segue into Paul’s paean to love in 1st Corinthians: “if you speak with the tongues of angels and men…” Nope: “if you have love for one another.”
I thought very briefly about organizing this homily around the question “What does the Bible say about loving one another?” Then I quickly realized that that was absurd, because you wouldn’t be far wrong if you said that on the whole the Bible is about nothing else than loving God and loving one’s neighbor. So “What does the Bible say about loving one another?” would be a very long homily. Better, it’s something we spend our entire lives learning.
So the question pretty quickly became What might I say that would be useful to us here and now about “love one another”? Here are four themes to chew on: confession, generosity, no-fault, and forgiveness.
Confession. “Love one another” doesn’t get very far unless we’re willing to acknowledge ourselves as serious sinners. If my own experience is an indication, we’re ready to admit we’re sinners, but not serious sinners —that’s other folk. Years before I got married a friend described marriage as the ideal context for discovering the depth of one’s selfishness. He was right. And in the first years of marriage the times I came closest to throwing in the towel were the times in which my choices were to flee or acknowledge to myself just how selfish I was being. To which the Christian tradition with exquisite pastoral sensitivity says “Well, duh! What did you think Jesus died for, your parking tickets? So repent & learn how to love this woman.” How often do we walk away from each other because the relationship is an occasion of unwelcome self-knowledge?
Generosity. “Love one another” is about —to steal from St Paul— hoping all things, believing all things. St. Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises put in best: “it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; and if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate means through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved.”
So when we find ourselves mentally mapping a conflict in a way that puts the others entirely in the wrong and us entirely in the right, all the warning bells should be going off, first because we are offending against charity regarding the others, and secondly because this mapping blinds us to our own sinfulness. The sad thing about this is that all of us have been working hard since kindergarten at getting good at this sort of mapping, and by puberty it’s mostly instinctive. As with the barbarian hordes, so with us: following Jesus means laying down weapons that we’ve gotten very good at using.
No-fault. “Love one another” is pretty much a no-fault policy. That’s the point of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Again, notice what he doesn’t say: not “if you remember that your brother or sister did something bad to you” or “if you remember that you did something bad to your brother or sister” but simply “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you.” If the relationship’s broken, that’s the trigger, and whose “fault” it is…is irrelevant. What relationships need some TLC?
Forgiveness. “Love one another” is about forgiveness. The stakes here couldn’t be higher. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” I don’t know of anything harder than forgiveness, whether of others or of ourselves. Many times the best we can do is to pray for a little more openness to forgiveness.
And when it comes to forgiveness we need to be careful not to cut corners. People say: well, I forgive him, but see if I’ll trust/respect/talk to him again. That doesn’t work, and here’s why. It’s not simply that Jesus ties us forgiving others and God forgiving us together. It’s that the way we imagine God forgiving us is linked to how we forgive others. And God’s forgiveness is reckless and extravagant. The prodigal son gets new robes, the fattened calf, and a seat at the head table. The Epistles repeatedly celebrate our boldness and freedom of access to God’s presence. “[You have] made us worthy to stand before you” says one of the Eucharistic prayers. And this is the way we’re to forgive. It is an integral part of the freedom Jesus has won for us. The flip side: if we persist in forgiving at arm’s length (“I forgive you, but…”) we should not be surprised if we wake up one morning and discover that our image of God looks less like the prodigal’s father and more like the prodigal’s elder brother: well, you’re back, but don’t you dare make yourself at home.
“Love one another” It’s about being willing to learn the depth of our brokenness. It’s about putting the best interpretation possible on the conduct of our brothers and sisters. It’s no-fault. It’s about forgiving as God forgives us: recklessly, extravagantly.
Let me leave you with a final image. Football games are usually won or lost in the trenches, the hard away-from-the-cameras work. It doesn’t matter who’s playing quarterback for the Packers if by the time he gets the ball the backfield is filled with guys wearing the wrong color jersey.
Loving each other when us each others are hard to love is that work in the trenches. There’s no glamour to it, but it wins games —and our Lord is out to win the world. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”