Saturday, May 1, 2010

Commanded to love, May 2, 2010

Text: John 13: 31-35

"All you need is love" said the Beatles in the 1960s; and so says Jesus in his own wonderful and distinct way. "Love one another as I has loved you," Jesus commands his friends in our Gospel reading this morning. "Love God and neighbour," he tell us, for these are the two Greatest Commandments. "Love one's neighbour as oneself" he continues. Jesus even commands us to love our enemies. Commandments about love are central to Jesus' life, mission, and teaching. But do we really need to be commanded to love? Doesn't love just come naturally to us?

Last Sunday at both the Junior Youth and Senior Youth group meetings, the theme was love. And I liked how Brad, Rolf, and Naomi used the ideas from our planning sessions. In particular, Brad highlighted different kinds of love as framed by the four words for love used in Greek and in the New Testament. The four kinds of love are romantic love, family love, love for friends, and love for all of life. It is the last love -- which is referred to by the word agape in Greek and is often translated into English as charity -- that is most central to love in the Bible and in the teachings of Jesus.

Over the next little while, we in Knox will hear more about activities of our youth groups based upon this last love: agape or charity love. The teenagers who Darlene took to the Lantern Community Church in Calgary in March were inspired by the outreach of that church to its neighbourhood. Using this inspiration, our youth groups are planning a campaign that will involve "random acts of kindness" as a way of showing love. I am really pleased by this inspiration and look forward to the next steps the youth will take.

But thinking about love last week also brought to mind some of the difficulties in following the path of love. It is these difficulties that lead Jesus to command us to love, I believe. And the way out of these difficulties is also provided by the second half of Jesus' statement: we are to love one another just as Jesus has loved us. Our ability to love both God and neighbour is sustained by God's gracious love for us.

Loving others requires self-respect, and that is the problem. For many of us in this crazy world, achieving self-respect does not come easily. For me, self-respect seemed especially elusive when I was a teenager. And I thought of that teenage self when meeting with the youth groups last week. When I was a teen, I'm not sure if I would have been willing to practice random acts of kindness given how miserable I sometimes felt back then.

Even though I usually got good marks in school, I didn't feel great about myself. Of course, growing up always has issues and stages. But I found school to be unhelpful. It was hard for me to feel self-respect when school was so regimented and when it didn't focus on my interests.

Like many young people, I wasn't very keen on geometry or geography; physics or French. Instead, I was obsessed with having friends, going on dates, and keeping up with popular culture. And when I had trouble finding friends, convincing anyone to go on a date with me, or figuring out my identity amid all the popular trends, then I felt bad about myself.

One solution to unhappiness like this among children and youth is the Self Esteem movement of the last few decades. The movement aims to help children succeed by fostering positive judgements. The philosophy is to focus on the positive in most interactions with a child, even when they have shown lack of knowledge on a test, performed below expectations on a task, or have behaved in a way that violates a community norm.

Personally I am not keen about the self-esteem movement. To me, it just flips negative judgements on their head. Because self-esteem takes the form of judgements  -- phrases such as "good job"; or "you are doing really well" -- it has the same problems as negative judgements. Its gives power and authority to the teacher or to an inner voice to name and judge, which I don't find helpful.

In contrast to self-esteem, I prefer the quest for self-respect and self-acceptance. The latter are the opposite of judgements. Instead of having inner voices that say "good girl" or "bad boy," self-acceptance comes with an inner voice that might simply say "you are" or "I am." Such a shift from self-esteem to self acceptance does not mean that values are stripped away. The values remain, but they are expressed modestly. They are connected to feelings and not to judgements.

For example, instead of a judging statements such as "good girl," a self-respecting statement might say "I really liked how you handled the hockey game, which your team just lost. Even though you were sad to lose and felt some guilt for how you played, you didn't insult either the other team or yourself. You expressed disappointment, but didn't attack yourself or the other team. I like that because being respectful is a key value for me."

Self acceptance is hard to achieve because we are often not happy with our lives. We might experience pain and loss. We might say or do things that hurt ourselves or others. We try to fit into a world with too much violence and sometimes feel ambivalent about our careers or the role we play in the community. Above all, we are aware we are limited and mortal individuals. To accept ourselves is to also accept these tough realities.

The normal alternative to accepting ourselves -- both those things we like and those we don't -- is denying our reality. But it is inevitable from time to time that our denied realities break into awareness, and then we feel bad about ourselves. When we judge ourselves, we don't have a solid basis upon which to love our family and friends let alone unknown people who live on the other side of town or the other side of the world. And yet Jesus commands us to love. So how are we to do this?

In the Gospel passage this morning, Jesus and his disciples are at the Last Supper. Jesus has just washed the disciples feet. And then Jesus gives his friends the new commandment. Jesus says they are to love one another just as Jesus has loved them.

The disciples are like us: judgemental and unhappy, and so they are not in a great place to love one another. But Jesus gives them the answer in his next phrase: "just as I have loved you." Jesus' love has just taken the form of a ritual of foot washing, which anticipates the ultimate sacrifice of the next day, his death on the cross. It is these expressions of radical love for his friends that give them the space in which to love one another. Jesus has loved them even to the point of death.

Since Jesus is willing to die in solidarity with us -- yes even us -- he opens up a path of self-acceptance. We may be heart broken, but we are still children of God, and loved by Jesus. We may be sinners, but we are children of God, and loved by Jesus. We may be sick or in pain, but we are children of God and loved by Jesus. God through Jesus accepts us just as we are. By remembering this amazing fact, we might then accept ourselves. And if we can accept ourselves, we are freed to love one another as well.

God's love for us is made visible in a thousand ways. In any moment, whether it is one of pain or joy, we are supported: supported by the earth, by the web of life, by our family and friends, by all of human history and culture -- and supported by the God of  Love who animates all of this.

God's support comes to us as a free gift. And when we remember this support, we realize that our humble self is connected to all other people and all of life. Then our hearts might be opened in love. It might begin as love of self, but we might also realize that our little self is part of the whole web of humanity, of life, and of God's Spirit. This is the gracious place where self-love touches selfless love. To love one's self with eyes wide open is to humbly know our deep connection to all other life and to God.

In Matthew and Luke, Jesus also commands us to love our enemies. Much could be said on that topic, but I will restrict myself here to say that this commandment makes a lot of paradoxical sense. Often it is those people or communities that we most dislike who shine a light on our own troubled hearts. If Person A drives me crazy with annoyance, probably they are exhibiting a quality of myself that I am denying and have not yet accepted. So when we embrace our so-called enemies, we often embrace a denied and shadow part of ourselves; and we find ourselves taking a big step towards the self-acceptance that God has already extended to us.

The practice and grace of accepting Jesus' love despite all we don't like about ourselves; of loving our enemies and so embracing denied and disliked parts of ourselves; and of finding the ground upon which to love God and neighbour is a lifelong one. So perhaps it is a lot to expect our teenagers to show the ability to fully love another and love their neighbours as themselves?

But why not? As a teen, I personally might have not fully accepted myself. But there is no age requirement for maturity or for being open to the story and reality of Jesus' love. Somehow, I didn't fully get this message in younger years. But I'm glad that with the help of church, friends and neighbours, God's message has been slowly sinking in.

One is never to too old or too young to learn the truth that to heal your life you have to lose it. So in the coming weeks and months I wish our young people well in their mission to express charitable love for God and neighbour.

Jesus loves us -- yes, even us -- and so we are free to give up the inner struggle and accept ourselves just as we are. We are freed to spend our lives in love because God through Jesus has first loved us.

"All you need is love" said the Beatles. And the good news is that in God, we already have all the love that we need both now and always.

Thanks be to God. Amen

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