Sunday, May 1, 2016

"Extra Grace Required"

John 13:31-35

In his best selling devotional book, The Purpose Driven Life, Pastor Rick Warren writes, “In every church and in every small group, there is at least one ‘difficult’ person, usually more than one. These people may have special emotional needs, deep insecurities, irritating mannerisms, or poor social skills. You might call them ‘EGR’ people—“Extra Grace Required.” We all know these kinds of people right? If you are looking around and you can’t figure out who that person is in this group, it might be you!

Is our parish the kind of place where Extra Grace Required people can find the love and acceptance they are denied in other settings, or are we just another cliquish club or organization?  More pointedly, are people more or less likely to find friendship here than they are at the local tavern? Is our church more or less accepting than twelve-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous?

Nearly every church describes themselves as “friendly” and “welcoming,” but it is much rarer to find churches that actually are. Usually these descriptions are provided by those who have already been welcomed in the inner circle. Would the mother with the toddler having a temper tantrum say the same?

In today’s gospel Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." Are we the kind of community that loves one another as Christ has loved us?

Whenever this passage, or passages like this, come up, people love to point out that “loving” someone is not the same as “liking” someone. There is something to be said for this. Certainly loving someone does not mean that I find them charming, that I always agree with their opinions, or I always approve of their behavior. True enough. This morning, however, I want to push back on this common statement. How exactly do we love someone without liking them? Does it just mean that we tolerate them or that we don’t wish them harm?

Too often I feel like we follow Jesus’ commandment to love in a purely nominal sense. As long as we are technically in conformity to the commandment, as long as we haven’t actively abused anyone, we say “good enough.” But is that how Jesus loves us? Think about it for a minute. Would you be satisfied if I told you that Jesus loves you but he doesn’t like you? What if I told you that Jesus finds you annoying and that although he wouldn’t want to see you in hell, he doesn’t especially want to spend much time with you either? Is that the kind of radical, passionate, soul-satisfying love that can change a hardened sinner into a saint? Is that the kind of love that when shared with one another makes the world stand up and notice? No! We don’t get off the hook that easy. Jesus’ love for us is much more than that, and the love he calls us to have for each other requires much more grace than that.

Now that we haven gotten that out of the way, what can we say about what Jesus is actually commanding us to do?

If we genuinely love someone, we will have affection for them. They will be dear to us. We will cherish being with them. In his letter to the Romans, Paul teaches, “Love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” These are emotion-laden words that run directly contrary to the stoic idea of love without affection. It is the kind of love that binds a family together. It is not something that happens overnight. It takes time. It is the fruit of a long-term commitment to growing together in the love of Christ. It is what happens when we move from just trying to externally conform to Jesus’ commandment to love to really allowing his love to penetrate our hearts, to soften them, and to transform us from the inside out so that we overflow with grace for others. When we are gracious like Christ is gracious, we are not counting people’s sins against them, we are not constantly annoyed at their shortcomings. We are not venting our frustration with them behind their backs with others. Instead we are honoring them. We magnify the good in them and patiently overlook their flaws because, as the scriptures say, “love covers a multitude of sins.”

Love like this is grounded in hope and faith. Saint Paul writes, “From now on we regard no one according to the flesh, or from a worldly point of view.” What does this mean? It means that we look beyond the surface, beyond appearance, beyond this present moment and strive instead to see one another from an eternal perspective, as God sees them. It means we are committed to that person that God intends for them to be, to that person he is making them into, the person they will be in glory. By faith we see their true-self, who they really are in Christ, unclouded by their sinful nature, the very image of God radiant with his likeness.

As C.S. Lewis writes, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses” and that even the dullest and most uninteresting of your brothers and sisters in Christ will one day become a being that if seen now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. If we regard our brothers and sisters in that way, how can we fail to love them or show them honor? 

Now the objection may come, what about ISIS? What about Hitler? Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but we couldn’t possibly have “brotherly affection” for them and we most certainly should not show them honor! This is correct. There is a distinction between the love that we have for our fellow saints and the love Jesus asks us to have for our enemies.

The love for our fellow saints, as we have been saying, is grounded in who they are in Christ. They are children of the same father and thus our brothers and sisters. We see them as God sees them, lovely and delightful, “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” The love that we have for our enemies, those who persecute us, however, is not grounded so much in who they are as in who we are. Because of who we are in Christ, we are to be consumed with the same passion that he has for the salvation of all the world. If we have the kind of love for one another that we have been talking about, we will be a community that will long to draw all the world to itself, to make even our enemies into brothers and sisters. We will mourn to see people created for such glory twisted and distorted into such a nightmare. We hope and pray for their salvation and transformation.

Brothers and Sisters, I am as painfully aware as you are of the gap between the person Christ has called me to be, and how I actually behave in the present. Nevertheless, the worst thing we could do is to regard Jesus’ command to love one another as a beautiful but impractical ideal. The worst thing we could do is to live as if the Kingdom of God were not at hand, as if Christ were still in the tomb, and the Holy Spirit never descended. As G.K. Chesterton has said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”  Dear Lord, teach us to do the things you have commanded.