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.”