Commanded to Love
Based on Acts 10:44-48, 1John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17
The Arlington church that nurtured me into my call to ministry hosts a Community Assistance program once a month. Those in need are invited into the church for a hot meal, clothing, food pantry items and some social assistance. Every so often that program would host an immunization clinic and some basic health and wellness checks. My family and I would take part in various aspects of the monthly outreach by helping to bag food the night before, bringing in the food off the delivery truck, and helping during the day. In so doing, we became familiar with a few of the “regulars”. One person in particular was a woman who I’ll refer to as “Miss M”.
Miss M was an extrovert and someone who had lived in Arlington her whole life. She was in her late 40’s when I first got to know her. She was the life of the Community Assistance day as she was well known to many of the people who came, and because she just liked to talk and joke with folks. Eventually, Miss M not only received from Community Assistance, she became a volunteer and gave back for all the church had given her. Miss M lived a challenged life with a history of sexual abuse, mental illness which included multiple personality disorder, bipolar depression and schizophrenia, active substance use disorders, and history of cutting. Miss M was befriended by the wife of a former pastor, who upon his retirement, came to me and told me in no uncertain terms that she was shifting responsibility for Miss M to me. She had decided that as a Stephen Ministry Leader and a health professional, I was the person best suited to continue caring for Miss M. I said yes to the request from the pastor’s wife…but it wasn’t really a request, it was a non-negotiable command to love.
Our scriptures today are focused on the commandment of Jesus to love all people as we have been loved. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is giving his farewell instructions to His disciples and he commands them to love as they have been loved. Peter commands that the Gentiles who have been overcome by the Holy Spirit’s loving power be baptized in the name of Jesus the Christ. The writer of 1John reminds us that God’s commandment on loving each other is not burdensome, rather it is transformative. Before we go farther, let us go to God in prayer acknowledging our need to obey God’s commandments so that we can help God transform our world….
Peter and some circumcised companions were in Caesarea evangelizing a centurion of the Italian Cohort and his household. The Holy Spirit had brought them together through dreams. Peter’s dream had told him that all things created by God were clean – including non-circumcised Gentiles and Roman officers. Peter expounded to Cornelius and his household all about Jesus, and as he was preaching the Holy Spirit descended on the house. The Jews with Peter were astounded that the Holy Spirit had come to those outside Judaism and Peter quickly realized that they needed to be baptized in the name of Jesus the Christ. Peter obeyed God’s command to love all people and to bring them to Jesus.
The writer of 1John is coming to the end of the letter. In our reading today we hear that loving God enough to obey God’s commands will align us with God’s will and will help to bring God victory over the worldly powers. Loving the children of God is how we show love back to God our creator and redeemer. When we discover how to follow God’s commandment to love others without condition, then we realize that loving is not burdensome. Rather it is the key to bringing the kingdom of God here to Earth.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is continuing his farewell address and teachings to the Disciples. Jesus gives them a final commandment, “…that you love one another as I have loved you….” This is not an invitation, not advice, not a parable, this is a direct and non-negotiable order for His disciples to obey – carrying the same weight as the Ten Commandments that Moses twice carried down the mountain. Notice that the command of Jesus is not for His benefit but for ours as He says, “…I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete….” He also tells us that we will be His friends if we do as he commands.
Miss M lived a challenging life, to put it mildly. At times she was pleasant and kind, bright and joyful – but she also knew times of great darkness when compulsions and voices caused her to make choices that were not in her best interest. A few times during the 15 years that I walked with her she was institutionalized. She struggled with her physicians to find a mix of medicines and regimens that allowed her to be interactive with her world while controlling the darkness of her mental illnesses. There were times that I would pick her up from places late at night and drive her back to her apartment. Most often she would ask me to stop at a 7-11 so that she could get a bite and another pack of cigarettes. It was a running joke between us that she needed to leave the smokes behind, but she told me (quite honestly) that she had given up all her other vices and I couldn’t expect her to give up everything. Loving her meant that I needed to see the wisdom in her words and allow her to make her own decisions and help her live with the consequences.
I found I needed to have strong and consistent boundaries with her in order for us to continue to be in right relationship. She was seeking, like all of us, to connect and to belong – searching for meaning, purpose and a hope in something better. However, her drive to seek after relationships would often be too heavy handed and demanding and would run folks off instead of bringing them closer. Being in loving relationship with her was demanding and required no small amount of mercy and forgiveness on both our parts. She got to know Lucinda and the boys, and we all became quite fond of each other. Slowly, in fits and starts, things began to get better for Miss M. She became more stable in her moods and behaviors and was able to re-engage with her sister. She was able to hold down some part-time jobs and save a bit of money; and she was able to get sober. Finally, she got everything in place to make the move to live near her sister in a place that knows neither winter winds nor snow and ice.
Loving one another as we are commanded by God is neither easy nor is it optional. Christian disciples are called into that challenging space of loving everyone as well as they are able. When we do this, we are rewarded with relationships that show us more of God. Loving in right relationship does not mean allowing one’s-self to be taken advantage of, nor does it entail an attitude of servitude. Loving as we are loved by God through Jesus means that love and respect are shared mutually, that healthy and appropriate boundaries are maintained, and that the relationship develops without a power differential or hierarchy – it is love among equals.
Making ourselves vulnerable enough to love as we have been loved by God carries with it the very real risk that we will get hurt. This is what God experienced in the crucifixion. God’s great love came down to be one of us and to live with us as Emmanuel. Jesus showed His followers and all of us how we could love God and each other in ways that were mutual, healthy and healing. Yet, we could not understand how to love in this way – it was too demanding; too burdensome. We ended up killing Jesus because He loved us enough to try to transform us out of our self-centered love into a love of self-less servanthood.
I was gently commanded to love Miss M for all that she could be and all that she was in God. I was commanded to love her enough to continue to walk with her even when she behaved in ways that were mysterious, challenging and potentially boundary shattering. Love her enough not to abandon her to the fringes of society and church, where she had lived so much of her adult life. This is how I understand Jesus’s commandment to love as we have been loved. Friends, Church has always been God’s hospital full of wounded people in search of a love that will bring healing and wholeness, meaning and purpose. God’s command to us, is to love each other enough to not give up when things get tough, unpredictable, chaotic, ever changing. The next few years in The United Methodist Church are going to strain our ability to love the Church and one another. We will get through this time as the people called Methodists if we remember and fully live into God’s command to love as we are loved. Amen and amen!