I almost asked our reader to skip today’s first reading. People are just going to sleep through this, I thought. But as Paul writes in today’s second reading, Now is the time to wake from sleep! And it’s true! If the Passover story just sounds like some weird, ancient set of rules and regulations, I invite you to “wake from sleep” and find yourself in the story.
What does love look like? That was the question the scriptures invited us to ponder last week and we ask it again this week. What does love look like? The Passover story is a story of God’s grace and love—it’s the Jewish salvation story–but how do you hear it? It could easily sound like a pointless and burdensome list of rules and regulations–which is why I invite you to find yourself in the story. To what extent is your faith in Jesus organized around rules and regulations? To what extent is it organized around love?
St. Paul writes, 8Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Did you catch that? The commandments read, “You shall not…” But Paul says, here’s a commandment that’s the foundation for all those, and it’s a positive “You shall…” Twice Paul teaches that love—not obedience to rules–fulfills the commandment to obey God’s law. Here is Paul, who was trained as an expert in the law, who devoted his life to obeying the rules—here is this same guy basically saying, Forget the rules. If the rules don’t lead you to love your neighbor the rules aren’t worth much. It was a radical word then. It’s a radical word now. It’s a welcome word, too, especially in a day when there are many voices in our world that say, “These are the rules. It’s my way or the highway.” Whether it’s religious terrorists or certain members of Congress, it’s rules that matter. And no compromise.
And yet, it’s easy to point the finger at others. The scriptures, as always, invite us to find ourselves in today’s readings. The scriptures invite all of us to ask, To what extent is our Christian faith based on rules and to what extent is it based on the one rule that Paul teaches in today’s reading, which is…to love one another?
Paul says more than just, “Love one another.” Paul says, “Love your neighbor…as yourself. It’s hard to live up to that commandment, especially if we take to heart Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies. But it also needs to be said that sometimes we follow that teaching too closely. Maybe for all of us at some time or other and for many people, a lot of the time, this is the problem! We do love others as we love ourselves. Problem is, we don’t love ourselves very much, and then turn around and inflict that lack of love on other people.
The teaching to love our neighbor as ourselves assumes that we love ourselves. Not in a selfish or narcissistic way. To love ourselves means to get a glimpse of how God sees us, warts and all, and to trust that God accepts us as we are and desires nothing more than that our deepest yearning is to grow, to become like Jesus in our relationships with others.
Sometimes we substitute rules and regulations for love—that’s the easier path. We impose on ourselves certain standards, and expect others to follow those standards. Eventually we have to either ignore the many ways in which we ourselves don’t live up to God’s standards, or, become weighed down by guilt and despair, knowing we’ve failed.
Rules are good. Rules are necessary. But, Paul warns us, if the rules don’t lead us to love our neighbor, the rules aren’t worth much.
Love your neighbor as yourself. Constantly the scriptures challenge us to think more deeply about what it means to love. We get the idea in our own culture that love is mostly about romance, or warm feelings for someone. But scripture challenges us on that. According to today’s readings, love is indicated by our impact on the community we’re part of. Do we live to meet our own needs or is the well-being of others our highest aim? Personal behavior matters. Live honorably as in the day, Paul writes, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.
But Jesus takes it a step or two further. Sometimes bad behavior is the problem. But sometimes…good behavior is the problem. For example, Jesus says, if someone behaves badly in the community, confront them about it. If they won’t listen to you, follow a process of drawing others into the conversation. But if all else fails, they need to be removed from the community for the sake of the community’s health and survival.
Here’s a comment by one writer I came across this past week. He says: Most established churches are held hostage by bullies. Some individual or small group of individuals usually opposes the church’s making any radical change, even if it means the change would give the church a chance to thrive again.
Sounds like that’s been true from Jesus’ time, and so he gives us a way of dealing with it. But how often are Christians willing to recognize bad behavior within their own faith community, let alone do something about it? Hasn’t the Lutheran approach been to be either really nasty or, more often, to just be really nice?
When Paul or Jesus speak of loving our neighbor they’re not talking about “nice.” I learned something about the word “nice,” in fact, just this past week. Did you know that the word “nice” is very old? It has roots in ancient French, English, & even back to the Latin. In each case, the root word for “nice” includes these definitions: ignorant, stupid, lazy and foolish. (If someone calls you “nice you might want to ask them what they mean by that!) No, “nice” is not a mark of discipleship. Neither is being mean- spirited. Compassionate, caring, patient, forgiving, and with an eye toward reconciliation—yes! But “nice” is usually just an attempt to run away from confrontation. And running away from confrontation, Jesus teaches, is not very loving.
Love your neighbor as yourself. Given the teachings of Paul and Jesus in today’s readings, where in your life do you see signs of hope for practicing what they preach? Where do you see room for improvement? What does “love” look like in your relationship with others? Is it about following the rules? To what extent do you love yourself?
Thanks be to God, who sees us as we are and loves us as we are. May grateful hearts respond with lives that ever more deeply desire nothing more than to follow Jesus.