You will never hear from me that faith is a simple journey. Choosing how to follow the gospel and what that looks like over the course of our lives is complicated. It’s hard. It requires prayer and mindfulness. It requires looking at problems with fresh eyes, and seeing people with open hearts, and that is a lifelong enterprise. Jesus is constantly challenging us with complexity. But every once in a while we get the gospel distilled into simplicity and our second lesson is one of the best examples of this: the Ten Commandments are recited one by one, and then summed into one very easy-to-remember slogan: Love your neighbor as yourself. After all, Paul writes, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” There it is – signed, sealed, and easy to remember.
But this is right about where things get tricky again: What if our neighbor rejects our love? What if we don’t like our neighbor? What if our neighbor does terrible things? What then? Does love faked through gritted teeth count? Are we just supposed to keep showing love at any cost to ourselves? And how far does this neighborliness go, anyway?
These are not selfish questions, or dumb ones; they are the most important ones. How to love is at the heart of Christianity as Jesus envisioned it. Jesus knows – God knows – that it is easy to love when it spills out of us; much harder when we have to pull it out of us. But that commandment from Jesus isn’t strictly about the first kind of love we usually think about – the kind of warm, embodied love we feel for a romantic partner, our children, a dearest friend, and family. Jesus is focused on the radical love that emerges from three specific places: openness, acceptance, and wisdom. From those three places, we can find a way to love even our worst enemy. From those three places, we learn to love ideas that matter. From those three places, we learn to love in a radical way that brings about change for the better.
Now radical has always been a term that makes some people feel uneasy. But what else was Jesus but a radical? He challenged the establishment; he confronted the ruling powers. He gave fiery speeches to crowds about a new vision for society. He held rallies and emboldened his followers. He was a proponent of non-violent protest – he won people over by feeding and healing them. But even Jesus lost his temper that day among the money collectors in the temple. Where would Jesus be today? Among those speaking out against injustice, or those standing silent watching from the sidelines? Everything Jesus preached was radical for its day, and, indeed, for our day – especially when it comes to love.
What does that kind of radical love look like? How can we truly love our enemy – whether that be someone who wronged us, someone whose views we find abhorrent, someone whose choices we feel are harmful?
Perhaps here is one way to think about it: I love my country. I consider myself blessed to be a Canadian, and I am proud of it. I am married to a former army brat who takes standing for the anthem very seriously. But I know my country is not perfect, not even close. This week protestors beheaded a statue of Sir John A MacDonald in Montreal – an act that has sparked debate and controversy. But it has also highlighted that the white men – because it is mostly white men – we honour in statues were complicit in our country’s shameful beginnings, the days of the subjugation of another people, and residential schools where children were stolen away from their families and abused. That is a past I cannot change. But can we truly love Canada as the great country it is today – as the great country it can still become – if we don’t own all those parts as well? That would be a shallow love, not the kind that emboldens citizens to work together, to do better. But a society – a people – open to discussing their worst leanings, accepting of the need to learn from them, and wise enough to find a way forward – now that is a society worthy of love. In this way, I can radically love my country fully – and not despite the terrible history, but in its flawed fullness.
But that is a country. Apply that thinking to people who hurt us and it gets so much harder. But that is where Jesus’s vision of radical love is the most useful to us. In fact, our gospel is very pragmatic about the handling of a dispute: if someone does something against you, Jesus says, go and talk to them. If that doesn’t settle things, bring in a couple people you trust to mediate. And so on. That’s good sense – go to the source first. How often, though, do we skip the first step in that sequence and jump right into bringing in the group?
But the thing is, that is not the even the first step. The first step is radical love. When we are broken apart from another person, Jesus wants us to go back to that one powerful, guiding commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. That kind of love is the kind that is open to seeing where the other person is coming from, that accepts there may be differences and works first of all for common ground. This love is wise: it finds a way to new understanding. This kind of love doesn’t mean you have to keep going back to person in question; it doesn’t mean your relationship to them stays the same; but it does mean finding a way to put love at the centre of your actions and your thoughts. That is a radical idea because so much of our conflict is useless noise – proving you were right, getting angry, being defensive. But radical love says who is right doesn’t matter; it asks what is the right way to go? Radical love isn’t angry; it is patient, searching for understanding, and the time that takes. Radical love isn’t a defensive wall; it requires looking for the opening to a fresh start.
Jesus knew we were a bunch of hotheads, and that living in community was hard – just last Sunday the gospel had him lashing out at his dearest friend and calling him Satan, which was a pretty terrible thing to say. But the gospel calls us to be constantly working on the way we show and share love, especially with those people who in the moment – or longer – we feel have become impossible to love. That is what makes it radical. That in a world of human hotheads, the gospel shows us another way: a love that is open, accepting, and wise. We all need that kind of love, and we all have the power to give it.
Matthew 18:15-20—14thSunday after Pentecost—Sept 5, 2020