Myths About Love
In the Introit we praised the Lord for being "rich in love." In the Collect we prayed that we "may love what you command," and in the Communion prayer today we'll pray that the Lord's Body and Blood strengthen us "in fervent love for one another." There's a lot of talk about love in this Divine Service, so we need to be clear what exactly we're talking about. A good place to start is by clearing the air of some common myths about love.
A common myth I hear on the radio, see in movies, and read in papers and magazines is that before you can love others you have to love yourself. This is a myth because it implies you have to work at loving yourself; nothing could be further from the truth. The sin of sins, the one that infects us all is self-love. Luther said that according to Scripture man's basic problem is that he is "curved in on the self." Scripture "describes man as so turned in on himself that he uses not only physical but even spiritual goods for his own purposes and in all things seeks only himself" (LW25: 345).
This insight isn't known only to Scripture either. The Greeks had the story of Narcissus who loved himself and distained all others so the gods cursed him to fall in love with his own reflection in a pond so that he was unable to stop looking at it and died there. And don't think the realization that self-love is a major problem in man is ancient history. Historian Christopher Lasch wrote the book The Culture of Narcissism in 1979 where he documents that this is our society's fundamental problem too. The popular colloquialism "It's not always about you," is proof that most people know it's a myth that we have to work at loving ourselves.
Finally, Scripture destroys that myth by saying the opposite. Ephesians 5:29 says, "No one ever hated his own body." And Jesus could hardly give us the Golden Rule: "Do to others as you would have them do to you," if we sinners didn't already love ourselves so that we wanted only what is best for us. No, self-love is part of our standard equipment. This self-love is so great that Jesus says that there is no greater love than a man laying down his love for himself for his friends (John 15:13).
Myth number one is that before you can love others you have to love yourself. Myth number two is that all people really need to know is that God loves them. You've seen those bumper stickers and t-shirts with the statement usually in big, bold letters followed by an exclamation mark: "God Loves You!" We'll what's so wrong with that? Doesn't John 3:16 say God loved the world?
Don't stop there. It doesn't just say "God loved the world," but that it cost God His only beloved Son to do it. That's important. The unbeliever sees the bumper sticker and says, "Of course God loves me. How could He not? Why would He not? I'm a good citizen; I take care of my family; I'm not a drug dealer; I'm not a thief, prostitute, homosexual, or pedophile like those people over there." Recognize that? That's what the Pharisee said when he prayed his self-righteous prayer. He sees no reason for God not to love him; he doesn't think it cost God anything to love him. In fact, it's easy for Him.
The proud unbeliever takes for granted that God loves him. The skeptic sees the bumper sticker and looks at his hard, depressing, stress filled life and the dog eat dog world around him and says, "If this is God loving me, He can stop already." Tell the residents of the Yazoo City that saw a 1.75 mile wide tornado devastate their town that God loves them. Tell the person who has just been diagnosed with cancer or lost a loved one that God loves them. If all people really needed to know was that God loved them, it should be enough to tell them. It's not.
God's love for sinners isn't natural, normal, easy, or even understandable. You get an idea from our text that everything must be set on its head for God to love sinners. Judas leaves the upper room to betray his friend Jesus to his enemies. Now it is certain Jesus will go to Gethsemane carrying the sins of all people. Now it is certain that the cup of God's hot wrath is going to be poured down His holy throat. Now is certain that God is going to give His only beloved Child into the hands of sinners, Death, and the Devil himself. And how does Jesus respond? "Now I'm glorified; God is glorified; and God will glorify Me."
But that's not at all how things will look, is it? God's glory is going to be stained, muddied, befouled in the eyes of the world. His enemies are going to say, "Come down from that cross and then we'll believe you. He helped others but He can't help Himself. He said God is His Father; let God save Him if He delights in Him." Does the bleeding, suffering, dying Jesus look glorious to you? It does to God the Father and God the Son. All that pain, all that ugliness, all that agony is the price for loving sinners like you. For God to go on loving sinners and not send them to the punishment their sins deserve, someone had to make good God's promise that the Law had to be fulfilled, someone had to make good God's promise that the tiniest breaking of His Law would be punished.
People need to know; you need to know, more than God loves you. You need to know you're not loveable and have no right to be loved. We're the dog that suddenly bites the hand of its owner petting it. How mad we get at that sort of dog. What if that dog turned and killed your child? I'd think you'd kill that dog without mercy. We'll we bit the hand of the good and gracious God who feeds us, and the cost of keeping us in the house was killing His only beloved Son, and God paid it. Isaiah says God the Father was pleased to do it; John says God the Son laid down His life willingly.
Now I admit that I can't reconcile God's love with killer tornadoes, horrible cancers, and the death of loved ones, but I absolutely can't fathom a father having such love for me that he would give up the life of an only child for me. No, I can't get my head around an all powerful, all loving God and loveless, powerful storms, illnesses, and deaths, but I can't get my heart around a fellow human being willingly laying down his life in place of mine.
Myth number one is that before you can love others you have to love yourself as if that's ever a problem. Myth number two is all people really need to know is that God loves them. And myth number three is that loving one another is easy. Well isn't it? Later in John 15:19 Jesus will say, "The world loves it's own." And it does. The world creates fraternal associations, benevolent associations, food banks, homeless shelters. It seems that there is a whole lot of love going on in the fallen world.
But the measure of our loving our brothers and sisters in Christ isn't the world but Christ. He said, "As I have loved you, so you must love one another." Gulp. I can't do that. If all I see is a measure, a standard, a yardstick in these words, I only see failure. Jesus loves ungodly sinners, His enemies according to Romans 5. I have trouble loving my friends and even my family. Jesus forgave my monstrous debt of sin totaling up to trillions of dollars and I have trouble forgiving someone who sins against me a few dollars worth. Jesus spread out His hands and died, so much He did love me, and my love is hard-pressed to lift even a finger.
Loving one another is not easy, and when you think it is, when you think you are doing a good job, then hear Jesus' words "as I have loved you" as a standard, so you might see how far you fall short. But once you see what a poor lover of fellow sinners you are, hear "as I have loved you" as the ground, the power, the basis for loving others. But the only way for Jesus' words to be that is if you know Jesus' love for you is undeserved, unmerited, unwarranted.
From "Amazing Grace" that finds a wretch like me, to Kris Kristofferson's "Tell me Lord what did I ever do / That was worth loving you or the kindness you've shown," to Paul seeing the full stench of his sinfulness crying out first in despair but then in victory, " O wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord," we find expressions of those who have come face to face with God's immeasurable love for them in Jesus.
Paul in Romans 7 is most apropos. Paul expresses his sense of sinfulness by referring to the Roman practice of tying a convicted murderer face to face with the person he murdered. As the corpse of his victim decayed physically, the murderer would mentally till he went stark, raving mad. That was our plight in our sins and sinfulness. We were doomed to look face to face at the death we caused by our sins. We were hopelessly chained to go into the grave eternally with our sinful nature which is dead in it's trespasses and sins, but thanks be to God He freed us, He cut our chains through Jesus Christ.
For Jesus' sake, dogs who had bit the hand of their loving Owner and were thrown out of the house are taken back into His mansion. With the Blood of His only Son He washed our wounds; with the Body of His Son He fed us stray dogs. And what happens when a stray dog that is used to everyone kicking and throwing stones at it is loved? Why it's a miracle! That mean, churlish, bad natured animal becomes a family pet, and comes to love everyone else in the house.
From inside the Father's house, from inside robes washed clean by the Blood of Jesus, from within bodies and souls strengthened and preserved in the true faith by Jesus' Body and Blood, things look different. No longer am I eyeball to eyeball with the stinking, decaying corpse of a body of death, therefore things look different. I see Judas going out to betray Jesus and Jesus hanging on the cross as glorious. I see things that men say prove God's lack of power and love whether on the cross or in Yazoo Mississippi as glorious, as too wonderful for me to quantify or appreciate. And more miraculous still, I see in Jesus the unlovable as loveable even as God saw me. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Fifth Sunday after Easter (201000502); John 13: 31-35