It is one of the most beautiful words in the world: amour, lyubov, amor, rakkaus, ahaba, Liebe, love. Every culture in this world knows this special affection we have, this thing we often cannot explain, this emotion that defies all reason, this deep bond we have to people, which causes us to sacrifice of ourselves for the sake of someone else.
When we hear the word ‘love’, we may first think of romantic love. But I think – and hope – that everyone here has experienced love on a different level as well. Love for our children, love for our parents and grandparents, love for our friends. But whatever kind of love it is, it does something with and us and to us: it transforms us. When we love, when we are loved, something happens with us – we see the world through different eyes. We see someone else – or something – as infinitely precious when we love, and we ourselves maybe sense that we are infinitely precious when we are loved.
But, alas, love is not always easy. I’ve said it before, and I say I it again: love is not only a noun, but it is also a verb, and a verb is what we do, and what we do is work and requires some effort.
My kids are in their early twenties now, but I recall the age when they were as young as T., whom we will baptize here today, or F., her big sister. These were precious times, and I often long for the days when I could connect so easily and also physically with my kids – just snuggle with them. Dear C. and S., treasure these times – although I also acknowledge that, even back then, loving my kids was challenging in certain moments.
But when my daughter reached her teenage years, let me tell you, there were many moments when it was challenging for me to love her and, I assume, for her to love me as well – my son was easier in his teenage years. And maybe that was particular about the relationship between me and my daughter; maybe you ladies out there were easy on your moms as teenagers, and your daughters were easy on you when they were teenagers. Or maybe not.
Now I remember one particular moment when my daughter had a total meltdown, the whole world seemed to be against her, she was sobbing, and she cried out, emphatically as only teenage girls or Hollywood actors can do, ‘Nobody loves me!’
Now guess what I did when I heard her say this. I hugged her and assured her, ‘That’s not true. I love you.’ To which she replied, without missing a beat, ‘That’s different, you’re my mom – you have to love me.’
Wow. Now I have to admit that I was taken aback at first, and I was hurt. I felt attacked in a way, as if my dutiful motherly love for her was less valuable than any ‘voluntary’ love of someone else, someone who didn’t have to love her but would choose to do so. And I had doubts that moment: isn’t my love ‘real’ and genuine, because it requires constant effort and, yes, feels like work at times, and sometimes doesn’t come easy? Am I a good mom?
But since then I have realized that I fell into the trap of assuming that there is a ‘perfect’ kind of love, an idealistic kind of love – something that is effortless. Something that just so happens. Something that is strong and will be the same, now and forevermore. Something we see depicted in commercials and sappy movies. But that’s an ideal, that’s not reality. And as we all know, reality more often than not looks much different.
With the kids, we just sang this beautiful song, ‘Gottes Liebe ist so wunderbar gross’, ‘God’s love is so wonderfully big’. And we are reminded that God is the loving parent whose love for us and for all creation has no bounds. And that’s the truth. But we sometimes seem to forget that, even for God, loving us is not always easy. We are not perfect, after all, we have our temper tantrums, we refuse to listen to God, we often think we know better – if you read the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, you see that the history of God and humanity was, has been a history of tension – and a history of longing, on both sides, to love – and to be loved and cherished. And this longing of God and this longing of humanity meets in the cross.
This love doesn’t come easy. It requires the ultimate sacrifice. Yet God loves us – maybe because God has to. But does this make God’s big, wide, deep love any less valuable? Is God a bad Father (or Mother) because of that? I don’t think so.
And today’s gospel lesson makes clear that Jesus knows that love among people will never come easy. Here Jesus has to command his disciples, he has to command us to love one another. Well, if loving was always that easy, something that comes upon us, something that lifts us up to Cloud Nine, Jesus hardly would tell us that it is our duty – and delight – to love one another. In a sense, Jesus tells us to love one another – because we have to. This is just what we do as those who believe in God and follow Christ, who is love – big, boundless, beautiful, challenging, sometimes difficult love.
And this is what makes our love for each other so precious: that we work at it, diligently. That we practice this love, which means seeing our fellow human being – and all of God’s creation, for that matter – through the eyes of a loving God. That we practice this love, which bridges differences we may have – differences in political opinion or worldview, lifestyle, culture, heritage, age and values. A love that is stronger than all that divides us. This is not a fleeting emotion. This is not something that is voluntary and comes at goes. This is the kind of love that transforms us – and has the chance to transform the world.
In a moment, little T. will be baptized. And primarily what happens in her baptism is that God says, ‘I love you, you are mine, and I will never abandon you.’ T. will be embraced by this big, deep, wide love of God, in good and in challenging days.
But she will also be baptized into the big, wide and deep community of believers, the body of Christ. This child is entrusted to all of us – to love and to cherish, from this moment on forevermore. That’s the commandment we have received. This is what we have to do.
And I hope that we as the church will take this commandment seriously. I hope and pray that T. will experience us as people who love her, in good days and maybe not so good days, and she will feel as precious as she is in God’s eyes. And I hope and pray that the love of God and our love will transform her into a person who loves by practicing – doing – love each and every day of her life. And thus she becomes one of many who transforms the face of this earth and gives the world a glimpse of God’s kingdom.
For this is what happens when we follow Jesus’ commandment: Love one another, as I have loved you. The kingdom of God is in our midst.