You may have noticed that today’s gospel lesson talks about love – a lot. The word ‘love’ in some form or another is mentioned 9 times in 9 verses, to be exact.
Today is also Mother’s Day, a day we hear and talk a lot about love. So let me begin with a story about motherly love.
My daughter Marissa, who will be 25 this month (where does the time go?), went through a rough patch in her teenage years – and dealt with a lot of rather typical teenage angst. One day, she was sobbing uncontrollably – don’t ask me what exactly this was about; I don’t remember, and she probably wouldn’t remember either, if I asked her. I did the typical motherly thing: I held her, and tried to console her. As I was gently probing what was going on, she burst out, ‘Nobody loves me!’ To which I replied, a little hurt, ‘You know this isn’t true – I love you!’ And my daughter, without missing a beat, said, ‘That doesn’t count; you’re my mom, you HAVE to love me.’
And I was thinking to myself, thank you very much! So my love is somehow second or third class love and doesn’t count?
But what this exchange taught me, once more, is that love is complex and complicated and comes in all different shapes and sizes and expressions. That love is more – so much more – than a feeling of elation and perpetual bliss on Cloud 9 – or Friede, Freude, Eierkuchen, as the Germans would say.
Just think about the relationship you had – or still have – with your mother. And I know that this relationship may have been difficult. Maybe you had a relationship with her that was cut short. And even if you had or have a good or great relationship with your mom, there probably were moments or times of tension, struggles, disagreements, disappointment, or even anger. There are times when love ain’t easy.
And for you mothers and fathers out there, and all those who have tended to children almost as if they were their own, you know that it’s not always easy to raise kids – and that our love and patience is sometimes stretched to the limits. Sometimes, we have to say no. But, of course, in and through all that we love our kids. We care about their growth, their well-being. And at times that means that we have to challenge them. Which they may not appreciate at the time – they may even hate us for it –, but hopefully will appreciate later in life.
The Bible talks a lot about God, the Father – and sometimes even about God, the Mother. And though all comparisons of God to things we know from our human experience must fall short, I think the idea of God as a parent gives us a certain idea about the kind of love God has for us. It’s a complex and complicated kind of love. A love that is often tested and stretched to the limits. I am sure there are times when God thinks about us, ‘Well, I have to love them.’ It’s a love that nevertheless enfolds us and comforts us and doesn’t let us down, as it challenges us at the same time. Because God loves us so much that God wants us to grow and bear good fruit. That’ was part of today’s gospel reading. Love and fruit bearing go hand in hand.
Now we may not always appreciate a God who expresses love through challenges. But hopefully we realize at some point in our lives that we needed just that – this push into a different, more faithful, more hopeful, more loving direction.
I already mentioned that today’s gospel talks about love a lot. The love God has for us, the love Christ has for us, and the love we consequently should have for another. And guess what kind of love Jesus is talking about? It’s not a blank check kind of love, it’s not a romanticized ideal, some feeling that promises eternal bliss and saves us from all cares in the world – on the contrary.
The love Jesus talks about is identified as ‘Agape’ – and, in the Greek language, agape is but one expression of what we like to cover with that blanket term ‘love’ or ‘Liebe’. Agape is the hardest kind of love – because it is not the kind of love we have for a lover, or spouse, or child, or family member, or friend, or even the people in the circles we frequent. Agape is the toughest, the most difficult kind of love, because agape calls us to extend respect and assign dignity to those who are different from us – to those, whose words, or opinions, or actions we don’t and can’t agree with.
I can’t tell you how difficult it has been for me, especially over the course of the last couple of years, to love all those who blatantly give into sin as they are blinded by a certain political agenda. I can’t tell you how difficult it has been for me to love people who, in this society that is so divided and polarized, are on a totally different page from the gospel of Jesus Christ as I read and understand it. To love those who either willingly or ignorantly have endangered others through their behavior during the pandemic in the name of personal or religious freedom that knows no accountability.
However, it is this kind of really hard and difficult love we are called to. Jesus himself says, if you just love those people close to you and with whom you agree, how are you different from basically any other religion or cult or philosophy in this world? Christ reminds us that God’s vision for this world is universal reconciliation, justice, and peace – and we won’t get there if we don’t love beyond the people we feel akin to.
That’s why, in today’s gospel, Jesus COMMANDS – yes, commands – his followers to love one another. Love is not optional, and love is not something we extend according to our whim. For us, love is mandatory.
We love our neighbors, all those created in the loving image of God, because we HAVE to. But that doesn’t make our love worth any less than other kinds of love, and especially those kinds of love that come easy to us. On the contrary – this mandatory love even may be the stronger and more committed love, because it doesn’t depend on whims and emotions and moods – but because it depends on and is rooted in God’s complicated and complex love for us. A self-sacrificial love that led God – our Father, our Mother, our Eternal Parent – to the cross and beyond for the sake of the world.
This is the kind of love God models for us – all of us, and not only the ones who are parents. Amen
This post is also available in: German