Learning to love
When I was 5 years old my parents sat down my brother and I to inform us that we would all be moving to Pennsylvania. My brother took the news in stride. I burst into tears and began screaming. When my parents finally calmed me down enough to ask what I was so upset about, I told them, “You’re making me move and you won’t let me take my stuffed animals with me!” My parents quickly taught me what a moving van was and assured me their would be enough room in it to take all my stuffed animals with us to Pennsylvania. As soon as I had been assured, I quit crying, and never said another word of protest.
As silly as this may sound, I loved my stuffed animals as a kid. Each of my stuffed animals had a name, and a personality, and even their own best stuffed animal friends. I had created a whole pretend world in which my stuffed friends and I lived and interacted. They were my friends, and I genuinely cared about them. The idea of being separated from them was terrible. Even worse was that I thought my parents, the “real” people who were supposed to love me, were so indifferent to my friends and the love we shared, that they would forcibly separate us. For me, and for a lot of children, creating personalities for their stuffed animals, dolls, or toys, can be our first effort at forming loving relationships. It is a way to practice loving and caring for others, a way to learn how to be in mutual loving relationships.
On his last night with his disciples, Jesus gives tells his closest friends that when he is gone, they must love one another as he has first loved them. This commandment to love as Christ first loved them is so central that it is to be the identifying mark of all Christian communities- “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” If we are to seriously attempt to follow this command, as I believe we must if we are to follow Christ, then we need to first be clear about how we are to love one another. Love is an unfortunately broad word which can refer to a variety of experiences- everything from friendship, to romantic love, to how we care for our children, or how we feel about good coffee. To make matters more complicated, our personal understanding of love, is always conditioned by our lived experiences- we understand what love is by how we have experienced it. Sometimes these experiences are harmful or abusive. They can lead us to mistakenly believe that this harm and abuse has something to do with loving. So if we are to make a real attempt to follow Jesus’ command to love one another as He first loved us, it is important to understand how Jesus loves us.
There is a tendency to think of Jesus’ love as a principle that is universally applied. God is love and therefore Jesus loves all people. While that has some truth to it, it can lead us to think of the love of Christ as being impersonal and mandatory. Imagine a young man proposing to someone and saying, “I love you. I love all women, really. You know what I love everybody.” It would make the moment a little less special wouldn’t it? God does not love us in the abstract. God does not love us because we are merely a part of a larger whole that She loves. God does not love us because God must love us. God freely chooses to love us. God freely chooses to love each, individual, one of us, just as we are. God doesn’t just love, humankind, God truly, deeply, personally, and voluntarily loves you. Right now, just as you are, Jesus loves YOU.
In addition to being free, voluntary, and personal, Jesus’ love for us leads him to give freely of his whole being to each one of us. We see this in his life- how he devotes his time to healing others, to loving others, to setting them free from sin and awakening them to true, eternal life, in the kingdom of God. Most especially, we see it in his voluntary, sacrificial, death on our behalf. Jesus’ love for each of us is such that he gives his entire being, even his body and blood, so that we may have life and have it abundantly. The love that Jesus shares with us is a personal, self-giving love that does all it can to lead us to a full, flourishing, life. It is a perfect love, and it is perfectly offered to everyone.
Knowing that you are loved like this by Jesus is great news. Subsequently realizing that you are then to attempt to love others in this same way, is more than a little daunting. “Ohh great I just have to love as perfectly as the Son of God, should be easy.” The truth is that we can’t love as perfectly or as broadly as Jesus did. Given that he is divine as well as human, and that we are merely forgiven human sinners, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. But then what are we to do?!? How are we to follow Jesus’ commandment if it’s not even possible for us? To fully love as Christ loved in this life is not possible, but to practice loving one another in and with Jesus Christ, to grow in our capacity for Christ like love is certainly possible with the grace of God. The Christian life is an ongoing attempt to practice loving others as Christ first loved us in the hopes of growing more and more in the love of Christ.
There are a multitude of ways in which we practice loving others as Christ loved us. We do so in the life of our congregation: we feed each other, we listen to each other, we care for one another’s children, we offer help to one another. This is not always easy, or natural for us, because we can drive one another crazy. We can get on each others nerves, we can even insult and offend one another even if we didn’t mean to. And yet, it is this very people, the sometimes annoying, sometimes offensive, very different people that we are called to love. Through the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we often do so, we often manage to give of ourselves in love to each other. May God continue to help us grow in our Christ like love for one another.
Our personal relationships, especially, partnered romantic relationships, are another way we way in which we seek to practice loving others as Christ loved us.The Church has long honored marriage as a way for people to live out the command of Christ by fully, deeply, giving of themselves in love to one another. We have rightly held us these committed, personal, loving relationships as emulating and pointing towards the love of Christ. As someone who now has 6 years of experience in marriage, I can tell you that the sometimes difficult work of fully loving another person as they are, has been for me much needed and practice in living out the gracious love of Christ. Just as my stuffed animals helped me to practice loving relationships, so too has my relationship with Shannon helped me to practice the self-giving love of Christ. I love my wife, Shannon, and I am grateful to her for loving me. I am also grateful for the Church which affirms our love as good and sacred, which affirms it as pointing to the love of Christ.
There have always been people in the Church who were attracted to and in relationships with people of the same sex. There was not, until the last century, any socially acceptable space for these people to be in mutual, loving, committed, and public, relationships. The widespread condemnation of homosexual relationships in society was shared by the Church. In most cases gay people could only pariticpate in the life of the church if they kept their loves secret. While others had their relationships honored and held up as models of the practice of Christian love, gay people heard their relationships dishonored, degraded and condemned. If they could keep their sexuality a secret, then the church might be open to them. But the Church would never affirm them nor their relationships as sacred attempts to share the love of Christ with another. Disregarding someone’s loving relationship, claiming that their relationship is evil, telling them that they and their love are sinful is an incredibly damaging thing to do to someone. It does not help lead them to freedom in Christ and a full, flourishing, life. It isolates them. It alienates them. It can lead to a damaging self-image, and in turn to despair, depression, addiction, even death. These have been the fruits of the Church’s prohibition on same sex love- fruits not of love, but of death. And why have we, the Church, chosen to cause such harm to people earnestly seeking to follow Jesus? What was the offense for which we were willing to dole out such terrible punishment? Simply put, all these people wanted to do was to emulate the love of Christ in their loving relationship with another. They wanted to love others as Christ first loved them. For this genuine effort to practice loving as Christ loved, the Church has rejected, condemned, and severely damaged these children of God.
As a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ, I want to apologize to all of you, gay and straight, for this shameful, sinful, behavior. When gay people bravely and publicly declared their love for one another and asked to be a part of the Church we were wrong to reject them. We should have welcomed them with open arms. We were supposed to love them as Christ loved us, and instead we rejected and harmed them. That was wrong and if the Church is to be the Church of Jesus Christ it must end this practice. If we truly wish to follow the commandment of Jesus to love one another as he first loved us, we must recognize, honor, and affirm, the loving relationships of same sex couples as genuine, sacred, attempts to emulate and point to the love of Christ for the world. May it be so. Amen.
I went to seminary with a young man by the name of Sam who looked like he walked straight out of J. Crew catalog. Sam was remarkably handsome, he was in great shape, and he dressed immaculately. Sam was smart and well educated, he was a graduate of Columbia University in New York. What’s more he was white, and straight, and to top it off he was very polite and kind. The way in which Sam seemed to so effortlessly check off all of the boxes of what our society considers to be normal, healthy, and good, drove me nuts. I still remember silently despising him as I stood outside our dorm smoking a cigarette after pulling an all nighter to not quite finish a paper when he waved hello to me as he finished his early morning run. He was just so together, so normal, he was the prototype of what our society thinks a nice, young man is supposed to be.
There is a tendency in religion to think that God only wants the best. This tendency is born of a desire to show love and honor to God, to recognize that God is holy. There’s nothing wrong with desiring to give God your very best. I encourage all of you to give the best of your lives to God and to the church, to honor God by making of your lives a living sacrifice. However, the tendency to imagine that God only wants the best can take a rather harmful turn when it is applied to people themselves. In ancient Israel, the priestly class sought to maintain the holiness of God by enforcing purity laws meant to insure that only those who were adequately prepared, the very best, could stand in the assembly of the Lord. This meant that anyone or anything that they deemed abnormal was prohibited from joining in the religious life of the community. One such prohibitive law is found in the 23rd Chapter of Deuteronomy where it says, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.”
At first glance this seems a terribly odd and terrifically specific prohibition. Yet the practice of crushing a young boys testicles, or removing all their genitalia, was fairly common in the societies that surrounded Israel. Many of these Ancient Near Eastern Societies castrated boys to serve as eunuchs in their official courts and their harems. Such a practice was alien to Israel, and as such it was deemed impure, and eunuch’s were thus cut off from the assembly of the LORD. When you are trying to collect only your best to present before the LORD, when you are trying to make a congregation full of Sams, you simply can’t allow in people that are so atypical, people that are so different, people that don’t fit our mold of normal and good.
For years this prohibition was relatively uncontroversial simply because there were almost no Eunuchs in Israel. However, that began to change after Israel and Judah were conquered by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. After this conquest, many Israelites were forced into serving the courts of these Emperors, and in these societies it was only eunuchs who could perform such roles. Many Israelite men became eunuchs during the period in exile. This raised the question anew- would these Israelites, now eunuchs themselves, be allowed into the assembly? Could they be included in God’s love and grace?
As Christians in the 21st century our religious inheritance includes a prohibition against sexual relationships between two people of the same gender. Though this prohibition has always been somewhat controversial, in the last 60 years it has become much more so. Millions of people now live in committed, loving, sexual relationships with people of the same gender. And these people, courageous enough to be true to the person God created them to be, have insisted that they too have a right to share in the grace and love of God. They have insisted that they too belong in the assembly of the LORD.
The first strike taken against the prohibition on eunuchs in the assembly of God was taken by the prophet Isaiah who wrote, “Thus says the LORD, ‘To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters, I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” The word of God that came to Isaiah directly contradicted the earlier legal prohibition against eunuchs. Isaiah heard a new Word from God, a Word of inclusion and love, and he did not hesitate to speak this new Word against the old understanding.
When Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, set off a new religious movement, a new people of God, the question about Eunuchs and their place in the community was still a live one. The stance that the new community was to take was made known from the very beginning; it was made known by this story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. There are two points from this story I want to bring to your attention. The first is that it is God who takes the initiative. This is not a side project of Philip’s, its not a trivial, optional, issue on which there is much room to disagree. No, the angel of the Lord sends Philip to where the eunuch will be, and the Spirit of God instructs him to sit beside the eunuch in his chariot. From the very beginning, God makes clear that this new community will not be a community of only the most normal, most admired, most typical people. God sends Philip to share the gospel with an Ethiopian eunuch.
The second point that I want to make is that ultimately it is Philip who must answer the question of the eunuch, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” God brought these two together, God helped bring the Word to the eunuch, but ultimately it is Philip, it is the Church, that must answer the question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” When gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people come to the Church in our time, the same question is put to us, “Is there anything to prevent me from being baptized?” We know that the Spirit of God was given to the Ethiopian eunuch after he was baptized. We know that the word of God that came to Isaiah contradicted the earlier prohibition against them. So the question isn’t what the bible says, or what God wishes. The question is whether we will meet our LGBT siblings with the loving acceptance of God or if we will insist on worshipping normality and legalism instead. My prayer is that we will do our best to embody the Holy Spirit in welcoming all to be baptized, loved, and affirmed within the church. May it be so. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast