Readings for May 6, 2018
Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48
1 John 4:7-10
In a remake of a Bo Diddly song, George Thorogood sings of snake hides and skulls, playing bluesy slide guitar licks and challenging, “Who do you love?” In both John’s epistle and the post-resurrection teachings of Jesus, it seems the answer should be, well, everyone.
The early Christians, as I do still today, struggled with this sense of loving everyone. The Church was composed primarily of Jews of various regions in and around what we now know as the Middle East, Greece, and Northern Africa. They were devout Jews who came to believe in the words spoken to them about Jesus, an itinerate Jewish rabbi. They believed without giving up the Law or the traditions of their religion. They were, after all, God’s Chosen People. Peter astonished the new believers when he proclaimed, “God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” Even more so, “they were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Gentiles.”
Psalm 98 reminds me, as perhaps it did the early believers, that in God’s victory, made evident through the death of Jesus, God not only “has remembered His mercy and faithfulness toward the house of Israel” but also declares “all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.” It seems to be a reasonable step forward, then, that those that have seen, acknowledged and believed the victory of our God, regardless of their heritage or previous non-belief, would become co-heirs to the promises of Christ and open to receiving the Holy Spirit. Even so, when it came to the Gentiles, the early Church members seemed to be struggling to answer the question, “Who do you love?”
The message from Jesus is unambiguously stated, “Love one another as I have loved you.” John doubles down on that command in Sunday’s second reading, “Love one another, because love is of God … Whoever is without love does not know God.” In the verse following what is in today’s readings, John adds additional clarity, writing “If God so loved us, we also must love one another” (11). It seems John leaves little wiggle room for interpretation. God loves me. If I profess to believe in God, I must love others. If I don’t live that love, I don’t really know what I believe.
Where I can get bogged down is in how I define “other” when choosing whom to love. It’s easy to cherry-pick those closest to me—my family and close friends—and those who return my love. But in the Gospels, Jesus tells me there has to be more because even unrepentant sinners love those who love them (Luke 6:32). Jesus tells me even to love those who persecute me (Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:27). Additionally, if “other” is my neighbor, the only true definition of my being a good neighbor is a show of loving compassion, regardless of proximity or shared beliefs (Luke 10:25-37). The designation of “other,” then, is far-reaching—the poor, the unwanted, the non-believers, the lonely, the prisoners, the aliens, those in authority and those under my authority. While the world wants to characterize love with adorning words, beautiful roses, and warm hugs, the love Jesus asks of me is messy and uncomfortable, sometimes unrequited, and perhaps even a little dangerous.
One of my favorite writings on this sense of other comes from 20th Century Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner. Rahner’s assertion is that we were created by a loving God who emptied Himself out to us in the incarnation of His beloved Son.
“If humans are to find their own existence, they need those who are human with them genuinely to be other, to be different, i.e., precisely not clones. People find their own perfection only in the otherness of those who are humans with them, an otherness acknowledged, affirmed, and sheerly loved. This applies also to Christ, indeed especially so. We must say also of him: insofar as the Word made human loves human beings as others and because they are others, he too attains the fullness of his nature … affirming our validity as others.” (Karl Rahner, Spiritual Writings, Philip Endean, editor)
God’s very nature, then, manifested through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, is oriented to our humanity and to us as “other.”
God is unbounded in His love and His creative genius. From that boundless nature, I was created as a beloved son, individually formed and placed into this world with others who were created individually in that same immeasurable wisdom. To live in that love, I must accept to honor and obey the One who created me by loving those also created in His love. Not doing so, choosing only to love those who are most like me or closest to me, denies the creative genius of my God and places limits on His love.
I am other. And the God who created me loves me with an infinite, merciful love. I must not, then, limit who “other” is in my own life lest I limit my very nature and my God. With all my being, I strive to live in the hope of becoming all-in with my faith, all-in with my love. That is my charge. That must be my response to the question, “Who do you love?”
“Son of the Father, Christ, you who are living in us, you are the hope of our glory. Live in us, subject our life to the norms of your life, make our life like yours. Live in me, pray in me, suffer in me, for no more than that do I ask. For when I have you, I am rich. Those who have found you have found the strength and victory for their life.” (Karl Rahner, S.J., Prayer for Hope)