Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Loving the unlovable. . .
A few months ago a doting grandmother described her grandson to me as one who is just as nice on the inside as on the outside. Ahhh, you have got to love grandparents, don't you. That said, we all understand what this proud grandmother was saying. She loved her grandson. She was proud of him. She enjoyed him. The gracious distance of grandparenting allows you to love your grandchildren without knowing all their sins.
But it is easy to love the lovable. It is easy to love those who love you back, who try hard to win your love, and who do things you like. But what do you do about the unlovable? How do you love those who do not love you back, who cannot love you back, who refuse to love you back? How do you love those who can do nothing for you, who refuse to return the love you extend to them, and who are just plain hard to love?
That is the point, says Jesus in today’s Gospel. If you love only those who love you back, what kind of love is that? It is wholly reasonable, it is understandable, and it is logical but it is the love of the world and not the love of God. It is for this reason that God's love remains so strange to us. The reverse of an eye for an eye says you love those who love you, you are kind to those who are kind to you, you forgive those who forgive you, and so on...
We tend to define God’s love in our terms – love with strings attached. This love is broken by unfaithfulness, by infidelity, and by the failure to return it. This kind of love feels good. It feels good to love and to get love back. But this love is thoroughly ordinary. It is the love of a sinful heart and not the love of God. It is normal, usual, reasonable, logical, and understandable but not exceptional. There is no credit in this love. God’s love is not some super version of our own love. His love is foreign and strange to us that must be revealed to us.
When Scripture says be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect, we immediately rush to behavior. We need to do good, to be good. But I wonder if the perfection of the Father is manifest less in behavior than in the nature of love. Love is perfect... perfect is also love. The call to be perfect is therefore a call to love as God loves you. The sinful heart does not stumble upon this on its own but this love is born by God's grace and the power of the Spirit into our hearts.
The Lord's love is perfect. What does that mean? It means He loves the unlovable. I am not speaking theoretically. This Gospel is not some pep talk to love better. It is the description of the radical nature of God’s love for us. He loves you and He loves me but we are not easy to love. We are hard to love – sinners and enemies of God, until God took the initiative to rescue us ultimately from ourselves.
The Lord's love is perfect. He loves the hard to love, the unlovable. This love is not conditional. It does not depend upon love returned. God loves graciously, lavishly, impossibly generous – generous to a fault! His love is a scandal to those who come to Him seeking justice for what they think they have earned or merited.
God's love is sent even when He knows it will never come back to Him. We would describe this love as foolish, naive, and wasteful. But that is the love we see fleshed out in Jesus Christ. He came for us, the unlovable, and loved us even when we put Him on the cross. "Father forgive them for they know not what they do..." God loves not just neighbors but enemies. This is the love planted in us by baptism and faith and the love we are set apart as the children of God to show to one another and to all.
This love is perfect. It must come to us from outside ourselves. We did not invent it. We cannot learn it. We cannot duplicate it. This love works in us because Christ lives in us by baptism. This love shines through us because Christ lives in us. This love is no achievement. It comes not from the law or from demand. It is given as gift; the Spirit is the power of this love.
We are here today not because we are the lovable but because God loves even the sinner. We are here today not because we love God but because He first loved us and He gave Himself for us into our death. We are here today because He has made the dead alive, forgiven the sinner, and given hope to the despair of hearts too filled with sin and its death to love anyone. This love is unnatural to sinners who live their lives out as heirs of the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden. It requires a new nature to be planted with us in order for us to love like this.
How easy it is for us to look around on a Sunday morning and see our friends, people we know and like, and people we have worked with and with whom we have played. But that is not who we are. We are hard to love, strong and willful, demanding and unbending, proud and arrogant. We are people well acquainted with evil and none of us want to shamed by the secret sins of our hearts and the secret thoughts of our minds. We are not here to be patted on the back and told how good we are. We are here to cling to the wounds of Christ where sin is washed clean. We are here to receive the grace none of us deserve. We are here to discover the joy of love that is given to those who do not deserve it, who cannot repay it, and who cannot offer nothing in response to it.
This love cannot be demanded. This love cannot be commanded. It woos and wins over the heart of the sinner in the shadow of death. It is this love that we have been given to speak to the world. This is the miraculous love that comes down from above, that is manifest upon the cross, and that we have met in baptismal water, heard in the life-giving Word, and tasted in this Holy Supper. We love the loved and think it is great. But God loves us, the unlovable. Now to us has come the privilege of love. Neighbors, strangers, and those who step on our last nerves – they are also the ones for whom Christ has died and they are the objects of this love just as sure as you and I are. Therefore, the Lord asks us to do nothing but let the love He has given to us shine through to friend and enemy, to the lovable and those whom only God can love. There is no credit in any other kind of love. What wondrous love is this, O my soul. Amen.