“Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s simple, right? It’s the second greatest commandment that resembles the first – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. We want these commandments to be easy just because they are simple statements. Neither of these is easy to do. Because they are aren’t as simple as they seem at first glance. The love being asked for here is “agape,” a selfless or godly love. In other words, we are supposed to love God and neighbor and our selves without consideration of risk or cost to our selves. It’s not so simple when considered from this perspective.
I used to think that people more readily loved others than themselves. Now I’m tempted to think that the reverse is true. And I don’t even want to raise the question of loving God. The truth is that we human beings are not very good at selfless love. We want to be, but I’m not sure that we are. Sometimes we get a glimpse of it between parents and children or spouses, but there’s something slippery about agape that makes it really hard for us.
Sometimes people go to great lengths to cover the suspicion that they are unworthy of love or unlovable. These folks will serve others to the point of self-depletion. If one does not love oneself, how is it possible to love the One who created all of us? A sense of being unworthy of love from God or others, often leaves a person trying to earn or prove their value through achieving perfection. This, in turn, can contribute to masking anything that is imperfect from addictions to mental health challenges to other ineffective coping behaviors. With this mindset, loving and accepting love becomes much more difficult.
The other side of this isn’t any better. There are people who live in fear of anyone perceived as “other.” Fear prevents love from taking hold. Fear keeps everyone at a distance and develops rules to keep the “right” people in and the “wrong” people out. How is it possible to agape (love selflessly or without condition) our neighbors if they are “other” with this kind of thinking? How is it possible to agape God if we fear so many who were also created by God and bear the image of God? How is it possible to truly love ourselves if everyone else is suspect? Fear feeds anger and anger feed hatred. Love in any form becomes limited.
This agape stuff is a challenge that most people don’t engage simply because we fool ourselves into thinking that we are doing it. If we love our neighbors more than ourselves, we tell ourselves that this is good enough. If we love ourselves more than our neighbors we justify our rejection of others with something seemingly biblical. I’m not sure too many folks even ask themselves if they agape God. That’s almost too big for most of us who are trying to get through each day.
Yet, agape is desperately needed in the world. We need people who love themselves enough to love their neighbor and their Creator. We need to reset our preset beliefs. God agapes us, all of us without exception and without limit. If we could live in this truth, the rest would be a lot easier. What if we preached this without fail – God loves you with God’s whole being and there is nothing you can do to change that fact? What if we asked those who live in fear to accept the idea that God’s love of “others” is independent of our judgements or approval? We have no impact on who it is that God agapes.
If that’s not enough, perhaps we can imagine a world in which every person knows that they are valuable and lovable simple because they are created in the image of God. This value is a gift given to all of us no matter who we are or how we move through this world or what we can or cannot do or what we do or do not achieve. If we accept Jesus’ message of love as real, then we must accept Jesus’ challenge to agape in return.
Who would not benefit from a dose of agape for themselves, their neighbors, or God? (And just imagine how agape could influence which political candidates we choose…)
Agape is our birthright. It is our neighbors’ birthright. It’s time we spread this Good News and live into the amazing gift we have been given.
RCL – Year B – Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost