‘Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time'.
Romans 13 - End and Matthew 18: 15-20
It was the Feast Day for St Teresa of Calcutta on the 5th of September and it won’t come as a surprise she had much to say on love.
One of her many quotes says…….’And so it is very important for us to realise that love, to be true, has to hurt. I must be willing to give whatever it takes not to harm other people and, in fact, to do good to them. This requires that I be willing to give until it hurts. Otherwise, there is no true love in me and I bring injustice, not peace, to those around me’.
Much to take in there and if you are anything like me you may well want to resist or reject the requirement for love to be painful and sacrificial…but any of us who have loved know this is a deep and often unspoken truth.
But this isn’t all Saint Mother has to say on the subject of love …she says ‘It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home, for this is where our love for each other must start’.
We talk about love so much ... .and it is so easy to get that cheesy, pink and fluffy valentines day image into our head but love, real love is rarely anything like this.
Love is work and active, and as Ursula Le Guin says ‘Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new’.
According to Jewish rabbinic tradition, there are 613 commandments in the Torah. Jesus, Paul, James and John all say that when we love our neighbour, we fulfil the entire law.
Writing to the Galatians, Paul also said, "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'"
James 2:8 repeats this message almost verbatim: "If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, 'Love your neighbour as yourself,' you are doing right."
Loving your neighbour, Jesus said, is the greatest commandment. In his last words to his disciples, Jesus called this a new commandment. "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. All people will know that you are my disciples if you love one another."
Love, said Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, is the greatest gift, without which we’re just whistling in the dark.
In his commentary on Galatians 6:10, the church father Jerome describes how John the evangelist, author of the gospel and book of Revelation, preached at Ephesus into his nineties.
At that age, John was so feeble that he had to be carried into the church at Ephesus on a stretcher. Then, when he could no longer preach a normal sermon, he would lean up on one elbow. The only thing he said was, “Little children, love one another.” People would then carry him back out of the church.
This continued for weeks, says Jerome. And every week he repeated his one-sentence sermon: “Little children, love one another.”
Weary of the repetition, the congregation finally asked, "Master, why do you always say this?"
"Because," John replied, "it is the Lord's command, and if this only is done, it is enough."
All of this talk of love is fine until there's a problem. Until we've been hurt. Until we've been unheard. Until we've not got what we wanted. Until we can't forgive or move on. In many ways that's the challenge and hard work of love that I started with. Why it's not pink and fluffy. Why it looks more like the cross than a cuddly bunny.
Jesus more than any of us knows this and perhaps this is why he's given us some practical advice to deal with conflict to support forgiveness and aid reconciliation.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are huge issues for us personally, in our church, in our community and country and across the world.
We see it in the results of not doing it: in campaigns of terror, war, oppression and on a smaller scale we see broken relationships, shattered families, feuds between neighbours and divisions in our village community.
Many of us, including myself at times, want to pretend there isn't a problem. Refusing the facts, swallowing our anger and resentment, covering over the cracks and trying to carry on as if not everything is normal …..whilst we seeth and rage inside. Or we simply avoid and ignore the other person or group and move on.
Tom Wright observes that many of us have taken the paper over the cracks option believing that this is what forgiveness means, this is what love means - pretending that everything's okay, that the other person hasn't really done anything wrong.
If someone has done something wrong, if they have been offensive or aggressive or bullying or dishonest - nothing is gained by trying to reconcile and love without confronting and dealing with the problem that's being done.
Love and forgiveness doesn't mean saying it didn't really happen or it doesn't really matter. In either of those cases you don't need forgiveness you just need to clear up a misunderstanding.
Forgiveness is when it did happen and it did matter and you're going to deal and you are going to keep loving them through it. This is the work of love. The work of loving your neighbour.
The sequence of reconciliation that we're given by Jesus requires courage and prayer and humility. In my own experience, when we address a problem with the person that's hurt us and we're able to apologise and to forgive - that reconciliation creates a closer bond then you had in the first place. So often the hurt and pain we cause each other are not purposeful - they are the product of misunderstandings, a simple lack of thought or because of previous bad experiences we attach to a new unrelated experiences or people.
Jesus sets out a rhythm and a pattern for trying to resolve and reconcile but it does end with the hardest part.
Jesus teaches that any sinner so committed to his/her position that they will refuse to listen even to the church is to be treated like “a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Karl Jacobson says it’s ironic (and probably intentionally so) that this line follows the parable of the lost sheep and precedes the response to Peter’s question about how often one has to forgive a brother who sins (repeatedly) against you - we will look at this next week but the answer is that God's love and forgiveness is not limited - and neither should ours.
Jesus says, essentially, that being a member of the church means you have a responsibility. If your sheep gets lost you don’t look for an hour and call it quits. You get out there and find that sheep - never stop trying and loving.
If your brother sins against you seventy-seven times, that’s how many times you forgive him. And of course, we know from the Gospel of Matthew how Jesus treated the Gentiles and tax collectors.
Karl Jacobson goes on to encourage us to notice that this is not where Jesus ends. Jesus says last, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” There is no question of agreement at this point. Jesus is present, really present, where two or three are gathered in the Divine Name, not just where two or three agree in Jesus’ name, but where two or three are gathered; presumably this includes those struggling with conflict, and how to handle it. Even there, perhaps especially there, Christ Jesus is present.
Jesus offers a simple guide to help us handle our failing and conflict and its consequences here so we can love our neighbour. But far more importantly Jesus promises us that he is present, that his presence is real for us, when we are gathered in his name — both in agreement, and in conflict - this is the Good News for us who are members with one another of Christ’s church.
I’ll leave with a final quote from Saint Mother Teresa -
‘You know my God. My God is called love’