He said: ‘Love One Another.’
I’ve been trying to think about what I would like to preach this year. Back in November and December of ‘08, I wrote out two complete series of sermons-each 10 weeks long. I was ready for ‘09. Then, well, let’s just say there were some issues with my mouth and my pen and then, well, let’s just say that I won’t be preaching either of those series of sermons anytime soon. Sermon schedules aren’t that helpful when the preacher is being undone by the Spirit.
So that leaves me here, wondering, staring at snow and a computer monitor, drinking a cup of hot tea, contemplating…what shall I preach? What does my church need to hear? What do I need to wrestle with in prayer and what Scripture do I need to be confronted with over and over again so that it becomes the breath in my lungs and the blood in my veins and every waking thought in my head and heart? No, not that one!
Then on the way home from the gym this morning, I was suddenly overcome by a thought, one word, something I had toyed with but that seemed too convenient at the time. (I don’t suppose there is ever a convenient time to preach it.) I mean, of course I should preach about that. Always; who shouldn’t? It’s not that I don’t preach about it, every sermon I preached is infused with and under-girded by this. And I think also, at the same time, even though the thought has continued to regurgitate itself, I have been fighting against it. Seriously: there is a part of me that does not want to preach this. There is a part of me that thinks if I preach it now it might seem choreographed to justify myself or something silly like that. Strange that I cannot get beyond trying to discern the motives of others when I should really be examining my own motives.
Even now, I am afraid somewhat to post this, lest someone misunderstand MY motives. It is a terrible thing, it seems to me, to live for nothing other than trying to discern motives when even the apostle Paul didn’t care about motives.
William Willimon wrote, “Preachers, by the nature of their vocation, are those who speak because they have been told something to say. Can you imagine Paul pacing about his prison cell, agonizing because ‘I have nothing to say to First Church Corinth?’” (Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 47). We speak, he notes, because God has spoken. I am normally very organized in my preaching schedule. Right now I’m not. This is one of those times when I have to ‘not worry about what to say because the Holy Spirit is teaching me what to speak’ and, I am fighting it. I don’t want to preach what the Holy Spirit is telling me to preach. I want to preach from my neatly organized sermon schedules that are lying upon my desk, printed on nice clean paper, not from some fit of inspiration that certainly did not come from within me. He’s stalking me.
Seriously. I don’t want preach this word, but as I was on my way home from the gym this morning, was so overcome by this that I literally had to pull off the road. I’m not like that at all. I’m organized. I’m a planner. I want to know where I’m going and how I’m getting there. “Oh God, don’t do this to me. I don’t want to preach on that.” Christus Victor, yes! Resurrection, yes! Anything but this. But it is a losing battle. I can’t shake it. I’m defeated. I’m undone! It’s much easier to preach what I want, when I want. It’s much harder to listen and follow and preach what he commands.
“‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’
“‘Lord, where are you going?’”
Jesus commands us to love. Why? Because if it is not commanded we will likely not do it. Seriously, loving one another is hard work and not work we are likely to engage in if we don’t have to. How many of us make an effort to love the ‘least of these’? How many of us go out of our way to ‘love one another’?
I don’t want to preach on love, not now. How can I love now when I know there are ‘issues’ and when I feel like some haven’t loved me. It might seem too fake, too contrived, too choreographed. Right. Like preaching a ten-week series on church leadership isn’t contrived! Still, God is not being at all merciful to me right now. I don’t want to do this, but…
And here’s the worst part of it: I know he’s talking to me; first. I looked briefly at another blog yesterday (I won’t mention which one, but use your imagination) and saw that the top three posts on the front page were all scathing attacks against pastors, men who stand in a pulpit each week and proclaim the Gospel of Christ; imperfectly all, yes, but done nonetheless. And Christ empowers their words or he doesn’t. My heart broke when I saw those blog posts–vitriolic un-love against pastors of Christ’s Church. I am asked to love a person who has not a kind word for even these preachers? How can I do that? “I don’t want to preach on love! I can’t preach on love! I am too angry to preach about something so redemptive, something so resurrection empowered, something so kingdom oriented as love. Can’t I just preach on something else. What words could come out of my mouth now about love?” That Hound of Heaven has me in his jaws and the more I wriggle around and excuse myself and justify my Jonah-like attitude about this sermon, the deeper in those jaws sink to my flesh and spirit.
Who cares if we don’t love one another? And how will preaching change any of that at all? Then I was slapped in the jaw with this: If we don’t love one another, how on earth are we going to love our enemies and the poor and those who persecute us? That is, if we don’t, won’t, or can’t love one another-those whom it should be easiest to love-then how on earth are we ever going to be able to love those it is the most difficult to love? Or, worse, if I cannot love those I can see in the flesh, then how can I ever begin to love the God whom I cannot see?
It is far easier, I think, to simply pretend that I love ‘one another’ and go on in life without any real level of commitment to those persons. Words can be terribly empty at times, can’t they? I think it is far more complicated and difficult to be obedient to the command to love one another when there is nothing to gain except a possible rejection. Yet the command is not abated or rescinded. Jesus didn’t say, ‘Wait until everything is A-OK and then love one another’ He just said, “Love one another” and he qualified this in no way at all. Love. We are the only ones who qualify love.
Paul wrote that ‘love keeps no records of wrongs,’ but that doesn’t mean love begins with a clean slate. It means that love wipes the slate clean and starts all over again-each second, each minute, each hour, each day. It means that I forgive 70 times 7 70 times 7 times a day. Do you understand why my flesh is rebelling against this? Jesus has commanded us to do the most difficult thing imaginable: Love one another. My God, I cannot love one another. Or maybe, I don’t want to. Either way, what you are asking Lord is too difficult. Lord, how do I love those and preach love to those that I am struggling to love right now and who are not struggling at all to love me? Is there room in the church for this love? Better: Can the church survive without it right now?
And I don’t want to preach it. I really don’t. Wouldn’t it be safer for all of us if we didn’t have to love those we are like and unlike? Wouldn’t it be safer if I didn’t have to extend and expend myself for someone else and take the risk that they might just be in need of love or that I am commanded to love regardless of reciprocation? Loving one another might mean I have to forgive or humble myself or repent or admit that I am wrong-sometimes even if I am not wrong. Loving one another might mean that I have do all that I can to secure peace even if means that I have to ‘be wrong’, which Paul seems to think is far better (1 Corinthians 6:7). What is impossible with man, is possible with God.
Why is it easier to love those outside the church than those inside it? Why does our flesh rebel against this command of Christ? Why is it that ‘loving one another’ has to be commanded in the first place? Well, I sure don’t understand that at all!
Jesus three times said, “Love one another.” Yet when he was finished Peter looked at him, I assume with a straight face, and said, “Lord where are you going?” You know why I don’t want to preach it, love, that is? That’s why. What Peter said, or what Peter asked. Right over his head what Jesus said.
And yet, Sunday’s sermon is already written. Now I am free to practice what I preach. Better, now I am free to love. That is, Jesus didn’t tell me to preach love, even though I should preach love. He told me to love. And he set no boundaries for doing so.
Semper Deo Gloria!