I’m later than I want to be this morning because I’ve been scrolling around the news reading about the terrible shooting in Buffalo yesterday. I generally try to avoid being up to the minute on, what we might call, sensational news because usually everyone backtracks when more information comes out, and I am also a coward. But in this case, the person who drove several hours to go to that grocery store started from here, fifteen minutes from where I live.
What most of us call ‘Binghamton’ is a sort of sprawling series of many smaller towns all joined together. You could say you were from Binghamton, but it really might be Vestal or Endwell or Union, or, in the case of Payton Gendron, Conklin.
I’m sure you already know that Twitter is aflame with conspiracy theories on both sides. In the middle of the night (yes, I know I should have been praying rather than scrolling) I saw some people trying to say that Gendron was actually from the FBI and the government is doing this to inflame racial strife. Early this morning, though, it looks like the narrative has settled on it being Tucker Carlson’s fault. At least that’s what it says on my trending feed, along with a headline that reads, and I kid you not, “How Hollywood and the Kardashians Fell for the Christian App Glorify.”
Setting all that to one side, the readings this morning are particularly arranged for all human troubles, including the one where a young man would drive two hours on purpose to go shoot a lot of people for any reason at all, let alone one of the most sickening reasons in human history. If last Sunday was about the Good Shepherd (it was), this Sunday is about love, which is the most misunderstood and confusing subject of our day.
First we have Moses reiterating the weight of the law to the people of Israel—don’t be stingy, leave food for the poor and the sojourner, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t profane the name of your God, don’t oppress your neighbor, don’t rob him, don’t keep someone’s wages overnight, don’t curse a deaf man or put a stumbling blog before the blind, don’t be unjust in a court of law—each command punctuated with the phrase “I am the LORD your God.” The last two verses of the text are good for every person in the world to meditate on in the night hours, in going out and coming in, in every task and anxiety: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”
For all the confusion about love, hate is a lot easier to understand. It’s not just getting in a car and driving a far distance to murder someone, it’s also breathing murderous threats in your heart about the people on your street who disagree with you about politics, or on Twitter for that matter. It is both the feeling of revulsion for other people and acting in a way to bring about ruin and trouble for those people.
And so the people of Israel were not to hate each other. They were to love their neighbors “as” themselves. Which we have taken not only as gospel truth (it is not the gospel, it is literally the law) and as a sort of muddled mantra, a thing that people say—I have to “love” myself because I have to love my neighbor. Me before you. It’s in the Bible.
Except that self-love, in the Bible, is universally not encouraged, at least as we understand it. Loving your neighbor as yourself according to Jesus in the Bible means reflexively doing good for your neighbor no matter how you feel them in the same way that you reflexively do good and care for yourself even when you’re crippled by self-loathing. Even if you’re on a downward spiral into depression and eating all the wrong things, you still eat. Even if you don’t bathe enough because you’re too depressed you still do a little. You can’t help but ‘love’ yourself in this sense. If you were in a driverless car that was about to head over a cliff you would fling yourself out of the car if you could. In a similar way, that’s how you should be towards your neighbor. If your neighbor was in that car, you should do everything you could to stop it. If your neighbor isn’t eating, you should go feed him. If he is in a black depression, you should see if you can help him out, just as you would for yourself.
And so we see that love is both common—not the least bit grand or glorious or exalted or transcendent—and impossible. It is such a good thing that God didn’t command you to ‘love’ yourself because you don’t even do that. When you should be eating properly you’re standing at the stove eating cold potato out of the pan (sorry, that was me, not you). When you should be praying and trusting God you’re drinking too much either wine or venti full fat full sugar 20 dollar fake coffee. When you should be forgiving you are so angry your stomach actually churns. None of these things are good for you. If you really loved yourself, you would stop doing them, because then you would be able to flourish. Still, according to the law—try. Try to do good rather than evil.
Finally, Jesus comes into the world and we find a person who, though he does sympathize with us in our weakness–to the point of taking our infirmities and the totality of human rage and hatred onto himself and to the cross, to suffer the fury of hell on our behalf, so that we could be called Children of God—does not lessen the weight of the law or make it any easier than it was before. Rather, he preaches the heart of the law, the very substance and nature of God’s character. Now you’re not only condemned when you drive two hours away to murder someone, you are guilty when you hate other people in the secrecy of your heart and only wish they were dead. And now, well, he says it in his own words: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” In case you missed it, it is not that you love your neighbor as yourself, it is that you love each other with the pure and perfect love of Jesus. See also that it is qualified—“one another.” That isn’t the whole world, that is the person sitting next to you in the pew this morning, even the person you don’t know, or the person you can’t stand. Why? Why do Christians have to love each other this way? So that “all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Before this impossible command is given, Jesus says something that none of those of his disciples understood at the time. After Judas had left the Supper to betray him—and only then—Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once.” This, we should be clear, is not an app, and is also not some sort of bait and switch—the Father and the Son doing something sort of nefarious together to make everyone know how awesome they are when they aren’t even that awesome. It is not a conspiracy. But, it is hard to tease out exactly what it means, especially if you have a wrong idea about the word ‘love,’ or think that there is something virtuous about harboring anger against some. The glory of Jesus is about the love of Jesus. This sort of glory and love undo the world. It begins with his own death, but it eventually comes to mean your own. It means that if you love Jesus, you will be asked to die to what feels most essential about you—the loves that are ruining you, the false, sickening glory of self-acclamation and praise. And, it may mean actually dying. When you do begin to love Jesus and his glory in the right way, all people will know and see it. But not very many of them will be astonished or impressed. Rather, it will increase their hatred for you. But that’s ok, Jesus already bore that burden for you. He took away the stumbling block, he unstopped your ears, he gave his own self to sustain you. Hope to see you in church!