The 5th Sunday of Easter
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Our readings today paint a sweeping view of God’s all-encompassing love, and an invitation from Christ to live into that love.
In the story from the Book of Acts, we hear of Peter’s conversion to Paul’s point of view: that Gentiles, not just Jews, are part of God’s family. Peter hesitates, but with the help of a disturbing vision, he comes around, finally concluding Who was I to try to hinder God?
And so God’s boundless love for everyone - slave and free, poor and rich, Gentile and Jew, clean and unclean - broke the Jesus movement wide open to everyone. No distinctions, no hindrance anywhere. All are beloved. This story reminds us how God has always pushed humanity, just as God pushed Peter, to remove all hindrances to love - in our day, between man and man, woman and woman.
The theme of love continues. In the Psalm, all creation sings of God’s love - sun, moon, stars, angels, fish, beasts, young and old. And in the reading from Revelation, we get a vision of a new creation, where God comes in love, making a home among mortals, wiping away every tear and ending all suffering and death.
Finally, in the gospel, Jesus, in his last words to friends before he is arrested and crucified, sums up everything he has said and done in a new commandment: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
And so love makes no distinctions between types of people. Love fills the universe and all beings everywhere. Divine love comes to us and makes its home among us. And we are encouraged to live into this vast realm of love, by loving one another. Love is the deepest reality; it is at the center of our Christian faith; and it is our highest calling.
In Hinduism, there are four yogas, four spiritual paths that emphasize different pathways to God. While integration of all four is the goal, teachers sometimes emphasize - and people are often drawn to - one of them more than the others. Jnana yoga is the path of wisdom and understanding. Karma yoga is the way of action and service. Raja yoga is the path of meditation, which includes the physical postures we’ve all become so familiar with. And Bhakti yoga is the way of love, which includes both devotion to God and compassion for others.
Hindus consider Jesus as a master of Bhakti yoga. They recognize that he was all about the heart: love of God and neighbor, mercy for those who suffer. Love is the primary vehicle, the practice, the spiritual method by which Jesus’ disciples journey into God. Jesus himself said that all the law and the prophets come down to this: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.
When we consider these four yogas, it is obvious to us that they must be learned. They don’t happen overnight. They require patience and practice. Wisdom and understanding comes through years of study and reflection. With action and service, it takes time to lose our naiveté and learn more effective and longer-lasting ways to be helpful to others. Meditation and physical yoga is an art that is cultivated through practice. But love? Do we know that the spiritual path of love must be learned, like all the others? Can we be patient with ourselves as we learn to love more fully?
In popular culture, love is often portrayed as something that comes over us like a tsunami. And it can. It came over me 35 years ago. We are struck from without; there is no gradualism, just a complete knowing that fills us.
Popular culture also portrays love as affection toward others we like. We speak of how we love children or elderly people, or how comfortable we feel around the those who are “the salt of the earth,” or how we enjoy hanging around certain people who are like bright lights everywhere they go. This kind of love that comes naturally to us is a joy, because when we love in this way, what we like is reinforced. Love can make us feel good.
But falling in love and feeling affectionate isn’t all there is to love. Love can get really hard, when it means hanging in there when we’d rather leave the room. Love can be an attitude of basic human respect for even our enemy. It can be the choice to accept another where they are, even if we don’t understand them.
In these kinds of situations, it is obvious that love takes time, commitment, patience, and learning. It is an art, a discipline, and certainly, a spiritual path. This path isn’t just there if we happen to feel it and absent if we don’t. It is something we choose again and again, something to give ourselves to, something to keep aiming towards.
One of the ways in which we can learn to love those whom it isn’t automatic to love - which can include, at times, those who are closest to us - is to try to feel for the other, to step out of our own perspective and see things from their point of view.
Why are they doing what they are doing, or feeling what they feel? What brought them to this point? Can I have empathy for what they are going through? In asking these kinds of questions, we leave self behind. There is only her or him, and how we might best respond.
It’s really quite simple, yet very difficult to do: to temporarily drop our own preferences and convictions about the way others should be, and see the other as they are. But with love, we go further than acceptance. We learn to feel with the other. That’s what the word compassion means - to be “co-passionate,” to “suffer with.”
Years ago I found myself in a very painful, adversarial relationship. Like anyone else might do, I complained about the injustice of it; I tried to change the other, and when that didn’t work, to wish the conflict away.
But at some point it became a spiritual path, a part of my own growth. I had learned enough about myself - about my fear and disappointment and unrealistic expectations - to move further on this spiritual path, towards love. By and by, love took the form of being able to say, I wonder what private hell he went through that makes him be the way he feels he has to be. I felt for him, and genuinely hoped he would find his way. And this was a form of love.
As Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus, put it: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.
For some of us, however, the hardest person with whom to practice this spiritual discipline is ourselves. Some of us are awfully hard on ourselves, especially when we fail, or when we’re lost. We seem to have no sympathy for ourselves.
It is in these times that the higher self - the more mature self, or the Spirit within, call it what you will - must take a step back from how we think we should be, accept ourselves, and have some feeling for ourselves. The higher self can then advise the struggling self to curl up into a ball, talk it out with someone else, or just be patient, because learning is a process, and because nothing is permanent.
There are many other things that could be said about the lifelong spiritual discipline of learning to love more freely. But it always has something to do with getting the self out of the way - or in the case of loving ourselves, getting an idea of the self out of the way. In this sense, Jesus’ other admonition - to deny ourselves - lies beneath the great commandment to love.
In this great season of Easter, this time of resurrection, we celebrate the work of God in making all things new. God is doing a new thing in you, making you a new creation, as you give yourself more fully to the joy and the discipline of love.