May 17, 2020
“If you love me you will keep my commandments,” says Jesus. And, he seems to indicate that it’s in keeping these commandments that we’ll perceive the Advocate, or “Friend,” as Eugene Peterson translates it, or Holy Spirit of God, which is Christ’s ongoing presence. All we have to do is keep his commandments; It may surprise you to learn that Jesus really only gives one commandment throughout John’s 21 chapters of Gospel. He gives it just before our reading today in chapter 13: “I give you a new commandment,” speaking to his disciples, “that you love one another.”
That’s it. Love one another. That’s all we’re commanded to do. It’s so simple, and yet so maddeningly difficult at the same time. How was anybody supposed to love Judas after he did what he did? Maybe Thomas was just super annoying with all his questions. And, what about Peter – so bold in being Christ’s disciple and so quick to deny him when push comes to shove. People are hard to love sometimes.
Here’s what Debbie Thomas says about it. “When I look at my own life, it’s not too hard to name why I perpetually fail to obey Jesus’s dying wish. Love is vulnerable-making, and I’d rather not be vulnerable. Love requires trust, and I’m naturally suspicious. Love spills over margins and boundaries, and I feel safer and holier policing my borders. Love takes time, effort, discipline, and transformation, and I am just so darned busy.” So, it’s not just that people are often difficult to love; it’s also that love demands something from us and it’s not always safe or easy to give it.
A colleague of mine at lectionary group reminded me of another challenge to this commandment. He said, “In order to love God you need to allow yourself to be loved by God.” He shared how this was a tremendously difficult shift for him to make. How he, of course, preached a God of love but couldn’t really accept it as a truth for himself. There was too much wrong with him, besides, he was taught from a young age that to receive undeserved love was a kind of hubris. “Who do you think you are?” the voice in his head said. But, what a change it was for him when he was able to dismiss that voice for one of grace.
My mind jumped back to 6 years ago at just about this time. Kent had come to the parsonage in which I was living and he helped me load up into his trailer a bunch of junk that we were dumping as we prepared to move homes and churches. Kent asked, “Are you excited?” I lied and told him I was. Actually, it wasn’t a complete lie. Part of me knew it was time to leave the church I had been serving, and part of me was eager for new adventures at TCC, but those parts of me were at that time overshadowed by the sadnesses I felt over leaving a church that had become such a special and beautiful community of love and faith during my 10 years there.
Just before my last Sunday some of the church leaders asked if I could save a portion of the service for them to say a few words. I said, “sure,” thinking it would take about 5 minutes. When they told me, “more like 25 minutes,” I was honestly a bit annoyed. It meant reshaping the flow of the service which, of course, I should have been okay with. I should have known that it was important for them to express their love, and I should have been comfortable with it and grateful for it, but I was having a hard time with that. Now, I wish I could go back and hear what they had to say, because though I remember snippets of it, what I mostly remember was my struggle to hear their voices over the one in my head that kept saying, “Oh, you don’t need to say all this to me.” Why couldn’t I just zip it and accept the grace they were offering?
To love, we need to allow ourselves to be loved. We need to allow ourselves that gift. Doing so isn’t selfish. It allows us to be filled so that we can more fully love others, which is the only thing we’re commanded to do because ultimately that is what God does.
You know who else is really good at it? Dogs! I’ve been reading a book called, “The Grace of Dogs,” which is a title I might normally pass over, but it’s written by a practical theologian out of Luther Seminary named Andrew Root whose other writings I have found to be profoundly inspiring. Root contends that dogs experience love for humans in ways that are very much like the ways in which humans experience love for humans. He backs it up with a bunch of studies and observations that I won’t mention here, but I will share with you one of his stories.
In his brief essay titled, “The Name of a Dog, or Natural Right,” [French philosopher, Emmanuel] Levinas turns to dogs. The setting for his reflections is the [Nazi] prison camps that so systematically stripped him and others of their humanity. Not only did the guards treat prisoners as disposable objects, but the townspeople did, too. He tells of being marched back and forth from prison to worksite, passing the townspeople at gunpoint. An ideology of hate had turned his captors into monsters, blind to the humanity of the prisoners, blind to their pain, intent only on forcing them to complete their backbreaking labor.
One day, however, on their march back to prison, a dog ran out from the woods and bounded up to the prisoners. His tail wagging happily, the dog jumped up to lick their faces, bringing into their gray world a blur of energy, color, and affection. ‘Though the dog had never seen the men before, it seemed to recognize them,’ Levinas said. Even better, the dog seemed convinced that these broken, forlorn captives were amazing people.
For two weeks, after their long hours of dehumanization, the same dog appeared in their midst with his happy greetings. To the prisoners, Levinas recalled, the experience felt like drops of rain on a dirty, dusty land. ‘For him,’ Levinas wrote of the dog, ‘There was no doubt that we were men.’ The dog’s joy was a kind of defibrillator to their souls, reawakening them to their true worth.
In his essay, Levinas points out that the dog had no such reaction to a tree, and a very different response to a squirrel. Yet when it saw a human being, the dog knew just what to do. It celebrated what the guards and townspeople refused to acknowledge: the lowly prisoners were beautiful human beings. The men responded, Levinas recalled, by giving their visitor a name: Bobby. Reflecting on the events later, Levinas saw the naming as bearing witness to the shared bond between the dog and the prisoners.
After two weeks, Bobby disappeared, never to return, but Levinas said the dog’s sacred work and witness remained, and the prisoners spoke of it often. They knew they were persons of worth and beauty now, and no misery could take that truth away.
It’s not the fact of the dog’s love that speaks to me in this story; it’s the effect of it. The love that was given humanized these prisoners whose diminishment had been the daily work of their captors. The dog’s abounding love and affection restored their personhood, shined a light on their beauty and dignity, and gave them a lasting reminder of a truth their conditions sought to deny.
“Love one another as I have loved you.” This is not to be confused with sentimentality. This is not religious fluff. This is the serious work of making others sacred. And, it is the bold shift of allowing ourselves the grace to be loved first. In all of this exchange that Advocate, that Friend and Holy Spirit, is made known and life is made beautiful.
 Andrew Root, “The Grace of Dogs,” Kindle edition, page 119, 64%.