Commandments. Many people associate religion with commandments. Even people who don’t consider themselves at all religious generally know what you’re talking about when you say, “The Ten Commandments.” (If you ask what those commandments are, don’t be surprised if almost no one can tell you anything much past “Thou shalt not murder” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”)
Commandments: non-negotiable demands laid upon a person by somebody else. Commandments are frequently quite useful precisely because they are clear. Their usefulness may be more to the person who is commanding than to the one commanded.
But anybody who has had much experience with relationships, such as parenting for example, learns pretty soon that commandments can be about as problematic as they can be helpful. There is something built into the human psyche that isn’t easy with commandments. They engender guilt, fear, and nearly always the specter of alienating someone if the commandment is not observed. They also have a way of kicking up resistance in lots of people. We are long past the day when people just accepted commandments lying down. Try to force your will on someone and you may get it, but quite likely not without a price, perhaps a very steep one.
So to operate as if religion—what is supposed to give life coherence and purpose—is fundamentally about keeping commandments is not unlike trying to keep a person always at the stage of the toddler in her “terrible two’s.” It might work for a short while, but it won’t build a lasting, realistic relationship. There has to be another way. And, in short, the way of relationship is the way of love. Love, in order to be love, involves respect. In St. Paul’s famous words, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” And that is just for starts.
|"The Washing of Feet," Ghislane Howard, b. 1953|
Now we are back at Maundy Thursday, the day we call “Maundy” because on it Jesus gave a new commandment. That commandment was “that you love one another as I have loved you.” And what a surprise! At last a commandment not about what you have to do in order to be acceptable to an external authority, but about how we can actually embody and practice the essence of the command-giver in ourselves and in community with others. You’ll notice that “love” by its very nature suggests relationship. The most basic form of love is the love I have for myself. And even there in my personal experience is the essential pair: the lover and the beloved. There is an “I” and there is a “self.” And “I” can decide to love my “self.” Indeed one of the exercises I sometimes give to clients who have a hard time with really loving themselves is to spend some time in front of a full length mirror beholding themselves naked, looking at every part of their bodies and appreciating them without criticizing. It doesn’t mean that they can’t decide to change this or that if it’s possible. But truly loving ourselves is exercising those things like patience and kindness towards ourselves without being incessantly critical or judgmental.
The love that begins with oneself does not end there. Indeed it cannot because the very nature of reality is that everything is connected. There is nothing that is truly separate. In fact, the heart of the human dilemma is the great illusion that we are separate—separate from God, separated from each other, separated from the rest of nature. While there is a definiteness to our individuation, our very individuality is linked to a greater commonality that we share with everything else in the universe. Everything, including us, is, to use philosopher Ken Wilber’s word, a holon within other holons.
|Chart illustrating holons|
That’s why we keep running aground when we fall into the trap of imagining that the world could really be run by force. Only for awhile will that work. But the reason it always fails on every level is that sheer force is counter to the energy that actually keeps the world going around. And you know what makes the world go round: love. Nothing else will work—not on a personal level, not on a familial level, not on a communal level, not on a national level, and not on an international level. That is not to say that love has an easy time of it. Love is not some sort of marshmallow that takes up a lot of space but has little weight. Nor is love without the capability of having a hard edge. Let Jesus’ example sink in: greater love has no one than this, that one lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Love is not about giving approval; it is about giving oneself away. And the Jesus who asks that we follow him models how love is never far from suffering. To love is to be vulnerable and to be vulnerable is sooner or later to be wounded, to know pain, to experience suffering.
The new commandment that Jesus gave his community on Maundy Thursday in the middle of a footwashing is the essence of what it means to live the Easter life. We’re nearing the end of the Great Fifty Days of Easter. The whole point of Easter, as we saw on Easter Day, is that we share the resurrection every single day of our lives. Were it only about suffering and pain who in the wide world would want that? But it is not “just” about suffering and pain. Jesus said to his community, “I have told you these things so that my joy might be in you and that your joy might be complete.” This is a man who was facing an excruciatingly painful death, a death resulting from precisely the choices he had made to come squarely down on the side of justice and liberation for those least capable of taking up for themselves. And yet he is full of joy. How?
You and I could spend the rest of our lives trying to figure that out. But we never will. Not until we live it. We can’t first figure it all out neatly in our heads, give it a go, and test it out to prove it. If you’ve ever fallen in love, you know what I mean.
Years ago the Supremes sang, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” For awhile you couldn’t turn on a radio that you didn’t hear that.
I suspect it was the Supremes that really made it popular, but I think that on
some level it might be because we find appealing the idea that we could
actually make somebody love us. Even if
it worked for a time, we’d likely discover once more that you can’t make
someone love you, no matter how hard you try. All you can do is give yourself away—in service, attentively, caringly,
joyfully, gratefully, gladly—not counting the cost or begrudging what you give. Nothing is fool-proof or any other kind of proof. But at the end of the day it’s the only life
worth living, and the greatest risk is not that we might lose but that we’d be
too timid to try it and never find out what the Master meant by his joy being
in us or our joy being complete.
|Diana Ross and The Supremes|
A sermon on the text of John 15:9-17
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018