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Posts Tagged ‘Love’

Feed My Sheep

 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”  John 21:17

For me, this is one of the more touching passages in the Bible, occurring after Jesus has been crucified, buried, and resurrected. He meets the disciples on the banks of the Sea of Galilee and makes them breakfast. Jesus turns to (Simon) Peter, his most passionate and zealous follower, and asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter answered, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus responds, “Feed my sheep.” This exchange repeats itself three times, in slightly different form, with Jesus asking Peter if he loves him, Peter affirming that he does, and Jesus telling him first to feed his lambs, then to tend his sheep, and finally to feed his sheep.. Jesus closes the conversation by repeating the words he had first spoken to his disciples three years earlier, “Follow me.”

The need to repeat three times his instruction to care for his sheep indicates the importance of the directive. The emphasis could not have been accidental. It was as if Jesus were saying, “If you forget everything else I say or do, at least remember this, ‘Care for my family.’” It is obvious that Jesus is not referring to livestock, but to his followers – those he had taught, fed, and healed during his earthly ministry. He knows he will not be physically present to care for his people any longer. He needs his followers to take care of each other and to continue the work he began. It does not require much of a leap in understanding to know Jesus was talking to us. This instruction, from 2000 years ago, was also given for us, today.

There are subtle, but important distinctions in Jesus’ responses to Peter’s assurances about loving him: “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,”, and “Feed my sheep.” First is the distinction between feeding and tending; second is the difference between lambs and sheep. The latter is the most obvious, since lambs are baby sheep. Lambs are cute, playful, and lovable, not unlike human children. They are often easier to care for and about than many of their adult counterparts. There is an innocence to a lamb that brings out our protective and nurturing instincts. Biblical authors name Jesus as the Lamb of God, referring to his untarnished purity and meaning he was unbound by earthly entanglements. In numerous places, Jesus tells us to become like, as well as to take care of the little children. In his telling of Peter to feed his lambs, Jesus is reminding the disciples of the importance of caring for the poor, lowly, and weak, regardless of their age.

The second distinction is between feeding and tending. Feeding his sheep has the obvious connotation of making sure the physically hungry have something to eat. Indeed, we cannot turn our lives toward anything but our next meal when we are hungry, nor can we expect others to understand words of wisdom on an empty stomach. Jesus’ stories about feeding the crowds are a reference to the need to attend to physical needs. There is another type of hunger, however, which is spiritual in nature. We are also hungry for the unconditional love of God. When Jesus says in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he is not referring to food or drink called righteous. Rather, he is referring to an internal hunger, a personal desire to know and do what is right. He says those with such a hunger will be filled, meaning that type of hunger will be satisfied. To tend has a slightly broader meaning than just feeding, which includes protecting, nurturing, and creating a safe place for growth and development.

Finally, the message is for all of his disciples, even though his words were directed to Peter. Although Peter became the head of what would become the Christian church – the first Pope – there was no expectation for Peter to do this alone. The entire community of believers was to care for Jesus’ flock, including caring for each other. That community extends through space and time to include us today. This final instruction of Jesus to us, repeated three times for emphasis and inarguably tied to our love for him, is to feed his sheep.

This is the 40th in the series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 

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Love One Another

 I give you a new commandment, that you 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.

 John 13:34-35

The “love one another” saying of Jesus is one that appears in each of the Gospels, although in different variations and contexts. In Matthew 22:34-40 and in Mark 12:28-34, a religious leader asks Jesus which of the commandments is the greatest. Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In Luke 10:25-28, a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to love God and to love his neighbor as himself. The lawyer then asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), where a man was beaten, robbed, and left by the side of the road. A couple of religious leaders pass him by without offering assistance. A Samaritan (a despised foreigner) stopped and bandaged his wounds, took him to a town, and paid for his care.

In John’s telling, Jesus was with his disciples at the Last Supper where he gave them a new commandment: to love one another. Further, Jesus told them they should love one another as he had loved them. A few verses earlier, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, modeling humility and a readiness to serve. Jesus gave his time and attention to all who came to him. He healed infirmities and fought ignorance by sharing wisdom. He accepted those whom society rejected. The love of Jesus was laser-focused on the needs of others, not personal emotions or feelings.

On a recent trip to New Orleans, I encountered panhandlers throughout the French Quarter, sometimes five or six per block. One haunting example was a young female who looked to be high school or college age. Her sign said, “Homeless and pregnant.” Her gaze was fixed on the sidewalk in front of her, as if in shame and despair. Like the religious leaders in the story of the Good Samaritan, I passed her by. I justified my insensitivity by rationalizing that I could have given thousands of dollars and made no significant dent in the needs of the area, or possibly even in the needs of this one person. It was overwhelming. In retrospect, I know I could have done something for a few – at least for this desperate girl – but I chose to keep walking. I failed even to acknowledge these unfortunates as fellow children of God by saying “Hello,” or by sitting to hear their stories. Would Jesus have passed them by? How would I judge those, like me, obliviously passing by if I were in their situation? Perhaps the sorrow I saw in them was their pity for me, a well-to-do middle-classer unwilling to share his abundance.

One of the reasons I find myself bypassing opportunities to love and serve others is my tendency to project out of the present moment. In each of my moments in the French Quarter there was one person in front of me with a need. Had I remained in the moment, I could have loved another by attending to that one person in some way. Instead, I looked at the immensity of the needs of the many outside of that moment and ended up not serving any of them. The immensity of the need outside of the moment distracted me from what I could have done to help someone in the moment. I was reminded recently that we only meet God in the moment. God does not reside in the future or the past, only in the present.

Jesus says, “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Active love is the mark of a Christian. Using Jesus as a model, and not allowing past failures or future worries to remove us from the needs God places before us in the moment is one way to follow the example of love and service we see in Jesus. While I do not believe we are condemned for passing by those in need without helping, those are God-given opportunities to respond in kind to the love and service shown to us in Christ. By loving one another we display the mark of Christ for others to see. At the same time, we relieve a bit of the suffering in our hurting world. And both are desperately needed.

This is the 39th in the series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Follow Me

 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Mark 1:16-17

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. Mark 1:35

The childhood game of Follow the Leader consists of one person – the leader – acting in certain ways while the other players do as the leader does. If the leader takes 3 steps forward, twirls around, takes 2 steps back, and then does a somersault, it is up to the followers to copy the leader’s actions. In a way, Jesus invites us into a game of Follow the Leader. He says, “Follow me,” and we are to do as Jesus does. One foundational habit of Jesus, found throughout each Gospel, is going to a quiet place to pray. Some of us pray before meals, at bedtime, and in church with a congregation, but how well do we follow the way Jesus modeled prayer? First, Mark says Jesus got up while it was still dark. We receive so much visual stimulation from our surroundings that darkness is foreign and frightening. Yet, how can we expect to focus on God’s presence when the seductive lure of visual distractions constantly bombards us? We may be better able to commune with God in the dark. Second, Jesus went to “a deserted place” to be alone with God. When was the last time we sat alone, longing only for God’s company? Jesus found solace and rejuvenation in his prayer life. Do we?  Perhaps we are not comfortable with prayer because we have not fully entered into it the way Jesus did. Following Jesus, I believe, begins with grounding ourselves in prayer.

In the context of Jesus saying, “Follow me,” it is important to remember he did not say, “Worship me.” Jesus worships God the Father, the one so far beyond our earthly comprehension that all we can do is fall on our knees in reverent submission. God is unknown and unknowable to the human mind. On the other hand, we can know and love Jesus as we would any other person. God came to earth in the person of Jesus, as one of us, so we could know God through him and follow. There is an important distinction between worshiping and following. We can only worship and/or fear that which we cannot comprehend. One appropriate response as we consider the vastness of God is astonishment and awe – like standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon or tracing the path of the Milky Way on a clear, dark night. God in Jesus, however, was comprehensible. Sometimes we act as if he were not in order to ignore the personal obligation to follow him, which can be uncomfortable and inconvenient. We are to worship God, but we are to follow Jesus. Following is an act of presence, dictated by the circumstances of the moment. The Gospels help us understand what Jesus did in his day and, through that understanding, to project how Jesus would likely act today.

Some Christian churches, my own included, spend a lot of time and energy on issues that Jesus apparently never addressed. To our knowledge, Jesus did not mention homosexuality, gay marriage, women in the priesthood, or practicing LGBTQ persons serving as clergy or being welcomed into Christian fellowship. Regardless, these issues define and divide many churches today, both between denominations and within congregations. I suspect these divisions in the church named for him make Jesus weep. Remember, there were no “Christian” churches in the time of Jesus, who was a Jew. The followers of Jesus formed the Christian church because they desired a new forum within which to more faithfully follow him. How far have we strayed from following our leader?

Most of what we know of Jesus’ actions on earth fall into the categories of loving, teaching, healing, or including. He brought acceptance and grace where there was judgement and condemnation. He gave knowledge where there was ignorance, and healing where there was illness. He reached out to those condemned to the outskirts of society and brought them in. What does it mean to follow Jesus? One thing it means is for us to provide love, knowledge, healing, and inclusion wherever we find hatred, ignorance, illness, and exclusion. To do so requires a centered presence with and attentiveness to the life around us. A regular practice of quiet time alone with God, as Jesus modeled, is a good place to begin.

This is the 35th in the series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Love Your Enemies

 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good; and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? Matthew 5:44-46

As I ponder these words of Jesus, I find it helpful to distinguish between people I do not like and those I consider an enemy. In general, I choose not to associate with those whom I share little in common. The person I must associate with in the normal course of my days who does not share my core values and understanding of the world, however, is a higher level of annoyance for me. While I accept that not everyone feels the same way I do about things, I find these people unpleasant to be around for an extended time, and I try to avoid or ignore them as much as possible. The third category of person is one who not only does not share my core values and understanding of the world, but he or she actively works against what is important to me. This person fits my definition of an enemy because avoiding or ignoring them is not sufficient. Rather, I find myself working in direct opposition to them in support of what I believe. Fortunately for me, there are not too many people in either of the latter two categories. They do exist, however, and I struggle with how best to deal with them in a way that is consistent with Christ’s teachings.

There is one striking example in the Gospels of Jesus becoming angry and actively working against the interests of another. In Matthew 21:12-13 (also in Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 2). Jesus enters the temple and finds merchants selling sacrificial animals to worshipers. He overturns their tables and orders them to leave, saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.” The sellers were actively working against Jesus’ vision of the temple as a house of prayer. It was a dramatic clash of values, and Jesus took overt action against them. Based on my definition above, one could say the merchants were the enemies of Jesus.

Even so, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Everyone loves those who love them, Jesus says. For me, it is helpful to remember that to love someone does not necessarily mean I have to agree with them, approve of their behavior, or even particularly like them. The type of love of which Jesus speaks is an action, not an emotion. We can act in the best interest of another without necessarily agreeing with their life choices. We do not have to become like them, but we do need to acknowledge their existence, respect their right to feel as they do, and understand that God loves and cares for them every bit as much as God loves and cares for us. God allows us our preferences, but when our preferences lead us to judge others harshly, we tread a thin line between seeking to do what is right and believing that God is on our side, exclusively.

With some serious self-reflection, we begin to understand that our views and preferences are fraught with biases and prejudices, just like those of our enemies. With more reflection, we may even discover that what we find so annoying about another is actually a reflection of some deeply repressed tendency in ourselves of which we are ashamed. In other words, our enemies reflect something within us that we are hesitant to acknowledge. In that sense, our enemies are our greatest teachers. When we hate an enemy, we are only directing our venom back upon a part of ourselves that needs to be known, loved, and transformed. Many times, our enemies are not even aware of our feelings, so we truly only harm ourselves.

What I actually think Jesus is leading us to through loving our enemies is to persist in finding a third way to reconcile our differences – one that includes and honors both the position of our enemy as well as our own. In that way, there is no reason to hate our enemies because they are no longer an enemy but a comrade in a shared purpose. Loving others is the mark of a child of God, even and especially when that person seems to be working against us.

This is the 22nd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Love Comes Anyway

 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 1 John 4:11-12

The theme for the fourth week of Advent is Love. I believe that God is love and that love manifested in human form on earth in the person of Jesus. The stories of Jesus’ birth, recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, present an unusual way for love to appear. The familiarity of these stories to those of us raised with them has perhaps caused some of the mysterious particulars to become commonplace, and so we embellish and romanticize them. It is the peculiar details, however, that point to the deceptive simplicity, the laser focus, and utter purity of the love of God for and with us.

As the Christmas story goes, Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for the Roman census. The town was crowded with others gathering there for the same reason. There was no place for the child to be born, so the birth occurred in an animal stable. We recreate this today as a quiet, peaceful scene with calm, domesticated animals, fresh hay, and gentle lighting. The reality would have been much different – loud, smelly, dirty, and dark. The point we miss from the original setting, however, is that God enters into the chaos and the messiness of our everyday lives. For most of us, God does not come with a clap of thunder, marching bands, or with pomp and circumstance. Rather, God comes as a baby. Just as the baby’s cries in Bethlehem were lost in the noise of the animals and pandemonium around the stable, so today we cannot hear the baby’s cries for the Christmas messages blaring incessantly around us. It would have been easy to miss the birth of this God-child in Bethlehem. In fact, it would have been difficult to even find it there, just as it is difficult to experience it today for all the noise and distractions.

James Finley, in his Advent reflection* for 2017, says one lesson of the Christmas story is that God comes anyway. Even when we are too busy to prepare, God appears and abides within us. It did not matter that Mary and Joseph were far from home. It did not matter that Bethlehem was crowded and chaotic. It did not matter that there was no room at the Inn. God came anyway. Nothing was ready for the baby. There was no nursery, no safety, no soft clothes, and no appropriate shelter. There was no welcome fitting for a king, so Jesus was born in squalor with farm animals. Yet, he did not seem to mind or even notice.

Life is complicated because we have made it so. Love at its core, however, is simple. In spite of our messiness and unworthiness, God comes. This is the nature of love as taught by the Christmas story, that even when nothing is as we feel it should be, love comes anyway. It is there, lying unnoticed beneath the self-imposed complexity of the season. If the house is dusty and unkempt, it all-the-more resembles the original setting for the birth of Jesus. Love is an unstoppable flow – it is given and received independent of the circumstances around it. God choses to come to us because God loves us, even and especially in our imperfection. God cannot wait to be with us and will not wait until we think we are ready. God choses to be in relationship with us knowing all relationships require a give and take to perpetuate, and accepting the risk that we may not reciprocate.

Nothing matters as much as our attentive and conscious reception of this unfathomably generous gift of God’s self. Once received, this love can be passed along to others as freely and generously as it was given to us. In being giving away, love mysteriously returns to us all the more. It is almost too easy and simple to believe. Yet, this is the meaning and purpose of the season – not the noise and chaos we have built into Christmas, but the silent simplicity of a new life being gently born into our lives, just as we are, here and now. Love comes.

*James Finley, Faculty Advent Reflections, https://cac.org/faculty-advent-messages/, sourced on December 18, 2017.

 

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