I’m occasionally asked to give a chapel message at my new post here at Concordia University. Here’s one from last week. The given text comes from John 13:34-35.
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. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Something calls to us in this text today. It’s haunting. It’s utterly haunting. We cannot do what it asks of us and we know it. But we want what it calls for and we want it desperately. These two lines are perfectly maddening.
Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
There is no shortage in our world of criticism for the church and especially for Christians. The accusation of hypocrisy is leveled at them perhaps more than anyone else. The power of such accusations works in part because the world is knowledgeable of the church’s calling. It knows that Christ has called the church to love one another, and not just each other, but elsewhere Christ’s calling upon the church appears to be even more maddening—he calls us to love our enemies, those who by default we consider unlovable. This is pure madness. Not only can I not do it, but it simply does not make sense.
It was the atheist philosopher Jacques Derrida who saw something special in the church. He understood the church to be THE paradigmatic institution on earth where unconditional love, acceptance, hospitality and forgiveness should be experienced. The church is that place.
But is that what we experience? Are you perfectly accepted in the church? Can you REALLY be who you are, I mean, who you REALLY are, in the church? Are you sure you’ll still be loved? What if I tell you my deepest darkest secrets? How will I know when I have not crossed that invisible line on the one side of which I’m welcomed and on the other side of which I suddenly become unacceptable, unlovable, deplorable, despicable, a sinner beyond the pale of love and redemption?
Let me give you a practical example of how this plays out. I’m borrowing this from John Caputo, who, in his excellent book What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, spoofs on the phrase that was popular in the last decade, “What Would Jesus Do?” Caputo focuses on the practical act of forgiveness as a concrete expression of Christian love, for what else can we think of that might be the best exhibit of unconditional love in the Christian life—a love that loves in the same way that Jesus loves? To set this up, Caputo presents what might be considered our normal practice of forgiveness, even in the church—that very paradigmatic places that proclaims unconditional forgiveness and acceptance, but just so happens to practice otherwise. That is, Caputo points out surprisingly (or perhaps not at all!) the church actually practices forgiveness not without conditions but with them: In our everyday interaction with others forgiveness from one to another is generally understood to operate via a certain set of steps. The one in need of or seeking forgiveness must do certain things to earn forgiveness. Jacques Derrida, in his characterization of how forgiveness is actually practiced, frames it in this way: “forgiveness can only be considered on the condition that it be asked, in the course of a scene of repentance attesting at once to the consciousness of the fault, the transformation of the guilty, and the at least implicit obligation to do everything to avoid the return of evil” (Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness). Caputo, riffing on Derrida, captures this process more succinctly, saying, “Forgiveness requires an expression of sorrow, the intention to make amends, a promise not to repeat the offense, and a willingness to do penance. If someone meets all four conditions, they have earned forgiveness. We owe it to them the way the bank owes us the deed once the mortgage is paid off.”
Here we run in the quandary presented by our text. We treat forgiveness in very economic terms. It is a matter of exchange for us. And so our love for one another is all out of order. And deep in our soul we know this. And that is why I say that this passage in maddening. Because we desperately want the kind of unconditional love Jesus calls for, the kind that would be experienced in unconditional, uneconomic forgiveness, but we find that we cannot do it. We inevitably slip into these economic ways of operating.
Yet there is a further madness. This calling to love one another inevitably still haunts us. Jesus’s words won’t go away. And right now, we are journeying through Lent, the season of the church’s life where reflection and repentance take center stage in a way that they do not during other parts of the church year. One of the things I am well aware of in my life, and this just came up for me yesterday, is that many people in our world are hurting, and much of that hurt has been caused by the church itself. Derrida is right you know. Even as an atheist, he recognizes something true about the church. It IS the paradigmatic institution of unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and hospitality. But so many have been hurt by the church’s inability to believe God’s unconditional love for them, and thus they have not been so transformed as to be able to embody it toward others. Or they have faltered in their love for others in ways that have unwittingly caused the worst kinds of damage in other’s lives. For this, we must repent. And so we pray…
Prayer of repentance:(here I offered an extemporaneous prayer in the spirit of Lent, reflecting on how we as the church have no loved, but also on how we as the church have not trusted God and so have been unable to love. Then I moved into the following petition.)
Petition of Transformation:
God, teach us to know you as a God who gives gifts. In Jesus you gave the gift of love in human form. Make us a people who can truly receive them, who can be radically transformed by them, who can be vessels through whom your gifts of love are given. God, make us a people who give gifts uneconomically, unconditionally, unaccountably. Make us a people who operate unreasonably, who do not make sense. Make us not a people of principle, not a people who love only those who are lovable—who love only those who love us (for even the mafia does that)—but make us a people who do something offensive and crazy and difficult and impossible. Make us a people who love not just ourselves and each other, but who love our enemies as well. Make us a people who love without worldly reasons, but with kingdom reasons. Make us a people who have experienced the madness of your love in the kingdom, a love from you for us—who have been and very often are still your enemies—so that we can be the very vessels through which the madness of the kingdom is revealed to the world.