Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
“You can tell a lot about a person by the company he keeps.” Many of us have heard this saying. Or maybe this one, “You lie down with dogs, you’ll come up with fleas.” My father provided such advice all the time. He was full of aphorisms. For instance, appealing to my love of basketball, he once said, “Son, check your starting five! If your five closest friends with whom you spend the most time don’t encourage you, strengthen you, and improve the level of your game, then you should find a new starting lineup.”
There is wisdom in these words. As you and I move through life, our most intimate relationships feed our spirits. These friendships inform our habits. Our relationships constitute our character.
Think about those who are always negative. If they are breathing, that means they are complaining. The person who always has something bad to say about someone else. When you ask them how they are doing, they begin with a litany of their illnesses and ailments. If it’s a rainy day, they cry for more sunshine. If the sun is shining, they lament that we haven’t had enough rain. Like the character Pig-Pen who hung around Charlie Brown, some people always have a cloud of filth and negativity hovering around them.
What happens to us when we are around such people for too long? Before we know it, we start complaining about Miss Ann across the street. Our arthritis flares up. All of a sudden, we begin to hate the rain and loathe the sun. Negativity infects us like a virus. Our relationships constitute our character.
Similar is true for those who practice healthy habits. This is why we join book clubs. This is why we have workout partners. This is why students join study groups, and writers participate in writing workshops. If we want to live positive and productive lives, then we need to make sure that we are around positive and productive people. Relationships matter. Check your starting five!
There is a potential danger to this otherwise sound advice. Yes, we should all keep good company. But what happens when our voluntary associations begin to wall us off from one another? Our starting five starts to look more like an elite enclave? An exclusive club? An aristocratic assembly? We can only recognize worth in our elective peer group. We can only identify value among the “successful.” We can only see the humanity of those who are most like us. Relationships constitute our character.
Jesus provides a healthy corrective in today’s gospel lesson. He commands his disciples, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Now, this is Jesus talking to his disciples—a motley crew who would hardly be regarded as socially crème de la crème. There’s a tax collector in the group. Matthew found employment with the most despised among Judean society. Tax collectors worked for Romans to collect heavy assessments from imperial subjects. Jewish tax collectors contributed to the exploitation and oppression of their own people. Yet when Jesus looked at Matthew, he did not see his profession, he saw his potential. He saw a desperate man making choices under conditions not of his own choosing. And with an outstretched arm of grace and hand of mercy Jesus said, “Let me teach you about a kingdom where love and justice supersede abuse and exploitation. Let me show you what respect and power looks like in my father’s kingdom.”
There was impulsive and hard-headed Peter. Recall he is the disciple who would often act before thinking. He thought he could walk on water like Jesus, and almost drowned. When Jesus told of his execution, he is the disciple who pulled Jesus aside to chastise him. “Man, what are you talking about? Don’t you know I have your back!” When the guards show up to get Jesus, Peter cuts an ear off of one of them. And when Peter was the disciple bragging at the Last Supper, “I’ll never deny you, Jesus. You’re my man, ” he was the first to say, “Nah, I don’t know that man on the cross.”
I could keep going. But the point that I am making is this: Jesus loved his disciples not because of who they were, but based on who they could become. Jesus didn’t judge them only by their past and present actions. In each one of his followers, Jesus saw potential; he saw a purpose, and, most importantly, he saw God’s plan of redemption. Thus, Jesus could look at their faults, and see their needs.
I am glad that I serve a God who sees me not as the world sees me. I am glad that I serve a God who sees me not as I often see myself. Sure, we try to act as if we have it all together. Most of us spend an inordinate amount of time covering up and concealing our actual and presumed flaws. Some of us are smiling on the outside. We exude confidence and moral character. But we are singing with Smokey Robinson, “If you take a good look at my face, you’ll see my smile looks out of place. If you look closer, it’s easy to trace, the tracks of my tears and the depth of my fears.”
This is why I am so glad that I serve a God who loves me when I do not love myself. A God who sees me through the lenses of love and grace. A God who looks past my many imperfections and sees potential; looks beyond my problematic tendencies and sees promise; looks beyond my past and sees what is possible.
Maybe this is what Jesus means when he tells his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you”? The command may be less about how we treat one another, and more about how we view one another. For when we see one another through the lenses of pride, conceit, and vanity, we are more given to intolerance, injustice, and illiberality. When we view one another through the lenses of love—with empathy and understanding—we become more inclined to treat one another with grace, generosity, and gratitude. We become swift to love. We make haste to be kind. In return, we are slower to judge, and even more hesitant to condemn.
Now let me be clear. I am not suggesting that we should tolerate any and all behavior. Punishment has its place within the moral framework of love and justice. Punishment is a marker of accountability. Punishment can serve as a corrective force.
Consider mass protests and boycotts. When consumers punish companies and businesses that discriminate by withholding their dollars, protesters are making a declarative moral statement. Bias and bigotry toward anyone will not be tolerated in our community.
Consider the current #metoo movement. Courageous women have exposed the quotidian nature of sexism and patriarchy. Seeing high profile men lose their jobs and convicted of crimes against women has forced all of us to take a step back and reconsider our daily interactions and challenge what we once considered acceptable behavior.
Or consider the many professionals who have lost their jobs due to racist or homophobic rants on social media. School teachers, politicians, and police officers have lost their livelihoods for succumbing to the behest of their own bigotries. In the process, many have learned that the question is not whether we are “politically correct,” the better question involves what it means to be a decent human being.
Punishment has its place. Punishment corrects, reforms, and deters. Any parent will tell you that constructive punishment is an expression of love. Unfortunately, I fear that we live in a society where punishment has become more closely aligned with retribution than rehabilitation; avengement rather than amendment, and retaliation as opposed to reform.
Could this be why God calls us to an ethic to love our enemies? For whenever we desire their defeat or annihilation, we are destroying ourselves. Revenge proves its own executioner. This is why it's been said that whenever we begin a journey of revenge, we should start digging two graves—one for our enemy, and one for ourselves. But, in the words of Marcus Aurelius, “The best revenge is to be unlike the one who performed the injustice.” Or as Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed in his “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail," we must be more concerned with defeating evil systems and unjust acts than annihilating people. Our goal should be toward reforming behaviors in hopes of moving toward reconciliation and beloved community. The best way to defeat an enemy is to make a friend. This only comes when we look at one another with the same lenses God views us—with grace and generosity.
Love one another, as God loves us. How many times have you harbored bias and bigotry? How many times have you perpetuated injustice and incivility? How often are you guilty of pretentiousness and pomposity? Vanity and vaingloriousness? If you are like me, then it is more often than you like to admit. But I am so glad that I serve a God who sees me through the lenses of love—a God who loves me not because of, but in spite of myself. Because of this love, I can say with confidence, “I may not be what I ought to be, but I thank God I am not what I used to be.” This is how God sees us. We ought to do likewise.
Love one another, as God loves us.