May 19, 2019, 5th Sunday of Easter Year C, John 13:31-35
This week I spent some time catching up on my podcast listening because I am way behind in that in most of the podcasts I follow. For those who are unaware of what a podcast is, it is sort of a talk show that is available on the computer whenever you want to listen to it. As I made my effort to get caught up a bit, one particular episode of the Pulpit Fiction Podcast struck me. It was an interview from last November with author Jacqueline Bussie. In it she told the story behind the release of her latest book, Love Without Limits: Jesus’ Radical Vision for Love with No Exceptions.
While it was ultimately released by Fortress Press, she shared how at first it was supposed to be released by another Christian publisher that she didn’t name. They had paid her a substantial advance and she had taken a year of sabbatical from her job teaching at Concordia College in Morehead, MN to write the book. The publisher knew what the book was to be about, Bussie sharing personal stories of God’s radical love. The publisher had even come up with the subtitle: Jesus’ Radical Vision for a Love with No Exceptions. However, once Bussie submitted the final manuscript, her publisher told her that they found two chapters “theologically out of bounds.” And they asked her to cut out those two chapters that they found “not in line with the values of the majority of their readers.” Those two chapters were the ones in which Bussie told stories of God’s love for her Muslim and LGBTQ friends. Bussie refused to cut the chapters and was dropped by her publisher who told her that if she wanted to release the book she’d have to buy back the rights from them as they had paid her to write it.
Bussie was understandably crushed that her work might not ever see the light of day because she couldn’t afford to pay them back. However, a friend convinced her not to remain silent as she told her that is just what the publisher wanted. So, Bussie wrote about the situation on her personal Facebook page, posting her story along with picture of herself with duct tape across her mouth with the word, “Censored.” The post went viral as friends and friends of friends shared it and tagged executives they knew at other publishers in an effort to get her book released. One of those executives worked at Fortress Press and was by chance the day Bussie released the post sitting next to her agent at a literary conference and seeing the post asked her agent if he knew her. That interaction that some might call a coincidence, Bussie calls a “God moment”, and it led to her signing with Fortress Press and to the release of her book through them.
It is interesting , isn’t it, that a book titled Love Without Limits: Jesus’ Radical Vision for a Love with No Exceptions, had a difficult time being released because that first publisher thought it didn’t make enough exceptions to those whom Jesus’ love applied? That a book about loving without restrictions was almost not released because the first publisher thought the author didn’t put enough restrictions around who was worthy of that love? Oh, the irony!
While it is ironic, it is pretty true to how we often understand and try to live out Jesus’ radical and boundless love, isn’t it? Like that first Christian publisher we often want to attach an asterisk or a footnote to Jesus’ call to love and say that it applies to all except those on the list of who we think should be excluded because they don’t match up with our standards for inclusion. Maybe they make our list because we perceive that they have wronged us in some way or have committed what we think is an unforgivable sin or they believe differently than we do on an issue or they belong to the wrong political party or support the wrong social movement or they speak the wrong language or have the wrong accent or the wrong color skin or are of the wrong ethnicity or claim the wrong gender identity or sexual orientation. The list can go on and on for who we personally think should be left out of that radical love of Jesus.
Yet, as we read in our gospel reading today, it shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out who to love as Jesus says, “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.” Jesus commands us to love as he does, with a love that knows no bounds or limits. This is what seems to make it a new commandment. After all, the Hebrew Scriptures tell us to love the other as well, telling us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. But how good are we really at loving ourselves? Do we often fail to love ourselves? Instead, thinking our imperfections, flaws and faults make us unloveable? Or do we also beat ourselves up for our mistakes, thinking we are unworthy of even our own love? I think this can often be the case in our lives. And so here Jesus calls us to love differently, in a new way.
Jesus calls us to love as he loves. To love without judgment or preference. To love in a way that defies expectations, that bridges social divides, and transforms our conventions. To love in a way that is subversive and unexpected. To love as people transformed by the one who first loves us without hesitation or exception. To love because Jesus loves us unconditionally and sets us free to love in that same way. To love with a love that not even death can stop. To love with a kind of love we can’t help but want to share by loving in the same way, so that others will know its transformational power too. To love in a way that others will see and know unmistakably that we are his disciples because that love is so distinct and unique.
Often we as humans try to make being a follower of Jesus about believing just the right thing or reading the Bible in just the right way. Or being affiliated with the right denomination or even the right political party that we think aligns with our faith. However, Jesus says it is our love for one another that will define us as his followers. A love he shows us through his example isn’t dependent on who we are or our worthiness or what we believe or know in our heads. Instead a love simply dependent on the call to love for love’s sake.
Jesus shows us what this love looks like throughout John’s Gospel as he seeks out and welcomes outsiders like the Samaritan woman at the well, heals those society casts off like the man blind from birth, forgives those society views as unforgivable like the woman caught in adultery, and serves his disciples by washing their feet. He further sets us up to know this love is different as just before he extends the command to love one another in our gospel Jesus sends Judas off knowing he will betray him and right after, he predicts that Peter will deny him three times. Jesus extends his love to all. To those society turns its back on and to those who turn their backs to him. He shows us that this love of his will always surprise us and there is nothing that can stop it from reaching those in need of it.
Of course, as I said before, it isn’t our human instinct to love in this way and therefore it can be hard for us to do. Our instinct is to confine our love to within the narrow limits we want to set. We want to love only those who meet that short list of criteria or standards that we feel make them worthy of receiving our love, but that isn’t the kind of love Jesus calls us to. He calls us to an expansive love that we and others find offensive because of all the people it is freely given to in spite of our objections. Jacqueline Bussie writes of our struggle to live into this love, “How will you know when your agape-love is as thick and wide and titanic as God wants? Well, if Jesus’ own life is any indication, once you completely offend other people. Jesus wants us to distend our love so far its swollen face will completely scandalize VIPs, government officials, members of our own family, and especially the most powerful people within our own religious tradition . . . Basically, if you annoy the heck out of the powerful, then you will know that your love has dilated sufficiently.”
Is this the way we are loving one another in our world today? Does the way we love one another offend, annoy, and scandalize because of its lack of boundaries, limits, and exceptions? Or in these times of so much societal division when anxiety and fear of the other are high, do we tend to offend each other more with our words and beliefs than with our acts of love for one another? I tend to think too often it is the former rather than the latter.
Yet, Jesus calls us not to give up on love no matter how divided we are and how difficult it can seem to love one another because of our differences and divisions. We can do this because through his radical and subversive love for us he sets us free to love one another in that same way that he first loves us. He sets us free through his love to break with what society expects of us and to simply love one another without trying to determine whether or not any of us are worthy or deserving of it. He sets us free in his limitless love to try, fail, and try again to love limitlessly, so that as we unapologetically offend, annoy, and scandalize as we love one another, the world will know us as his offensive, annoying, and scandalous love-filled disciples. Amen.