Love without limits

Mary Copping, 3 September 2017

Romans 12: 9–21, Matthew 16: 21–28

In one of the commentaries on our reading from Romans, someone gives the passage as a description of ‘love without limits’. Then the commentator goes on to ask the question, ‘How would we want to be remembered when we’ve died? What would we like the priest to be saying about us?’ Always, when I listen to details of people’s lives at their funerals, I am amazed at how much they have done, and I wish that I’d spoken to them more and found out more about them when they were alive.

The commentator goes on to ask, ‘What would friends and neighbours say about you – people from church, work? What would your family and friends say?’ That’s quite a challenge; we know what we would like them to say! And perhaps what we wish we’d done more of – not earn more money, or spend more time on the golf course, or work harder – but the baseline would be, we would wish that we had loved people more with God’s love, including those who liked us and those who didn’t. We would hope to have shown a picture of ‘love without limits’.

In our gospel reading, we see Peter the Rock saying that Jesus should not go through with all that he was describing: ‘That he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering … and be killed’. This showed Peter’s humanity and his love for his master, and yet Jesus said, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ This seems harsh, but shows Jesus knew that he must be focused on what he must do and be supported by all those around him.

Peter had a picture of Jesus the Messiah as a figure of glory – the one riding into Jerusalem, who would be victorious in winning his kingdom and take his seat in victory with his Father in heaven. Jesus knew a very different picture, which he was trying to convey to his disciples. All would end in glory eventually, but he would be lifted up on a cross, and his glory would be in his resurrection, with death defeated. This was hard for them all to take.

Jesus followed this by showing them that this way of suffering, the way of the cross, was for all of them – to take up their cross as Jesus would. And Jesus assured them that they would find their lives as they took up the cross. As they did this, they would discover themselves in a new way, and become more like Christ.

The instruction to take up one’s cross is often a challenge to Christians in the West, who generally have relatively easy Christian lives compared to some in other parts of the world, who are persecuted for their faith, who have to meet to worship God in secret places, who are even killed because they refuse to renounce Christ as saviour.

And yet our challenge in the West is given in the passage from the book of Romans: all the practical advice needed to love as God asks us to. The love that Paul describes in the letter to the Romans is not a soft, gentle love, but a tough love. ‘Bless those who persecute you … do not repay anyone evil for evil … live peaceably with all.’

God’s love, unconditional and never-ending, is needed so much in this world. Perhaps especially in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, God gives us a plea to ‘overcome evil with good’. This is a serious obligation for us as Christians to pursue. Paul’s thesis in the letter to the Romans is ‘love without action is not love’. We are to love the unlovely and unlovable, to love our enemy or persecutor. I wonder where our own limitations are in loving others.

God gives us a plea to ‘overcome evil with good’. This is a serious obligation for us as Christians to pursue.

I think this icon of the Trinity, which was painted in around 1410 by Andrei Rublev, shows us something of God’s perfect love. Here are the three persons of God, all faces identical to show that they are three expressions of one God.

All of the figures wear a blue garment – the colour of the heavens, the blue robe speaking of divinity – but each wears something that speaks of their own identity.

The Father, the one who is the creator of the world – his robe is shimmering, to show his heavenly being. The Christ figure wears the blue of divinity but, beneath that, the brown garment that speaks of the earth – of his humanity – and the gold stripe suggests kingship. The Holy Spirit– who helps, leads and guides us, strengthening us for the work God has for us to do – has a green robe representing new life.

A group of three, all loving each other, supporting each other, pointing to each other and not themselves; all invite us into the perfect love of God as shown in this circle. This is the love that loves everyone with no preferences; the love that loves neighbour, friend and enemy alike; the love that keeps on loving; the love that invites all in.

Here is the cross that we must carry: the obligation, the command to love all, no matter what – that neighbour who is really annoying and keeps finding fault with everything we do, that shop assistant who is so rude to us, the person in the family who always seems to be criticising us. This is our challenge as we go through each day.

1 Corinthians 13, often used at weddings, gives a wonderful description of love – love is patient, love is kind. Someone challenged me to put my own name there instead of love: ‘Mary is patient; Mary is kind; Mary is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Mary does not insist on her own way.’ Often I cannot go very far with this, as I realise that I fall short of all these things, but then I ask God’s forgiveness and ask him to help me to be more loving. I challenge you to do this with your own name!

As we receive God’s love in the Eucharist, as we receive it in our service this morning and from others around us, this is the love that we can show to others as we go through this week, and it will ripple out to all those around us and others beyond. This is another challenge, because if love will ripple out from us, so can negative words and responses. So we carry this cross of Christ, the cross that asks us – commands us – to love as God loves us, unconditionally, ‘without limits’. As we do this we become more and more like Christ.

The words of a hymn:

Make me a channel of your peace
Where there is hatred let me bring your love
Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord
And where there’s doubt, true faith in you.