Message 91, Finding Spiritual Truths from World Religions: Christian Unconditional Love, Easter Sunday, 4-8-12
© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
Click here to listen to the Easter message or see below to read it.
As millions of people the world over celebrate Easter today, most seem to forget that in the Easter story – on that first Easter morning – all was not good, happy and bright. A tomb was visited. Death had to be confronted in all of its fearful ugliness.
The followers of Jesus on that morning were scattered, disorganized and devastated. This man in whom they had invested their lives – this prophet of revolutionary change – had been humiliated and executed as a common criminal. Not only was the man dead, the movement he had started, in order to change human attitudes about life, compassion and the heart of the Divine, was also effectively dead.
Over the ensuing years, as the teachings and life examples of Jesus were told and retold, his followers and those who admired him came to understand with increasing clarity the underlying message of this great prophet. Not only were his actual life and teachings interpreted and shared, but the ultimate meaning and purpose of his life were shaped and then condensed into one overall message. And a new religion was created as a result – one that would honor and perpetuate his teachings.
The shock and sorrow of that first Easter morning were reinterpreted by his admirers into one of celebration and joy. Easter morning was changed to symbolize, and thus prove, the real message of Jesus – a man of history who actually did live and die.
As humans, we are prone to think and ACT, in order to solve the problems of life. And our biggest problem in life is the fear we have of our own demise. Of all the created beings, we alone know we will one day die. We are chained to this realization – it imprisons many of us in lives of fear, worry and an inability to really live and truly love. Humanity invented religion as a way to mitigate this fear – to offer solace and comfort. Religion tells us that if we believe and if we ACT in a certain ways – as moral and good people – we will not die but be rewarded with eternal life.
Jesus taught something entirely different. We do not need to ACT in certain ways. We do not need to DO certain things to earn Divine favor. We must simply BE. We must simply BE like the heart of all Truth and all purity. We must BE like the Divine. And our intuition, combined with messages from the Bible and most other world religions, tells us that the Divine – or God if you wish – is love.
If this is true, and I assert that it is, what does it mean to BE love? For most people, love is a matter of doing. It is an act of performance. It is a transaction. I will DO acts of love to show you that I care about you. But, I will only do those acts in return for similar acts of love which you DO for me – acts of praise, thanks, helping, giving or physical affection.
But the overall message of Jesus – and what Easter morning came to represent – is that DOING love is not real love. Doing acts of love often becomes perfunctory and obligatory. As time goes on, we can become resentful of our need to DO acts of love in order to earn the love of God or another person. Jesus condemned such an approach to love – those who prayed in public and on display and thought they were loving the Divine, or those who made a show of the money they gave and thought they were buying Divine love, or those who acted moral on the outside but were full of hate and anger on the inside. Such people are like dirty and cobweb filled tombs, he said. There is no substance to their supposed love. It is hypocritical and false.
Indeed, many of us fall into the same trap. We say we love another person or other people. We do acts of kindness for them. We lavish them with money or gifts. We judge them – and decide whether or not to love them – based on their ability to love us, thank us, be like us or do good things for us. And when they disappoint, as all people do since we are not perfect creatures, we often fall out of love. We have been hurt. We have been cheated in the transaction of love. I have given love and gotten little or nothing in return, we tell ourselves. We equate love with DOING, which always falls short since we cannot do anything with perfection. And we equate religion with doing. As lovers or as religious people, we are like runners on an endless treadmill – never able to get off our perceived need to DO and ACT and perform, and thus earn love.
If you have listened to or followed our two month message series on finding spiritual truths from world religions, you will hear a familiar refrain in each message. Contentment for the Buddhist, which we discussed last month, is not about doing contented things like meditation or letting go. It is about achieving a state of BEING that is content and at peace. And the same is true for the devotional attitudes of Muslims – they ARE devoted instead of DOING acts of devotion like praying and fasting.
For Christianity, the one hallmark of that faith is what Jesus asked of his followers and, indeed, asked of all humanity. We must follow the DIVINE example and simply BE love personified. How can we BE love, and not just DO acts of love? We must love unconditionally – love which is given without any condition or strings attached. We must love as the DIVINE loves – without expectation of returned love, without rehearsal, without thought, without any standard of beauty, wealth or so-called morality. God loves the thief and the murderer as much as the saint. Indeed, we are called to love the unlovable. We must love the one who hurts us. We must love those on the margins – those who most so-called “decent” people do not love: the criminals, the AIDS victims, the poor, the dirty, the addicts, the persons of a different race, religion or sexuality, the enemy, the person who can in no way DO anything of value for us. As Mother Theresa once said, “Unconditional love does not measure, it just gives.”
The ultimate message of the historic Jesus and the ultimate message of Christianity – one that any person of any faith or non-faith can appreciate – is a message that tells us the Divine loves ALL people and ALL creation no…….matter…….what. And, if we wish to be enlightened and like the Divine, then we must also love others no…..matter….. what. We must strive to become people known by, and personified by, our total, complete and unconditional love.
Most of us have heard and know the story of the Prodigal Son – the parable used by Jesus to teach about unconditional or Divine love. In the story, the youngest son goes to his father and demands his inheritance right then – he wants it long before his father has died. Such an act would be humiliating to any parent – this boy cares more about money than his dad. But the father gives him the money anyway and the son lives true to his arrogant and impetuous attitudes. He departs the family home to live in Las Vegas! No. Not really. But he does go off to the big city and the money is soon wasted and spent on high living – on the so-called sins of sex, booze, drugs and rock and roll! And he predictably hits rock bottom – having to work and scavenge with pigs for his food – something no respectable Jew would ever do. Remembering that his dad was an easy mark the first time, the son rehearses a nice speech for his dad about repenting and asking for a job as a worker on the family farm. As the boy approaches the farm, the father sees him long before he is close. According to a tradition of the time, the father should have then smashed a clay pot at the boy’s feet as a symbolic gesture to humiliate and forever reject him. The boy had dishonored his dad in the eyes of the community and then he had further brought dishonor by living as an immoral wastrel and fool. The audiences hearing Jesus teach this parable would have expected such an action by the dad.
Instead, the father confounds all normal expectations of justice and transactional love. He does not merely tolerate his son’s return, he lavishly and joyously celebrates it! He is uninhibited in his happiness at the boy’s return – he runs to the boy – something considered unseemly in that culture for men of his age to do. By running, he would have had to lift his robes – something also undignified and humiliating. He wraps the boy in a huge embrace, covers the boy’s neck with kisses, puts an expensive robe on the boy’s shoulders, gives him the family signet ring and orders that a fatted calf be roasted and a banquet be held to celebrate the boy’s return. Such abundant and costly love was totally spontaneous, as the parable tells us. The father saw the boy a long way off and instantly runs to him – no thinking or planning involved. The boy had symbolically spit in his dad’s face, humiliated the family name and then came crawling back – but he was extravagantly loved anyway.
Who among us has not hungered for such a loving response from a parent, spouse, lover, stranger or child – to have a person joyously, uncontrollably and excessively run to, hug and kiss us – especially after we have done something wrong or hurtful? Such forgiveness and such love is overwhelming and almost miraculous.
It is then and there, at the impact of his father’s unbelievable love, that the boy changes – that his heart is transformed. In what would likely be a scene of crying and happiness all at once, the boy claims he is unworthy to be his father’s son. Indeed, any person would be both challenged and changed by such love. What enemy, what bigot, what act of hatred and violence cannot be ultimately changed by love and forgiveness? As Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. proved, the power of unconditional love is greater than any force on earth.
But soon the older son of the father shares the views of most religions and most people – that the father’s lavish love is unjust. It is not fair that the father should show such love to a son who has been so bad. It is not fair that he, the oldest son, has not been similarly rewarded for all he has DONE morally and correctly to earn the love of the dad. The father reminds him that he has always had his love and that his actions have not impacted that love, just as the younger son’s actions did not impact his love. The father loves his boys without any judgment. For his children, the father is the very embodiment of love. It is a part of his very being.
This is the breathtaking vision of love that Jesus and genuine Christianity offer us. When we consciously ponder such love and understand its implications, we are dumbfounded. We are like the oldest son in the parable – protesting that such love is not natural. Indeed, it is not. Such love is a miracle, it is super-natural, it defines the one GREAT force in our universe. It is the real message of Jesus and of this holiday, this Easter we celebrate.
For myself, I have hungered for so long to experience the kind of love the father shows in the parable of the Prodigal Son. I have yearned not just to have things DONE for me by my dad – acts by him which have always been generous and kind. I have hungered, instead, to be embraced and accepted and truly loved for the man who I am – not the man my dad wishes I could be. I cherish the one time my dad told me he loved me – when he put his hand on my shoulder and said so. That moment is seared in my memory. But, oh!!!! To be hugged and kissed and made to feel as if I am an honored, loved and respected man in his eyes – that is the stuff of my dreams.
And I have resolved to, as much as possible, be such love for my daughters. I have determined to never end a conversation or phone call with them, no matter how trivial, without saying “I love you.” I have determined, no matter how reluctant they might be if we are in public, to deeply hug them and kiss them. I am not a perfect dad and my actions are not perfect towards them. I have fallen short many times. But my love for them is true and unconditional. They can never do anything that will destroy my love for them. I saw their little heads emerge into the world for the first time, I hugged and carried and cried and worried for them. I still do. I would die for them. They are the solace I have for not having been courageous at an early age and come out as a gay man. Had I done so, I would likely not have them. They are my window into the supernatural world of total and unconditional love. With them, I understand it and am so very grateful to experience it.
But Jesus’ teachings about unconditional love are not limited to parental love. He called us to BE such love for all people and all creatures. He called us to BE that love for our enemies, our partners and spouses, our friends, and our fellow humans who suffer and live at the margins of life. In his teachings, he called us to BE gentle, to BE forgiving, to BE kind, to BE compassionate, to incorporate into our very nature – into the definition of who we are as a people – a way of living that is like the Divine. Much like a flower cannot cease to be a flower, or God cannot cease to be God, a loving person cannot stop BEING love. He or she simply IS love. That kind of love is spontaneous. It is unthinking. It is free and lavish. It is blind to flaws, failures, and hurts. Imagine the kind of relationships we could have and the world we might create if every person loved in such a manner?
It is a standard Christian cliché – one employed by Christian Pastors many times in their messages – to say that on the cross Jesus’ arms were spread wide as a symbolic gesture of total love for humanity and the total love we must also have. But cliché or not, it is an effective image. It is one much like the running embrace of the father to his prodigal boy – arms spread wide and open. On Easter, we are reminded of this spiritual truth from Christianity – that love should be pure and unlimited; that without thinking, we are called to continue becoming people who love without condition. We are to go out into our families and neighborhoods and simply BE the face of the Divine – a force of super-natural, miraculous, and unconditional love for all – a power so great that it will change you……. and change the world.
I wish you all much peace, joy and love this Easter day.
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