Monday, September 2, 2013

Love as Identity Loss

The amazing thing about the Bible is that it can always take you deeper into a topic than you had previously been.  You think you know everything about love, even Christian "Agape" love?  Look again.  There are verses that take us even deeper into what agape love is.  I want to look at a few of those verses.

Let's start with the verse that the whole world, even the ungodly and all other religions, can get behind: Matthew 7:12:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Every religion and philosophy has some sort of variation of this verse in it.  Usually it is written in the negative sense--don't do evil to others, or it will come back to bite you--bringing out the karmic theme of the verse.  Even in the Christian, positive sense, it still appears to be karmic.  Love is like a bank, we think, and so whatever I put into it, I will get out of it.  Do nice things to other people and they will treat me nice.  The focus returns to us as the recipient of the love.  We are only loving to get love in return.  Even our pop culture says, "the greatest thing you'll ever learn is to love and be loved in return."  So, we now have to go deeper into the golden rule to see how it's not karma but grace that propels love:

Luke 14:1, 7-11
14:1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

14:7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.

14:8 "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host;

14:9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.

14:10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.

14:11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

Great idea, Jesus!  I never would have thought of that one.  Now I know how to work the system.  If I want the place of honor, the key is to take the lowest place, and then the host will elevate me.  Great!  We are still in karmic mode, and Jesus knows this, and so he follows it up with another teaching:

14:12 He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.

14:13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

14:14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

Even though this lesson is aimed at the host, it is really for everyone at the party.  To truly love, you have to humble yourself, but you must not expect anything back in return.  You must be constantly in a state of giving and NEVER receiving.  In fact, if we target people who cannot repay us--even if they wanted to--we are sure that we are loving for the right reasons.  Did we get a little deeper into the Christian way of loving our neighbor?  Let's go even deeper:

Hebrews 13:1-6
13:1 Let mutual love continue.

13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

13:3 Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

13:4 Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.

13:5 Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you."

13:6 So we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?"

13:1 tells us we are talking about Christian love.  The next verse is a popular one, and one that is in danger of slipping us into karmic thinking again.  Well, if I help strangers out, some of them may be angels, and then they'll put in a good word for me with the big guy upstairs! Once again we are immediately corrected with the next, very important verse.

Remember those in prison as if you were in prison too.  Remember those who are being tortured as if you were being tortured, too.  We've all heard about how to have empathy: put ourselves in the other person's shoes, but in order to remove ourselves completely from the equation, we have to actually remove ourselves.  I think this is what these two verses mean.  We are not to just pretend that we are in prison.  We are not to just pretend we are being tortured.  We are to take that person's place.  We are to completely give up self and be that other person.  There is no "you" anymore, there is only the one loved.

So it's not just loving someone without expecting anything in return.  There is no YOU.  There is only them.  Expecting something in return is as far from you as possible now, because there is no you.  We can't even put ourselves in someone else's shoes.  If we do that, we can always step out of those shoes again and back in our own.  But there is no YOU.  You have lost your identity.  You can't get out of the other person's shoes.  You must stay there.

The next couple of verses seem to be shifting gears, as if they were items in a proverbs laundry list, but these verses tie in most intentionally.  To honor marriage, to keep the marriage bed undefiled, what must we do?  We don't just put our spouse first.  We don't just put ourselves in our spouse's shoes.  We don't just think "what if my spouse did the same thing to me?"  There is no YOU.  There is ONLY the spouse.  You aren't supposed to think of yourself AT ALL, because there is no you.  That's what it means when we say a married couple is one flesh.  Because there are no longer two individual people in the marriage.  There is only one, and that one is the OTHER PERSON, not YOU.  What vanishes is the "I did something nice for you, so do something nice for me" attitude that all marriages seem to have, and what appears in its plac is mutual service to the other.

The next verse is about money.  In this culture, we are always comparing what we have to what others have.  The only way to be completely content with what we have is to realize that there is NO YOU TO HAVE ANYTHING.  There is only the other person that we are helping.  If there is only the person we are feeding or clothing or giving to, we will give more, we will give EVERYTHING, because there is no US to keep what is left over.  There's no more, "well I need something to live on!"  There is no you.  Read the Sermon on the mount, especially Matthew 5:38-42 about retaliation.  Those verses make sense when we realize there is no more us.

Mother Theresa is a great human example.  She gave up everything and went to Calcutta to serve the poor there.  At the end of the day, she didn't go back and sleep at a hotel near the airport.  She stayed with them.  She lived with them.  She was them.  She was in prison, too.  She was tortured, too.  There was no "her" at all.  There was only the poor of Calcutta.

Jesus is our best example.  He was God, and yet he humbled himself and became one of us, lived with us for 33 years.  He was one of us.  He gave up his identity as the Lord almighty, so he could be fully human.  He was still fully divine, but he emptied himself.  He didn't ascend each night to go sleep in Heaven with his father.  He stayed with us the whole time.  He became one of us.  There was NO him.  For him, there was only us and our salvation.

Am I saying that we need to go empty our banks accounts out now?  Am I saying that we need to sell our houses and move to Calcutta?  God reaches each of us in a different way, and he is working on us, and we will see opportunities now for us to completely forget ourselves and help others.  These opportunities happen every day, right where we are, and the more we take the opportunity, the more frequent these situations become and the longer they last, so that in the end we are living our lives as if there were no us, but only the loved.  This is true Christian love.  Not just self-sacrifice but self-extinction.

And the last two verses of our Hebrews text affirm this.  The Lord says, "I will never leave you or forsake you."  He is our helper in this.  He is going to transform us from selfish, karmic beings into selfless acts of grace.  This is the work of God in our lives.