A Word to the Church
The Easter Season A.D. 2020
“What Would Love Do?”
Jesus calls us; o'er the tumult
of our life's wild, restless sea,
day by day his clear voice soundeth,
saying, "Christian, follow me"
Text of Hymn 549, verse 1 – Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-95), alt.
Throughout the Book of Common Prayer there are rubrics, those small or italicized words that don’t always catch our eye, that provide direction and guidance for how a liturgy or service is to be conducted. Rubrics tell us what must be done and what may be done. They limit us and they give us freedom. They require us to exercise our judgment. And when we are at our best, we exercise this judgment under God’s rubric of love.
Jesus tells us things like: Love your enemies; Bless those who curse you; Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; As you did to the least of these who are members of my family you have done to me; Father, forgive; Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength. This is the first and great commandment and the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus makes it abundantly clear that the way of unselfish, sacrificial love – love that seeks the good and the well-being of others as well as the self – that love is the rubric of the Christian life.
This rubric of love is seen no more clearly than in the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel according to John.
When [the disciples] had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:15-19)
The death of Jesus had left his followers disoriented, uncertain, and confused, afraid of what they knew and anxious about what they did not know. Thinking that the movement was probably dead, the disciples went back to what they knew. They tried to go back to normal. They went fishing.
They fished all night but didn’t catch a thing. Normal would not return. When the morning came, Jesus showed up on the beach, alive, risen from the dead. He asked them, “Children, have you any fish?” They answered, “No.” Then he told them to cast the net on the other side of the boat. They did and caught more fish than they could handle. And then, Jesus invited them to breakfast.
After having fed his disciples, Jesus turned to Peter and three times asked him, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter said, “Yes.” And Jesus said, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” “Feed my sheep.” In this, Jesus told Peter what love looks like. Love God by loving your neighbors, all of them. Love your enemies. Feed the hungry. Bless folk. Forgive them. And be gentle with yourself. Follow me. You may make mistakes, you may not do it perfectly. But whatever you do, do it with love. The truth is, Jesus gave Peter a rubric for the new normal – God’s rubric of love.
Today, like Peter and the disciples, we must discern a new normal. COVID-19 has left us disoriented, uncertain, and confused, afraid of what we know and anxious about what we do not know. Our old normal has been upended, and we hunger for its return.
I do not say this from a lofty perch. I get it. There is a big part of me that wants to go back to January 2020 when I had never heard of COVID-19, and when I only thought of “Contagion” as a movie. Looking back through what I know are glasses darkened by loss, I find myself remembering January 2020 as a “golden age.”
But of course, January 2020 wasn’t perfect, not even close. And anyway, I can’t go back. None of us can go back. We must move forward. But we don’t know for sure what the new normal will be. Fortunately, God’s rubric of love shows us the way.
In her book The Dream of God the late Verna Dozier, who was a mentor to me, wrote:
Kingdom of God thinking calls us to risk. We always see through a glass darkly, and that is what faith is about. I will live by the best I can discern today. Tomorrow I may find out I was wrong. Since I do not live by being right, I am not destroyed by being wrong. The God revealed in Jesus, whom I call the Christ, is a God whose forgiveness goes ahead of me, and whose love sustains me and the whole created world. That God bursts all the definitions of our small minds, all the limitations of our timid efforts, all the boundaries of our institutions [The Dream of God, Verna Dozier, Cowley Publications (1991), Seabury Classics (2006)]
Kingdom of God thinking is already happening. God’s rubric of love is already in action. I’ve been watching bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people of our church following Jesus in the practices that make up his way of love and doing things we never imagined. The creativity and the risk-taking – done with love – is amazing.
We’ve been trying, making mistakes, learning, regrouping, trying anew. I’ve seen it. Holy Week and Easter happened in ways that none of us dreamed possible. I’ve quietly read Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline online with you. I’ve seen soup kitchens, pantries, and other feeding ministries carefully doing their work in safe and healthy ways. Zoom coffee hours, bible studies, and small discipleship groups. I’ve seen this church stand for the moral primacy of love. I’ve seen it, even when public health concerns supersede all other considerations, including in-person worship. That is moral courage. Who knows, but that love may demand more of us. But fear not, just remember what the old slaves use to say, walk together, children, and don’t you get weary, because there is a great camp meeting in the Promised Land. Oh, I’ve seen us do what we never thought we would or could do, because we dared to do what Jesus tells us all to do.
As our seasons of life in the COVID-19 world continue to turn, we are called to continue to be creative, to risk, to love. We are called to ask, What would unselfish, sacrificial love do?
What would love do? Love is the community praying together, in ways old and new. Love finds a path in this new normal to build church communities around being in relationship with God. Love supports Christians in spiritual practices. Prayer, meditation, study. Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, Rest.
What would love do? Love calls us to care for our neighbors, for our enemies. Love calls us to attend to those in prison, to those who are homeless, to those in poverty, to children, to immigrants and refugees. Love calls us to be in relationship with those with whom we disagree.
What would love do? Love calls us to be gentle with ourselves, to forgive our own mistakes, to take seriously the Sabbath. Love calls us to be in love with God, to cultivate a loving relationship with God, to spend time with God, to be still and know that God is God.
Jesus says, Simon, son of John, do you love me?
Jesus says, Michael, son of Dorothy and Kenneth, do you love me?
Jesus says, Do you love me?
Jesus says, Follow me, and take the risk to live the question, What would love do?
This, my friends, is God’s rubric of love. This, my friends, is God’s very way of life.
In our joys and in our sorrows,
days of toil and hours of ease,
still he calls, in cares and pleasures,
"Christian, love me more than these."
Jesus calls us! By thy mercies,
Savior, may we hear thy call,
give our hearts to thine obedience,
serve and love thee best of all.
Text of Hymn 549, verses 4 and 5 – Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-95), alt.
God love you. God bless you. And may God hold us all in those almighty hands of love.
The Most Reverend Michael B. Curry
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church