The beauty of guilt-free love
One of my favorite television shows was a show called Gilmore Girls. Gilmore Girls captured the story of the quirky relationship between a single-mom and her teenage daughter, and the funny adventures that happened to them in their small town. One of my favorite scenes from that show was an episode in which the daughter was celebrating her birthday. First thing that morning, the mother tiptoed into her daughter’s room, snuggled in her bed, and began her yearly ritual of retelling her birth story. “Once upon a time, a long time ago, a scared, pregnant woman entered the hospital with contractions.” Based on the way the story begins and the tone in the mom’s voice, the viewers all think this is going to be a tender moment between mother and child, where the mom will describe the way her heart filled with joy when she looked into her daughter’s eyes. Instead, the mother proceeds to tell the gory, painful story in graphic detail, basically intimating that the daughter should feel indebted to her mother for the great burden of her birth, and every year the child should celebrate the work her mother did to birth her, instead of the mother needing to joyfully celebrate the daughter.
The audience chuckles at the scene because we all know that mother. This is the mother who says, “I was in labor for 60 hours with you … the least you could do is …” Or the mother who says, “Oh you think that is hard? Try giving birth naturally to a nine-pound baby and then tell me what hard is!” This kind of guilt-based love never really feels like love. The response guilt-based love gets is something done out of obligation, not out of joy or devotion.
The funny thing is that in many ways, that guilt-based love is what we hear from Jesus in our gospel lesson today. Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” When I think about Jesus, I do not think of him as a coercive parent. And yet, his language, especially about his death and resurrection can sound exactly like that. You can almost hear the nagging parent, “I hung on a cross until midday and died for your sins. The least you could do is love one another as I loved you!” And what is so frustrating is that there is no comeback line to that logic. There is no way for us to come back to Jesus and argue, “Well, that was a different time period. If you had lived today, that would not have happened.” Or, “But your death wasn’t all that bad, and you did rise again, so really, we don’t need to feel that guilty because your death was a necessary evil.” Those whining excuses do not hold water, and we are left manipulated into a sense of obligation, because, really, who can argue with Jesus? He did die for our sins, and there is no way to repay him.
When we think about our faith, more often than not the lessons we learn are guilt-based. Even our most basic “Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is a lesson based on guilt. When we are reminded of that rule, and we think about how we feel when someone hurts us, we guiltily stop our negative behavior. But the guilt is not limited to our faith. Our behavior in friendships is often dictated by guilt and obligation. She always buys me a gift for Christmas, so I should buy her a gift too – even when we know neither of us needs gifts. They had us over for dinner and served nice wine, so now we need to invite them to our place and pick up a similar vintage. He gave party favors at his party, so we need to give party favors at our party too. We get so caught up in the obligations of life that we lose touch with joy – the joy of our faith, of our friends, of our life.
Here’s the problem with guilt: guilt creates a false sense of agency. In other words, after we experience guilt, we come to believe that we have the power, and in the case of guilt, the need, to work harder to achieve something better. When we first read our gospel lesson, the lesson seems laced with guilt. Upon first glance, Jesus seems to be telling us over and over all the things we need to do to be better – to love better. But that assumption could not be farther from the truth. Jesus says three things that show us how his love is not a manipulative, guilt-inducing love, but a freely given and freeing love. First, Jesus explains that he wants the disciples to abide in his love and to love others because he wants his joy to be in them, so that their joy may be complete. I hear Jesus’ words this way, “Don’t love because you feel like you have to or because you feel like you should. Love because loving will give you joy. This joy is no ordinary ‘happiness” [i] – a fleeting feeling like the one you get from a great piece of chocolate. This joy runs deep and can be a well that you can keep drawing from, even after happiness is long gone. I know because I have this joy – and I want to give that joy to you.” Jesus does not guilt us into a particular behavior because we should behave that way. He wants us to know and feel the deep joy he has and he knows the way to get there – through love.
Second, Jesus renames the disciples as friends. He says, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” As one scholar explains, in Jesus’ day, “to be called a ‘slave’ of a good master was not denigrating, and it could even be a title of respect. But still a ‘slave’ was not on the same level as a friend. A slave’s status obligated him to support a master through difficult times, but a friend would do it freely, for reasons of mutual commitment and affection.”[ii] Jesus is not offering a promotion in order to garner favor with the disciples. Jesus is pointing to a reality that has already occurred, and that reality shifts the motivation behind all that they do. The love Jesus talks about giving is not out of a sense of obligation due to an unequal relationship, but out of a sense of abundance that comes from intimate, loving equality and mutuality.
Finally, Jesus reminds the disciples that the love they experience in him is not out of a sense of obligation because of their relationship, or even because the disciples must do something to receive that love. No, Jesus says, “you did not choose me but I chose you.” This is different from the love of a mother or father for a child. A child never chooses their parents, but parents also do not get to choose their children. But here, Jesus chooses the disciples. Jesus sees their inadequacies, their weaknesses, their imperfections, and he chooses them anyway. They do not earn his love; they do not even earn their discipleship. Jesus chooses them. Jesus loves them first. They do not earn that love or owe anything for that love. Jesus chooses them – again and again.
When we hear Jesus’ words more clearly – when we hear the great abundance behind his words, suddenly our sense of guilt disappears. When we understand that we are Jesus’ friends, that we are chosen by Jesus, and that Jesus simply wants us to know the same joy that he knows, all those commandments – which basically boil down to love anyway – are not burdens or actions done out of guilt. [iii] Those commandments are what we do because we are so overwhelmed by how we are loved that the love spills out of us helping us to extend Christ-like friendship, love, and joy to others. That behavior is not something we choose. We do not choose to love our cranky neighbor. We do not choose to love that parishioner who always seems to know how to irritate and downright anger us sometimes. We do not choose to love that homeless person on the street. We could not fake that kind of love if we were guilted or even if we wanted to give that love. We can only approach that kind of love because when we know Christ – as his friend – the friend who chooses us before we ever chose him – the friend who longs for us to know deep, abiding joy – when we know that Christ, the love we need oozes out of us despite ourselves. We find ourselves doing ridiculous things like taking that cranky neighbor a bowl of soup when we hear about their cancer treatments. We do silly things like hug that frustrating parishioner really hard at the peace. We do crazy things like giving our full wallet’s contents to the homeless person because suddenly how responsible they are with the money just doesn’t even matter anymore. We cannot stop that love. We cannot control that love. We cannot even use that love judiciously. That kind of love comes from a place in us unlike any other we know – a place free from guilt, obligation, and coercion. Because although you were birthed through the waters of baptism, that birth will never be a reason for you to be guilted into anything. Amen.
[i] Karoline Lewis, “Choose Joy,” May 3, 2015 as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3608 on May 8, 2015.
[ii] Thomas H. Troeger, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 499.
[iii] Lawrence Wood, “Labors of Love,” Christian Century, vol. 120, no. 10, May 17, 2003.