Peter Wallace: Limitless Love

You’ve heard of Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount.” You’ll find that in Matthew’s gospel. But here in Luke chapter 6, Jesus offers what’s been called a “Sermon on the Plain.” Verse 12 tells us that Jesus goes out to the mountain to pray, spends the night in prayer to God, and the next day he calls his 12 disciples. Then in verse 17, Jesus comes down the mountain with them and “stands at a level place,” a plain, in other words— “with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people” from all over the place who are ready to listen. Last week’s gospel lesson began this sermon, and now we pick it up with verse 27.

And wouldn’t you know it, Jesus really gets to meddling here. Remember, all these people listening to him were burdened and oppressed under the harsh rule of Roman authorities and their hypocritical lackeys. These people wanted so badly to rise up against their enemies of the Empire.

So what Jesus tells them is countercultural. Radical. And not easy to do at all. Love your enemies… do good to those who hate you… pray for those who abuse you... If anyone hits you on the cheek, turn the other also—I wonder how that would have gone down with the crowds around Jesus, who were hankering for freedom, and for a God-given leader who would bring it about for them. What might they have thought about Jesus’s call to love those who hated and abused them? On and on Jesus offers imperatives that must have had listeners scratching their heads—really, Jesus? You want me to do what?!

But Jesus tells them, what’s the big deal if you love only those who love you? Or care only for those who care for you? Even sinners do that! Even the people who despise you do that. Jesus calls his followers to rise above that level, to rise above the plain to the mountaintop, to take love to the limit. And there is no limit!

Jesus offers a different way to live. Jesus calls for a way of life that is, frankly, not natural for human beings. A way of life only God’s Spirit can help us live. A way of life that is everlastingly rewarding. It is the way of love. Take love to limit. And there is no limit!

Jesus invites us to live into our God-given identity and deal with others in the same way God deals with us: mercifully, generously, graciously, lovingly. Can we do that?

We think we have nothing to give, and yet when we purposefully decide to live this way, we will find limitless spiritual resources available to make it happen. But we’re so afraid of failing at it that we don’t even try.

Many years ago, I was lamenting with a friend about a pet dog I had at the time. He was a sweet, well-trained, handsome Sharpei/Labrador Retriever named Toby, but he had more than enough aggravating habits to drive me to distraction at times. Over the years he’d become increasingly frightened of thunderstorms, for example, so even when it threatened to gently shower, he’d go berserk, chewing and scratching up doorways and walls in an effort either to hide or escape. Or, if I let him off the leash, he would instantly dash for any squirrel or car before you could stop him. Life would be so much simpler without Toby, I told my friend.

But my friend told me about the dog he’d had for many years: a gray terrier mutt named John that his kids had brought home one day. After his kids moved out, he said he waited patiently for years for John to die a natural death. Well, John stubbornly held on for 15 years, driving my friend absolutely nuts at times with his frustrating canine habits.

Time after time after time John would chew through the pickets of their backyard fence and escape. My friend would conceive new ways to block his access to the fence, but John would always find a way around them—resulting in numerous tickets from the county’s animal control. One day the police showed up at his office threatening to take him to jail for “contempt of court.” Apparently one of the animal control citations issued when John had rampaged through the neighborhood had inadvertently not been paid.

“It would have been so easy to decide to get rid of that dog,” he told me. “But John taught me a lot about loving. After all, love is a choice, and I made the conscious decision to love John. I learned how to put up with his bad habits and appreciate his loyal love for me. And before long, I was applying this concept of deciding to love to other people, including myself. John changed my life.”

Take love to the limit, Jesus says. And there is no limit!

You see, love is a choice. It’s a hard choice. It’s messy and painful and comes with all sorts of ramifications and reactions and difficult situations in its wake. But God chooses to love us. No matter what, God always chooses to love us. And there is no changing the divine mind. Oh, we’re messy. We keep trying to escape. We keep tearing things up. We struggle against that love because it makes no sense to us. Nevertheless, God loves us mercifully, forever.

Well, that’s nice, but it doesn’t stop there. See, Jesus calls us to love others in this same way. And not just our annoying pets, but everybody. We’re to love the neighbors we just can’t seem to get along with. Coworkers who keep stabbing us in the back with our superiors. People who believe or vote differently from us. People whose orientation or gender identity makes us uncomfortable. Sick people. Imprisoned people. Contagious people. Just people. Just everyone.

Think how kind and merciful God has been with us. Think what God has put up with from us over the years. Yet God is merciful. So let’s us be merciful, too. [Adapted from the forthcoming book, A Generous Beckoning, by Peter Wallace]

Well, that’s plenty to chew on, but Jesus keeps going. Now he says, don’t judge. Don’t condemn. Instead, forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you.

You know when you buy breakfast cereal or chips and instead of a full box or bag, it only looks half full? The packaging explains, “Some settling may occur in shipping.” Sometimes that shipping must have been very bumpy! Well, beloved, there’s no settling occurring when God ships God’s blessing to us—a _“good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap,” Jesus tells us.

Oh, life is full of conditions. Just look at ad for an automobile lease or cell phone plan and you’ll see line after line of indecipherable fine print. Or try to understand a simple contract for purchasing a home—do lawyers even understand what it all says?

But now let’s consider our own relationships. Be honest—we place all sorts of conditions on others we’re in relationship with, from closest family to those we pass on the street. If we get enough from these people, we’ll give to them. If they pay us enough attention or give us the right compliments, we’ll be nice to them. If they don’t bother us too much, we won’t bother them. On and on the conditions go.

Jesus calls us to another way of life: the way of love. Unconditional love. Giving generously to others without expecting anything back. Without judging them by their appearance or their situation. Without any secret motives or hidden agenda. Just giving. Just loving. Take love to the limit. And there is no limit!

You hear a lot about karma—what goes around comes around. What you do, for good or ill, will come back to you. Jesus preaches the same truth: “Give away your life; you’ll find life given back.” That’s how it works in this realm of God. But that’s not all: Jesus says the life you experience when you live generously is “not merely given back—[but] given back with bonus and blessing.”

Well, Jesus makes it sound so easy. Just love people! Just forgive people! Why is it so difficult to do? What keeps us from sticking our necks out to help others? What are we afraid of?

Let’s ask God to help us appreciate all the kindness and mercy God has abundantly shown us, so that we can be empowered to show others kindness and mercy, generously and graciously, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Let’s take love to the limit. And there is no limit!

Let us pray:

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.