The back cover of my Living New Testament reads:
Love is very patient and kind, never jealous or envious, never boastful or proud, Never haughty or selfish or rude. Love does not demand its own way. It is not irritable or touchy. It does not hold grudges and will hardly even notice when others do it wrong. It is never glad about injustice, but rejoices whenever truth wins out. If you love someone you will be loyal to him no matter what the cost. You will always believe in him, always expect the best of him, and always stand your ground in defending him. All the special gifts and powers from God will some day come to an end, but love goes on forever.
Jesus spelt out very clearly the demands of discipleship: that we love God, and that we love each other with the same love we nurture ourselves. There are no clauses denoting “special circumstances” which allow us to avoid these commandments. While we may at times convince ourselves that we are extending God’s love to those we meet, it is only when we measure up our version of love against Christ’s demand (that we forgive as freely as we have been forgiven) that we discover we stand on shaky ground indeed. For try as we humanly may, it seems often impossible for us to forgive those who have caused horrific and lasting grief and damage to those we love, including ourselves. Yet Christ’s commands stay unaltered. For Christ insists we forgive, not in our own strength, but in the power of the Spirit. Love has been dissected, analyzed, and debated, in various attempts to provide guidelines or edicts which give full measure to the meaning of Christ’s words, or perhaps to define the limitations within which we can be expected to love. After all this discussion what do we understand love to be? What are the precepts that love embraces? Perhaps we could look at a new definition of love for the incoming millennium.
Love costs. Love is unselfishness. It is honesty, integrity, humor, compassion, empathy, understanding, patience, self-care, a listening heart and ear. It is looking at the world, at people, at circumstances, with eyes that perceive every facet of their focus, yet see beyond the present and envision changes which may be wrought in God’s time. Love is letting go, rather than clinging to. Love is embracing, rather than abandoning. Love is letting go of hurts and pain, offering forgiveness and peace in their place. Love never needs nor waits to be acknowledged, but continues to encircle all. Love is setting free, rather than judging, for none but God can judge accurately. Love is straining every personal resource to allow others rise from the quicksand of their circumstances. Love will not permit us to act from fear of others or the unknown. Though there may be things of which we are afraid, love will provide a buffer zone to enable us to function while acknowledging our limitation. Love never plots or plans harm to others, rather it surrounds the others with thoughts of loving.
In his time Jesus chose, from among those who followed him, twelve men singled out for special training and duties. They were to offer God’s forgiveness, love and healing to those in the villages and regions Jesus designated. He chose these special workers from local fishermen, a tax gatherer, a patriotic fanatic and from among John the Baptist’s disciples. That Matthew the tax collector, a traitor by Jewish standards, did not have his life prematurely ended by a knife thrust from Simon the Zealot, is testimony to the harmony between Christ’s co-workers which rescinded prejudice and perceptions. Herein lies a tremendous truth – those who hate one another can learn to love one another when they first love Christ.
By their trade fishermen presented special qualities, well equipping these men for the long and difficult task ahead. They needed patience, perseverance, an eye for the right moment, the knowledge to discern which bait would be most effective at any given time, together with the capacity to appear invisible, for even a shadow could cause fish to take fright. These were ordinary men, without wealth, academic backgrounds, or social positions. They were not Rabbis, Saducees or Pharisees, and they could not could claim religious authority or privilege. Instead they were drawn from common people who did ordinary things, to become ordinary people who did extra-ordinary things. These were the inner circle of disciples whom God called and Jesus chose to be the flag bearers of the Gospel of Love. They were not commanded, for Christ never seeks conscripts, they were volunteers drawn to God incarnate by the magnetism of his presence. These were among those Jesus loved so tremendously that he would bring them before God, using the words of John chapter 17, to seek a blessing for them in just the way a parent would present a child at the Temple for a blessing. After Christ’s ascension and the events of Pentecost, these would be the fore-runners of an ever growing company who, motivated by love, would set the blaze which exposed the base ideals and images of the world as they preached the Gospel. Having witnessed the fate of their Master at the hands of civic and religious authorities, they were under no illusion as to what the preaching of forgiveness and love could entail.
Somehow, during the past two millennia into the company of disciples, there have been those who have, like the shepherds God condemned in Ezekiel chapter 34, dressed warmly and eaten well from proceeds supplied by the sheep with whose welfare they were entrusted, yet they failed to heal the sick, bandage the wounded, or seek out the those who had strayed. There are those who claim that time and energies devoted to scholarship have qualified them to speak for God, or with the voice of infallibility. The sheep have again been scattered. Now we face a world situation in which family members war against one another, and beyond the family it is nation against nation, economy against economy. Political demigods vie with one another, while millions are starving, homeless, lost, bewildered, ill or dying. Love has been strangled by conditions, and peace has evaded all humanity. So today, and for some time past, God has chosen and Christ has called out those who will carry the message of God’s love, grace and forgiveness. This time God has reached further from the “acceptable” or “expected” scions of society. This time God has chosen the lepers.
Lepers have always evoked a sense of fear from among the healthy of any population. They have been hidden from sight, locked away on islands specially designated for those infected with this disease, barred from within the city limits by Jewish law, left to fend for themselves without medical resources, without food, clothing or shelter. Lepers did not choose their condition. Those with leprosy were separated from family and employment, from their spiritual communities, and from all they cherished by edicts and laws based on ignorance, superstition and limited medical knowledge. For them there was no right of appeal. For them justice has lost its meaning. In earlier times their condition was deemed as punishment meted out by God. When we diligently search Scripture we discover that at all times God’s eye has been on the lepers. Namaan learned that strict obedience to God’s word could rid him of this disease. Accounts in Matthew 8: 1-3 and Luke 17: 11-19 tell how Jesus cured first the one, and then the ten lepers who came to him asking for his touch. Stories are told of St Francis of Assisi who, after his conversion, leapt from his horse and embraced a leper.
Lepers are those who have nothing left to lose but their lives. They cannot be threatened with further loss, nor bribed with promises of restoration. Modern day lepers are those who have lost friends and family, and those who have found doors of employment opportunities locked. They are the ones who have been vilified for being who they are, who have been spat upon, who have been barred from their spiritual homes by those who justify their actions in the name of a hateful God. They are also the ones whom God has called from within spiritual communities which have become infected with greed, with rigid hierarchy, with corruption, with the politically ambitious, and where legalistic conformity has prevented attempts to care for all the sheep in God’s flock. Lepers may include members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christian community, but not all of our community have been called or chosen, for not all of our community have been denied spiritual, emotional or financial succor, and not all of our community are prepared to love as freely as Jesus demands. Some have even become our persecutors.
Love costs. Love costs so much that for God it involved living in human form, being subject to all human circumstances, being flogged, tried unjustly and executed. Like the leper, God knew what it was like to be stripped of friends, to be plagued by the religious of his day, and to face hostility from within his family. Love costs us our self-will as we surrender it to Jesus. Love costs us the right to avenge wrongs, or to seek revenge. Love insists that we forgive totally, unconditionally, without the need to seek formal reconciliation, recompense or apology. Love demands that, without any reservation, we see all others as loved by God. Love requires that we pay attention to the stains on our hands and hearts and leave God to attend to the apparent faults of others. Love does not permit us to treat others in ways which puff up our supposed holiness. Love will not tolerate snide comments or unfounded allegations against others, in fact love will not allow us to speak unkindly or unwisely about any. Love asks that we smother the barbed attacks of others with a blanket of love, which protects us and enfolds those others of God’s children within their Creator’s arms. Love does not tolerate a “them and us” mentality, for God’s love flows equally to all, just as Christ’s blood flows equally for all. God has chosen lepers, those who have nothing to cling to but their living Redeemer, to carry the word of love and acceptance into the world at this time, for it is lepers who embody the special qualities which equip themselves for the task ahead.
Our world is crying out for love; for love that heals, restores and calms; for love that reveals the face of God. Who can God call on to walk the countryside planted with landmines but the lepers who have already involuntarily traversed the paths of pain and hatred? Who can God ask to share the losses of millions of refugees but those who have known the loss of their own homes, physical and spiritual? Who will answer the call to bind up the suppurating and bleeding wounds of the world but the lepers who have learned to use Christ’s healing in their own lives? Who will help peel away layers of conditioning and prejudice from those who are not willing any longer to carry these burdens, and choose to leave them with Jesus? From the rugged hillside, from caverns which barely see sunlight, from within the clefts in the Rock the lepers are moving. Stretching out maimed limbs and with scarred faces they return to the world bringing with them naught but Love. In such a time as this God calls on those who have an extraordinary perception of love to carry forgiveness, grace and healing into the presence of all creation.
Rev. Vera I. Bourne of Lismore, N.S.W., Australia, served as Outreach Clergy at Christs Community Church.