A few days ago, I spent some time with a couple I had not met before. They were delightful, very comfortable in their born again, fundamentalist way of experiencing and expressing their Christian faith, and more than uncomfortable in how I was introduced to them as Fr. Woolley. Not a title that appealed to them in the least. Nevertheless, it was reassuring to them that we did worship the same God, although she asked, in earnest, whether I loved Jesus.
I thought about it for a few seconds and said, sometimes. I don’t think that’s the answer she wanted. I am certain that Jesus loves me even if I don’t understand why he should, but my loving Jesus is more problematic. I seldom think about loving Jesus one way or the other, it just doesn’t cross my mind that often. Besides, I’m not sure what loving Jesus means.
The English word love is so imprecise that unless I know the context in which it is used I have only the faintest idea of its meaning. Often that context has to include the idiosyncrasies of the person using it. At it’s least it has something to do with an affection for something that is affiliated with a degree of undefined pleasure. I love what? My wife, children, pumpkin pie, guitar music, oceans, Donne, cozy fires, Anglican choral evensong? We use the word love to cover a lot of ground, we can even love hurtful, destructive things. I don’t think it does much good to pull out the seminary card and argue for agape. That’s not the word we use in everyday life. We say love, so that’s the word we have to deal with.
The Shema instructs us to love God with all our being. Jesus said it was the greatest of all the commandments. At the end of John’s gospel he interrogated Peter about whether Peter loved him. Peter seemed to have a hard time understanding what Jesus was talking about. I’m with Peter.
Do I love Jesus? I guess so, but sometimes I don’t like him very much. He doesn’t see the world the way I do, and isn’t impressed with my arguments of self justification. His teachings are admirable in the abstract, but it turns out that they weren’t meant to be abstractions. He’s serious about putting them into daily practice as a way of everyday living. How crazy is that? What he says are practical habits leading to divine blessings seem a bit excessive. They are not in sync with some of my own well developed habits. They interfere with my plans and prejudices. He and I have long conversations about that. He’s patient, and a far better listener than I am, but the only way I can win the argument is to walk away, slamming the door behind me like a petulant child. I’ve finally learned not to do that.
A life spent in conversation with him means that what I thought I knew about being a Christian in decades past has changed dramatically, so much so that I recognize that what I think I know, I can know only provisionally. God, whom I know in Jesus, keeps changing what I’ve always thought to be true by introducing new information, and opening my eyes to new understanding. As they say, God is not done with me, and it appears that God is not done with anything else either. Everything is in some state of becoming. It‘s not reassuring for those who expect a priest and pastor to tell them what is absolutely and eternally true about all things, especially about things that relate to contemporary social and political issues. What I can say, and what I have come to understand, is that I can trust God, whom I know in Christ Jesus. I can trust him always and everywhere, even when he can’t trust me. If that’s what it means to love Jesus, I’ll take it.