Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” This is the apostle Paul’s call to the church in Philippi. It is a call, actually, to each of God’s communities, wherever they find themselves, based on Jesus’ call to love the Lord your God, and love your neighbour as yourself. As followers of Christ, we are called simply to love.
Easy, right? We just need to figure out what “love” means, and we’re good to go. Except, of course, that love is not simple. It has different meanings for each person, sometimes several meanings at once. And when you group those individuals into a community, as Paul does, love becomes even more complex. What do you mean by love, we might ask Paul. Or Jesus. When it comes to congregations, what is that love supposed to look like? As I begin my time here with you, I am struck that this question is a good place for us to begin our journey together: considering what love means in a Christian community - in a church.
Well, Paul begins by saying that in the context of a group, love is being “of one mind, looking to the interest of others.” And it’s so interesting that he uses the word look. Look to one another. Because to look to one another, we have to turn toward them. We don’t have eyes in the back of our head, unlike what I tell my children, and so to look at someone, we need to turn around so we can see them. We need to turn towards them.
There is a connection between love and turning towards someone. It is no coincidence that alongside our reading from Philippians we also have our first reading from Ezekiel. In our first reading, we hear the prophet Ezekiel reminding the community of Israel that God calls them to turn away from their transgression and turn toward God. In fact, the Hebrew word for repent means turning away from one’s previous actions and turning towards a new path. And so Ezekiel tells the people that God’s word to them is that they turn––away from their unrighteousness and toward God. They look to God to get a new heart and a new spirit. They turn towards God and live. They turn towards God and love.
We see this again in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew. The word “turn” isn’t explicitly mentioned, nor the word “love,” but they are there, underneath the text. Jesus draws the parallel between the son who eventually changes his mind and does the will of his father, who turns toward his father, and the prophet John the Baptist and his followers, who also turn towards God. Who love God.
A french Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, talked about this connection between love and turning towards someone. And I promise that I do not usually include french Jewish philosophers in my sermons, but Levinas, who lived through WWII as a French Jew, has some really profound things to say about love. For Levinas, the essence of love is turning towards the Other, so that each person is, as he says, “face-to-face.” This face-to-face is vitally important, because in looking at the Other’s face, in looking to their interest, as Paul would say, we see in the face of the Other, God. We come face-to-face with the One who is both completely different from us, wholly Other, as mysterious as the divine is to the human, and yet who is also completely familiar to us. One of us. One with us.
Of course, this should not be new to us––Jesus says that when we do something for the least of God’s people, we are doing it for him. We believe that every child who is baptized is blessed with the Holy Spirit, who lives in them and brings them to faith. But this idea that we are face-to-face with God every time we look to another’s interest, every time we turn to face another––there is something incredibly personal and transformative in this understanding.
You see, every time we turn towards someone so that we are face-to-face, so that we are able to look so fully at the other so that we are able to see the face of God in their face, they are brought more fully into being. When you are loved in this way, when someone looks you in the face and sees who you really are and stays, you become more the person you are meant to be. Being seen affirms our existence. It affirms our value and self-worth. When someone turns to us and looks at us, and sees us with all of the potential and goodness we are capable of, we grow. You might have had that experience, of being loved by someone, maybe a child or a teacher, who looks at you, and sees you as if all the good you are capable of is actually there as a reality, and not just a possibility, and you start becoming the person they see.
Now, having said all this, and gone off on this grand exposition of love, it may strike you that we’re not usually very good at loving this way. Particularly as a community. We have trouble, especially when we’re in groups, of turning towards those around us, so that we are truly face-to-face. There is always some part of ourselves that we hold in reserve, that we hold back, that hides its face from the Other. This is normal - I think we sometimes rightly fear the judgement of groups if we show them ourselves. Churches can be places where those who show their true face are rejected. We’re not as good at love as we want to be. If we were, Paul wouldn’t have to be telling the church members in Philippi how to love each another.
And this is troubling for us. Because we like to believe that the community of Christians is a place where we can truly love one another, where we can look to the interests of others, where our love for others transforms them to be truly themselves. We know that God calls us to do this, and we know that we want to do this, and yet we find that somehow we fail. We turn to our own interests. We hide our faces. We refuse to see God in the Other’s face. Or we miss seeing it completely. We insist that others become who we want them to be, rather than who they truly are. And in doing so, we turn away from the Other, from our neighbour, and, of course, from God.
Yet we keep trying. We keep trying to become who God wants us to be, to love the way God wants us to love. Day after day, month after month, we turn away from ourselves and towards God, knowing that we will turn back to ourselves but continuing our efforts anyway.
And here’s the thing. Here’s the hope in what can otherwise be a very discouraging situation. Every single time you engage in that turning, every single time you try to look at the face of another, to look to their interest, to look to God in love, even though you might fail, you will discover that God is already facing you. Even while you were still looking to yourself, God had already turned to look to your interest, to see God’s self in you. God has always, is now, and will always show God’s face to you in love. God opens up God’s self to you, turns to you even before you turn to God, and loves you.
And as God loves you, you become more fully who you are called to be, who you were created to be. God is “at work in you,” as Paul says. God’s love, seen in God taking on flesh in Jesus Christ so that God might really, truly be face-to-face with you, calls you into becoming.
As a congregation I know that you have always striven to turn towards God. As we walk together for this next while, my hope is that you will find comfort and rest in experiencing that God has already turned towards you and therefore you are already becoming even more fully who God has created you to be––a community of love, looking to the interests of others. God’s face is turned to you, and God loves you, as individuals and as this community of Advent. Thanks be to God. Amen.