This was preached at a Penitential Service in Kidlington. We all know that we are meant to love everyone, even our enemies, so I have no doubt that failure to do this will feature in many Confessions this Lent. But I think it is worth thinking a little more about what this love we are meant to show others really implies.
First of all, let’s remember that there can be no ifs and buts about this. We are told that we must try to do it. The passage we have just heard says so (Mark 12:28-34). “You must love the Lord your God… You must love your neighbour as yourself” To add to this we have the famous words of Jesus from the Last Supper. Jesus says “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” (John 13:34).
The obvious response to this from many people would be “How can I be commanded to love?” I am sure you know the answer. The love we are commanded to show people is not a feeling that comes upon us. That’s the kind of love we often hear on Films or in TV Dramas or Soaps. “I couldn’t help loving him.. I just fell in love with him.” This, of course, is the kind of love that real Christians should be very suspicious of. Yes, it exists, but unless it is controlled by reason it can lead people into making all sorts of foolish mistakes, not least marrying someone simply because we have a beautiful feeling for them, rather than because we reckon we can commit ourselves to caring for them for better or for worse for the rest of our lives!
This example takes us straight on to what sort of love we are being commanded to show others. It is certainly not love as a feeling outside our control. It would be ridiculous to be commanded to love everyone like that, or even to like them. Even so, I have heard people say, as if it were a sin “I just don’t like that person I have to work with.” My answer to that is straightforward. “We are not asked to like everyone, only to love everyone, which is quite different.”
The problem is that people confuse the two, and so think that if they don’t like someone they cannot love them. This can often be the case in families. I assure you that there is one person in my family whom I do NOT like, but because I know I don’t like her, I can therefore make an extra effort to love her when she comes to stay for a week in May. God help me!
This is what real Christian love is all about isn’t it? How often do we find people we live with or people we work with really difficult? It is one of the most common things mentioned in the Confessional, and it should be. The challenge is to face up to this difficulty and find ways of overcoming it, so that we continue to treat that person with care and respect, even if we do not like them. And this extends, of course, to people whom we really dislike.. which is why Jesus tells us to love our enemies.
The one thing we do know is that we will never do this in our own strength. We need God’s help, his grace; and that is precisely why making our Confession is so important, because it is a moment when we place very explicitly before God the area or areas of our life, the people, the relationships in our life, that we find most difficult to cope with. Remember that Confession is strictly speaking called The Sacrament of Reconciliation. Note that word “Sacrament”. Just as in Holy Communion, Confession is a moment when we receive God’s grace. At Mass that grace is given to us in a general way to help us with our lives, but in Confession it is given in a much more specific way to be brought to bear on those things we really struggle with.
Grace is not magic of course. Love remains an act of will, not something we feel. It is something we have to choose to do. But always we need God to help us in that choosing, and that is what we do when we make our Confession.