What Does Love Require

Tomorrow might be the weirdest Easter I’ve ever experienced. The holiday arrives in the midst of unprecedented times clouded by new vocabulary introduced to our daily vernacular. Correct me if I’m wrong, when throngs of people filled the streets of ancient Jerusalem shouting “Crucify him,” they were not practicing social distancing. For hundreds of years, Easter has been a tradition of crowds: churches filled to capacity, egg hunts, and extended family gatherings. It’s the busiest season for florists, confectioners, clergy, and restaurant staff.

Big dreams of grand celebrations, homes filled with cousins you haven’t seen since Christmas, and car dealerships awarding prizes to the kids who found the special eggs have come grinding to an awkward unfortunate halt. Eateries are closed. Churches are streaming services online. Flower shops and used car lots have been deemed non-essential. We’re experiencing a toilet paper shortage. In much of America, gatherings of more than ten people have been prohibited. There will be no holiday travel, no midnight mass in Catholic parishes, no packs of children running through fields collecting candy-filled plastic eggs, nowhere to show off those fancy spring dresses. If you’re like me, there’s a good chance the governor in your state has ordered you to stay home, allowing travel for only necessary goods like buying groceries or seeking medical treatment.

Easter isn’t normal this year. If we’re irresponsible, we could let it discourage us and I fear we would miss the point of Easter. Instead we should embrace the weirdness. After all, that’s what Jesus did.

If we take the Easter story seriously, every moment leading up to the crucifixion is a little weird. Normal people would not willingly share a meal with a known traitor. Normal people would allow their friends to defend them against false accusations. Normal people would protest being arrested on bogus charges. Normal people wouldn’t take a beating without fighting back. Normal people wouldn’t immediately forgive those who treat them with malice, contempt, and violence. Given extraordinary circumstances Jesus refused to act like a normal person. In crisis, Jesus intentionally acted abnormal. If Christians are to take the teachings of Christ seriously, we should face difficult times with the same quirky and unexpected resolve as our savior. It’s time for the followers of Jesus to get creative.

How do we do that? Jesus called it the greatest commandment: love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. In these trying times of quarantines, school closures, and unemployment lines, the question every Christian should be asking of themselves is this: what does love require of me? This is the question Jesus answered when he shared his final meal with his disciples, knowing Judas would betray him. This is the question Jesus answered when he told Peter to put away his sword then submitted himself to the soldiers who came to arrest him. This is the question Jesus answered when his clothing was stripped, while he was spit on and mocked, as he was flogged and forced to carry his cross to the site of his execution. This is the question Jesus answered while hanging as he looked at the angry crowd of people and said “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

What did love require of Jesus? He told his disciples that the greatest love is the willingness to lay down your life for your friends. This is the heart of the Easter story, Jesus sacrificing his life for those he loves. His friends, his neighbors, even his enemies.

Often, the call of love contradicts the American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Sometimes, love requires us to act in opposition to normality. It would be normal to complain of our loss of freedom, whine about restricted liberties, and bemoan the closure of casual amenities like movie theaters and barber shops. Love isn’t normal though.

When confronted with stay-at-home orders, what does love ask us to do? There is more than one way of laying down our lives for our friends.

The challenge of this pandemic is the uncertainty of the disease. It’s possible for someone to have the virus, yet remain asymptomatic. Anyone could be carrying it, without any sign of illness, infecting those who come within close contact. Anyone could unknowingly contaminate shared surfaces and pass along a disease they never knew they had, causing sickness in those they love the most. Real love, the sacrificial kind, recognizes this invisible risk looming over our society.

So what does love ask of me? How do I lay down my life for my friends in an age of social distancing? How do I love my neighbor like myself under shelter-in-place orders? How do I love my enemy while maintaining self-isolation? I stay home. The independent and rebellious nature of the American dream wants to go out into public and exercise my first amendment rights of free religion and assembly, yet love is weird. Love asks me to act counter to my social tendencies. The most loving thing any of us can do is stay home. Broken economies can be rebuilt, lost jobs replaced, but we cannot rebuild or replace lives lost to the coronavirus. In a pandemic, greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's social life for one's friends.

For the first time in forty years, I will not be celebrating Easter inside a church building. Even if churches were open I would stay home. There is nothing loving about wanting to pack buildings for Easter services in times like these. We must realize that staying home doesn’t change the Easter story. My faith in Jesus doesn’t depend on my ability to meet with other Christians in a physical building. Easter is still Easter even with empty pews in vacant sanctuaries.

If I am potentially an asymptomatic carrier, then loving my neighbor means I do all I can to protect them. If love is giving up my creature comforts and sociable desires for the good of my community, then I will do so without objection. Jesus gave up his life to demonstrate how to love others, we should follow his example.

Still, staying home does not seem like it is enough, too simplistic a solution. Love asks us to do more than abiding in self isolation. In quarantine, normal would be streaming a sermon online or listening to a podcast to replace a live and in-person church service. Because love is weird, love asks us to look beyond our current circumstances. The best example of this unconventional sacrificial love I’ve seen came from author and pastor Brian Zahnd.

image courtesy of Brian Zahnd

Every Christian should seize this idea. We will demonstrate love by staying home tomorrow and honoring the holiday in solitude. Then we will celebrate love in communion and fellowship when the pandemic is over – a second Easter with holy parties in every church building. Easter is a single day, but the spirit of Easter should be observed all year round. We might not be able to spend Easter together tomorrow, but we will soon. We just have to flatten the curve first.

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