I know your works—your toil and endurance. I know you cannot bear evil people and have put to the test those who call themselves apostles but are not, and you have found them to be false. Endurance you have; you have borne up for my name’s sake and have not grown weary. But I have this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Be mindful, then, of how far you have fallen; repent, and do as you did before.
Revelation 2: 2-5
The first message of the Book of Revelation is to the church of Ephesus. The people of the church are praised for their discernment of teachers and their struggle and endurance to maintain the faith. But this struggle for orthodoxy has come at a cost: “. . . you have lost the love you had at first.” For each of us, as for the believers of Ephesus, it is not easy to keep loving in the midst of the struggles of life and of our conflicts with others. Apparently the Ephesians had, in their quest to maintain a “purity of faith,” lost the love which is at its core.
One of the most famous of the prayers of Reinhold Niebuhr states that the perfect form of love is forgiveness. This is because it is the human way to fail. In our lives of love with others, as personal relationship and as service, the one thing we can be sure of is that at some point or other we shall fail them. Love can only endure in the willingness to consistently forgive those who are mistaken or harm us, as long as they remain committed to growing in love. For our own part, we must commit ourselves to loving others, even through the humiliation of failing them again and again.
One of the most insidious forms that our pride takes is the belief that if we only “get it exactly right” and have the “right and true ideas,” we shall be perfect and infallible. But, as sinful and fallen, we shall never “get it right” in any absolute sense. Human “truth” is always provisional, and finally we always act and love with the limited light we have, while realizing that we are never able to see everything clearly and to be certain that we are doing the right thing—otherwise there would be no need of faith and hope.
This past weekend three of us visited the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C. Dr. King not only taught but lived a love that endured through conflict and persecution. He realized full well that it is our nature to meet ignorance, hatred, and violence with our own violence. Among the quotes carved in the stone of the memorial is the following from 1963:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
Left to the movements of our own unconscious drives, our reaction to ignorance, power and violence directed toward us will inevitably be violence in return. Our instinct for self-preservation will fight back in order to destroy the threat we experience. Those threats, as for African- Americans in the United States for most of its history and for members of the Church throughout its history even to today, may be physically life threatening, or they may be, in the political and theological realm, threatening to our arrogant self-assurance. The message to the Church of Ephesus reminds us today what Dr. King taught and lived: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness” and “hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Living in love is no mere matter of feeling. We must consistently practice an attention to the movements of our heart, and develop the ability to recognize the rising up in us of an arrogance and violence that is evoked by our fear of otherness, of our conflicts with those threats that we experience when our world-views are countered.
It is much easier for us “to have lost the love . . . [we] had at first” than we would like to think. The “battles” of life with others whose conviction of their own rectitude is as strong as ours strengthen our defensiveness and atrophy our love. We can remain in love and bring love to a situation of hate only when we are grounded in humility, in the love that is “common to all.” This requires of us that we hold even our deepest held beliefs with a bit of a light touch. This is not the much-feared “relativism,” but rather it is the self-awareness of our own personal and “tribal” limits. We strive to know the truth as best we can, but we also know that we can never fully know it. But that doesn’t matter, because we “are known” and loved beyond what we ourselves can ever know. To the degree that we live in such a love that is so far beyond our understanding, we can remain as witnesses and instruments of that love, even to those whom we are unable to understand.
In a Christmas Sermon in Atlanta, Georgia in 1967, Dr. King spoke to the “ecumenical loyalty” that is required if we are to be instruments of peace in the world.
If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.