There are at least four layers to how we love ourselves and one another, and while each layer is a legitimate and necessary expression of love in and of itself, God is continually calling us to go deeper into the heart of love.
First, we love ourselves for our own sake. This begins as a self-preservation type of love; it’s biological and instinctual. “I need to take care of myself in order to survive and flourish.” This sort of love is easily recognizable in children, but there’s no doubt that it continues into adulthood.
Once upon a time there was a youngest child named Bobby. Bobby had three older brothers and two older sisters, and he always left the dinner table feeling a bit hungry because it seemed like there was never enough food. So what did Bobby do? When his mother wasn’t looking, about an hour before dinner, Bobby would slip into the kitchen and eat the most delicious thing he could find in the refrigerator. By the time he arrived at dinner, he wasn’t so worried if the food ran out. Bobby was loving himself for his own sake.
The truth is, there is a hungry little boy or girl that lives on in all of us, and often, we act from that place of loving ourselves in work, at church, with friends, while no one is looking. This is a legitimate and necessary expression of love, but God is continually calling us to go deeper into the heart of love.
Second, we love others for our own sake. We love the way another makes us feel or for what they can do for us. Again, this sort of love is easily recognizable in children. Children love their parents because they take care of them; they depend on them. This sort of love is also easily recognizable in teenagers, and it continues into adulthood.
Once upon a time there was an 18 year old girl named Cindy. Cindy thought Thomas was the most handsome boy in her whole school. He drove a Mustang; he played basketball and baseball. But Thomas wasn’t just a jock. Cindy liked him even more because he was in her art class and always made her laugh. One day, Thomas finished a drawing he had been working on for weeks, and he gave it to Cindy. Her heart fluttered, and she felt all warm and fuzzy inside. She knew right then she loved him. Cindy was loving Thomas for her own sake.
Whether you’re 5, 15 or 50, we all love others for how they make us feel and what they can do for us. This is a legitimate and fantastical sort of love, but God is continually calling us to go deeper into the heart of love.
Third, we love others for their own sake. Now, we’re really getting somewhere. This sort of love is easily recognizable in adults amidst their most prized relationships. Here, the happiness and the well-being of the beloved is of utmost importance.
Once upon a time there was a couple named Sue and Mike. Sue and Mike’s second child, Taylor, was different than the other kids, although they couldn’t quite put their finger on it. They worked very hard and went to special lengths to make sure Taylor fit in and was doing well in school, but there was often crying and temper tantrums, even when Taylor was eight. It wasn’t until a friend suggested that Taylor might have autism or Asberger’s syndrome that Sue and Mike sought special help. It turned out Taylor did have a certain form of autism and so Sue and Mike decided to enroll him in a school that could best meet his needs. The school was expensive though so Mike took an extra part -time job and Sue tightened the family budget. No matter what they had to give up, it was worth it to see Taylor get the kind of help and attention he needed.
This sort of love is beautiful; it’s sacrificial, and it’s everywhere. It’s from parent to child. It’s from child to parent. It’s from husband to wife. It’s from wife to husband. It’s between siblings. It’s between friends. It’s the kind of love that often exists in the hearts of those in helping and healing professions. Loving another for his or her own sake is a deep expression of love indeed, but God is continually calling us deeper into the heart of love.
The fourth layer of love that I will mention today comes to us from the scripture.
Just as back story, on the night Jesus was arrested, the day before he died, Jesus was denied three times by his good friend, Peter. Sitting near the fire in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, a servant girl looked at Peter and said, “This man was with him.” Meaning that Peter was a follower of Jesus. But Peter denied it. “Woman I don’t know him,” he said.
Then, a little later someone else saw him and said, “You are also one of them.”
“Man, I am not!” Peter replied.
About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.” Just like Jesus was a Galilean.
Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” And at that third denial, the cock crowed (Luke 22: 54-60).
I imagine this to be one of the lowest points in Peter’s life, denying a friend who was in his darkest hour.
But Jesus gives Peter the chance to make up for it. In today’s reading, which takes place after the resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And each time Peter replies, “Lord, you know that I love you.” And here comes our fourth layer of love. Each time after Peter says, “I love you,” Jesus comes back and says, then, “Feed my lambs.” Then, “take care of my sheep.” Then, “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). In essence, what Jesus is telling us is that if you truly love someone, you will love, nurture and care for the people that they love. This sort of love extends even beyond loving an individual to loving who that individual loves.
Once upon a time, there was a man named Harold, who married a woman named Susan, and he loved her very much and did all that he could for her own sake. When they had only been married 5 years or so, Susan’s father passed away and left her mother as a widow. At this point, Harold cared for his mother-in-law because they had developed a relationship over the years, but it was when Susan said, “I don’t want my mother to have to live alone if she doesn’t want to” that Harold decided to turn the basement into an apartment. His love for his wife was so full that it extended beyond her to those whom she loved. Truly, this is where God is calling all of us-this deep into the heart of love.
This is the sort of love Jesus alludes to when he tells Peter to “Feed his sheep.” If Peter really loves Jesus, he must love those whom Jesus loves. And so if we love God and we love Jesus, and we know that God and Jesus love all people that walk upon the face of the earth, imagine the kind of love we are being called to.
Love must extend everywhere and to everyone. That is as deep as the heart of love goes.
May we all love ourselves. May we all feel good in loving each other. May we all love each other even when it doesn’t feel good. May we love each other to make one another feel happier, safer and truly alive. And may our love extend beyond the beloved to those the beloved loves. In this way, our hearts achieve their deepest depth, and we live into our true purpose as the people of God.