Love is Seeing

By Jim Vitale

For a little while in seminary, my church held a yoga class in their fellowship hall once a week. having anxiety and being far from limber, I thought it would be good for me. I had never done yoga before and frankly I was a little wary. I was skeptical of yogic spirituality, and I knew my body was not going to bend the ways it was supposed to. But pretty quickly, I came to appreciate the way it challenged and soothed me, so I kept going. After a few sessions, I noticed that our instructor ended each weekly practice with the same phrase. She said, “the divine light in me sees the divine light in you.” And then we would all say “namasté” to each other, which is an old Sanskrit word meaning, “I bow to you.”

Because these phrases were not part of the Lutheran liturgy I knew and loved, I would, at best, ignore them, and at worst, roll my eyes at them. I didn’t get what they meant and I wasn’t about to try to understand. But maybe if I had relaxed and kept a more open mind, I would have realized just how important these words are. When I ignored them, I missed something big.

John 15:9-17 feels like one startling claim after another. Jesus says, “As the Father loves me, so I have loved you.” That means that God loves us as much as God loves God’s self. Next, Jesus commands the disciples to “abide in [his] love.” We explored this idea in a previous blog post, but what does it mean to abide in Jesus’ love? In a rare instance of clarity, Jesus actually tells us what it means. He says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” So to abide in Jesus’ love, we must keep his commandments. And what, exactly is his commandment? He actually told us back in chapter 13, but instead of making us flip back a couple pages, Jesus helpfully restates his commandment, which is “love one another as I have loved you.”

The command to love one another would be challenging enough, but then Jesus adds this little “as I have loved you” onto the end of it. Jesus cranks the volume up to 11. He doesn’t just expect us to love one another as best as we can; he expects us to love one another as he has loved us. He also says that he expects us to keep his commandments as perfectly as he kept his Father’s commandments. How on earth are we supposed to do that? I mean, it really seems like Jesus is setting us up for failure, doesn’t it? Jesus knows better than anyone just how far from perfect we are. He needn’t look farther than his own disciples to learn that.

Perhaps we need to reexamine our definition of love. When I think of love, I think of service. I think of doing things. To love someone is to provide for them, to help them, to solve their problems for them. In short, my definition of love is bound up entirely in doing. If that’s the case, than love is all about performing. And if I am going to love everyone, I’m going to need to perform perfectly for them every single time; I’m going to need to provide for them in every way that they require. That’s not just difficult; that’s impossible! I think it would literally kill me.

We say that love is a verb, and I have taken that to heart. While I still believe that true love requires action, maybe that’s an incomplete definition. Maybe love is not just about doing; maybe it’s also about seeing.

John 15:9-17 does not stand in isolation. So let’s take a step back for a second. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” To be a branch is to find your whole identity in Jesus. If you were to trace a disciple down to his or her core, you would find Jesus (just as if you traced a branch all the way down, you would find a vine). This means that Jesus is not only at the heart of our identity, Jesus is at the very heart of our being. If we dig deep enough into ourselves, we will find Jesus. Martin Luther says that, by faith, Jesus is joined to our soul the way a bride is joined to a bridegroom. This means that Jesus actually comes to dwell within us. This means that God lives within us.

If we affirm that Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, then we must also affirm that we all have a common vine, a common heart, that is Jesus. That means that Jesus lives in me and he lives in you and he lives in my neighbor and in every other person in creation. Maybe love isn’t just about doing stuff for each other; maybe it’s about seeing each other as we truly are.

This is why that line at the end of yoga is so important. This is what it is all about. To paraphrase it a little bit, we could say that the beginning of love is for the Christ in me to see the Christ in you.

Few people, if any in recent decades, have grasped this concept more deeply or talked about it more beautifully than Thomas Merton. Merton was a 20th century American Trappist Monk who is well known for his work as a mystic, social activist, and inter-religious scholar. One day, in 1958, Merton was walking down the streets of Louisville, Kentucky. He stopped at the corner of 4th and Walnut in the middle of the shopping district and was suddenly struck with an epiphany. Everyone who walked past him seemed to be shining like the sun. He wrote that he suddenly saw “the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.” Even if only for a brief moment, Merton could see the people as God sees them, with the divine spark, the light of Christ glowing inside them.

What followed from that revelation, from seeing these people as God sees them, from seeing Jesus in the heart of these people, was love. He says, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.” How could Merton have had any response other than love? As he looked at all these people, he saw himself in them; and not only himself but the same divine light that shines brightly within him was shining within them. There was nothing to be jealous of, nothing to be judgmental about, nothing to hate or fear or ignore; in that moment, as God shown through each person, Merton could only love them.

Merton later reflected that this revelation was a gift. No one can be taught to see this way, it only comes by the grace of God. So maybe this is what we should be praying for. Maybe we should be praying that we ourselves and everyone else might receive this same vision, that we might see Jesus dwelling within ourselves and within our neighbors. Let us pray that we can come to know, truly know, as deep down as possible, that Christ lives within us all. Because that is the beginning of love. “If only we could see each other that way all the time.” Merton wrote, “There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”

To love each other as Christ has loved us is to realize that we are all branches with a common source. We all grow from the same vine. Though we may not see it, by the grace of God, we all shine like the sun. May we come to see the Christ in each other, that we may love each other as he has loved us.

The divine light in me sees the divine light in you.

Amen.