Last night, I walked into a worship service at church in which hundreds of people were singing in full voice to God. I stood in the back and just listened to the words: “Jesus paid it all. All to him I owe. Sin hath left a crimson stain. He washed it white as snow.” I felt suddenly and unexpectedly overcome, believing something was penetrating the defensive shell I had grown during my day at work. But then, a line from a movie I have seen many times came into my mind: “You love the idea of me, but not me, not really.” Then, my heart tightened slightly and I was reminded of being warned as a kid to look both ways before crossing the street or not to talk to strangers. I had not done anything wrong, but was headed into something and I needed to be cautioned.
I don’t know exactly what busy street or stranger-filled environment I’m walking toward, but I heard Jesus’ warning to me: “Be careful about loving the idea of me instead of me.” “Do not take your eyes off me.” I started to feel alert and saw some things I had not seen before about where certain relationships or tasks could lead me, the hard-working, overachieving, perfectionist that I can be.
Jesus has given me the tools to know the difference – the difference between loving the idea of him and loving him. According to the exchange between Jesus and Peter after Jesus had been resurrected, to love Jesus means to take care of and feed his sheep and to follow him. (John 21:15-19) John said: “This is love for God: obey his commands.” (1 John 5:3) Jesus described the greatest command as a two-part command: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt. 22:37-39) Jesus lived how to love, so there is no ambiguity there. Every person he encountered, he met with love, truth, and grace. He touched the untouchable. He ate with the uninvited. He saw the invisible. He heard the silenced. His heart broke for the brokenhearted. He opened his arms wide to have his wrists nailed to a tree, dying for the sinner.
I know what it is to love the idea of Jesus: I love that he died for me. I love his example. I love his wisdom and his parables. I love that he was able to engage with the least desirable of his time. I love to tell the story of Jesus. It’s fascinating. I love to encourage others to live like him. I love to hear stories of the people who have given up everything – not just possessions, but control – to follow him. I love to read and learn about how to love him and how follow him.
And I know what it is to actually love Jesus: It is all of the above . . . but it is so much more. It is dirty. It is hands-on. It is hard. It can seem illogical. It is not a list of rules that I can just check off and move on. It is freedom. It is life-giving and life-living. It is purpose. Every person I encounter, I meet with love, truth, and grace. I touch the untouchable. I eat with the uninvited. I see the invisible. I hear the silenced. My heart breaks for the brokenhearted. I care for and feed his sheep. It is not a part of my life, it is all of my life. I open my arms wide and I follow him wherever he goes and whenever he calls.
I find that loving the idea of him is easier and more comfortable, especially when I’m tired, worn thin, sick, lonely, hungry, removed, or busy. So, he has warned me: keep loving me, not just the idea of me.