For much of my Christian life, I didn’t know it, but I barely knew Jesus.
I knew him in my heart, by the Spirit, for which I’m tremendously grateful – thank you, Lord.
But I didn’t know him in the revelation we have of him, which is the gospels. That’s because the circles in which I traveled then didn’t much teach from the gospels – they preferred the “do this, don’t do that” of the epistles. I was pretty well-versed in Paul!
But when the Lord took me into the gospels, I was quite surprised, and it rearranged my thinking.
I have to remember this when I get into Internet discussions and I’m surprised by what people say about following Jesus.
There is a stream in American Christianity right now which is viscerally aggressive toward a lot of “others.” These believers want to follow Jesus with all their hearts, but the problem is the Jesus they follow is eternally driving someone out of the Temple with a whip. This Jesus is all “manned-up” and conquering and tossing out those who are so weak they’d be compassionate toward anyone whose opinions or behavior violates or ‘compromises’ the absolutes of God’s behavior chart. And that behavior chart doesn’t just include the sexually immoral or those who steal – it also includes those who’d trade Taliban for a hostage or refuse to believe that a good guy with a gun beats a bad guy with a gun every time.
Listen, I’m all for political debate and I have strong opinions (some of them diametrically opposed to the strong opinions I held 20 years ago!). But if I tell you that Jesus said his followers are to embrace “turning the other cheek” as a lifestyle, and you tell me I need to give up “drinking the Kool-Aid,” as someone did yesterday, well, you’re entitled to your opinion but Jesus did actually say that!
You have to read the gospels to know that Jesus called his followers to a very radical life, in which they were to represent the kingdom of God, the new “administration” that is coming in him, by living according to its values. And its values included, Jesus said, representing the confidence in God that it takes to turn the other cheek and to bless those who persecute us, even in loving our enemies. Which is what Jesus did in walking right up to being taken and crucified by the “kingdoms of this world.”
Jesus put no faith in the kingdoms of this world, so he refused to be pulled into debates about paying taxes. I bet that would be a surprise to some Christians!
And Jesus was in opposition to the Pharisees, who would have thought it was a matter of faith to stand up against this or that sin. So they hauled a woman “caught in adultery” (all by herself – wonder how that happened?) to Jesus and asked him to rule on whether or not she should be stoned, which was what Old Testament law required. Jesus, you recall, turned it back on them – sure, let the one without sin cast the first stone. Yes, that was a gotcha question, designed to put him in a no-win situation, which he deftly turned away by pointing out that everyone who wanted to take a stand against her sin, *had no standing to do so* as sinners themselves. (And then he, the only sinless one on the scene, said, “neither do I condemn you.”)
Instead, Jesus demonstrated outrageous compassion toward “sinners,” going and having dinner with them and gently pointing them toward the God who he represented as the father in the Prodigal Son story, the one who was watching the road for the sinner to come home. That’s the way we’re supposed to do it, fellow followers. Like that.
Jesus never, ever told us to take a stand against sin.
He did command us to love, though. To love God, with everything we’ve got. To love one another in the church, as unconditionally and sacrificially as he did – wow. To love our neighbor, which he defined using the story of the Good Samaritan. When he was done, our “neighbor” was defined as, “anyone we might have mercy on.” And to love our enemies, and pray for them when they were doing to us what enemies do! Who did Jesus leave us permission not to love? nobody.
So how did it become Christian to “good riddance” anybody? Yet it happens every day. Good riddance to those who teach what we don’t agree with (“Farewell, Rob Bell”). Good riddance to those who violate God’s standards (forgetting so do we!). Good riddance to wimpy men and assertive women (when did Jesus do that, exactly?). Good riddance to people on the other side of our politics. Rid the church of them!
And then there will be the routine reference to Jesus driving the money-changers out of the Temple at the end of a whip. Right? We’re just following Jesus!
What was Jesus doing in that story? (That ONE story?) The folks making money in the Temple were taking up space in the Court of the Gentiles, the space in the Temple where those who weren’t born into the Chosen People might approach God. And they were representing faith in God as a matter of things bought and sold: buy your sacrifice for sin here, two-for-one sale!
Jesus says, the money-changers in the Temple (surely there with official Temple support) were an obstacle to the “nations” – the peoples of the world – coming to know God (Mark 11). He was also quoting from the prophet Jeremiah, a judgment on the corrupt Temple bureaucracy and religious leadership of the time.
In other words, Jesus was furious with the *religious folks* for losing sight of their call, misrepresenting what a relationship with God was about, and standing in the way of those who might have no other way of knowing God (the Gentiles), coming to know him.
It seems to me that the story of Jesus’ driving out the money-changers gets turned back on us, if that’s the only story of Jesus we ever seem to tell. Because when that’s our main story, we’re misrepresenting Jesus, and it becomes a real stumbling block to the sinners who long to hear about the compassion of God.
Jesus’ whole representation in the gospels is of a Lord who bends low to rescue humanity which is helpless without a shepherd, people who are under the tyranny of sin for whom God is making the ultimate sacrifice. He calls us represent him with huge love and just as much compassion. It is extremely tempting to think that God wants us to ‘stand up’ for him against sin, to point out the sinners and thrown them out, to proclaim who is right and who is wrong – it’s quite heroic and feels great.
But Jesus demonstrated for us a love that knows who is wrong and right and yet calls us all to the table, to share the bread and the cup and remember how low he bent for us, even to death on a cross. And that’s the cup – not of Kool-Aid (as in nonthinking obedience to a cult). Instead, it’s the cup of the New Covenant in Christ. It’s far more powerful than all our strutting, striving and shouting, if we have the courage to know it and live it. I’m still learning.
For much of my Christian life, I didn’t know it, but I barely knew Jesus.
The first, and most basic, thing to know is this:
God has always known you, and has always loved you. Even before you existed.
The implications of this are startling when you begin to ponder it. This means, that God loves you, and it’s not based on who you were born to, or where you were born.
It’s not based on how you look, or on what you have done, or what you don’t do
His love for you isn’t even based on your character, your manners, your faith, or your obedience.
The scriptures say, that God loves you, not because of who you are, but because of who He is.
God loves you, because God IS love, the Bible says. God creates in order to love and he created us for relationship with him, to love us.
Not only that, but because time is a creation of God’s, God exists outside of time, which means every moment that ever existed or ever will exist is, for him, “now.” Which is why the scriptures say that God has always known you and loved you, even before you were knit together in your mother’s womb. Before you were, you were known to him, personally, even planned for, by him.
This is true about you.
Do you find that comforting? Perhaps you do…but perhaps, you don’t. And I can imagine two reasons why (there may be others).
The first is, that for us humans, to be loved is to be special. Love, for us, has to be scarce to BE love. My mother loves me in a way that she doesn’t love you, right? And your mother, even if she is my sister in Christ, still loves you in a different way than she might commit to loving me.
Isn’t that what love is? The choosing of me as special? So what is this love of God if he loves me, and you and you – and everyone? Doesn’t that reduce love to …something like air? Available to everyone?
As they say in marketing, the worst thing is for your product to become a commodity, available to everyone and undifferentiated from anything else like it. That makes it cheap.
This love of God then, you might say, is too little. Too impersonal. La, la, la – yeah, God loves me.
But, we forget with whom we are dealing. God is not limited in the ways we are. God means it when he says he knows you. Scripture says, he knows the number of the hairs on your head. He knows the number of days of your life, and he has a name of his own for you, which no one else knows. And when you see him face-to-face, he will tell it to you!
God, the scriptures say, desires to be your father – and it gives him good pleasure to be so. He made you not just to make you or just to say he loves you. He made you so he could be in a relationship with you, the real you that he knows.
He knows your limitations and he knows what talents and gifts he has given you. He knows what you are afraid of, and what your dreams are…he’s the one who has given you the capacity to dream. And the fact that he also knows those things about me, too, and loves me, doesn’t diminish his love for you one bit.
He actually knows and loves you, and always has, and that’s the startling truth.
But perhaps that isn’t your problem with this idea of God’s love. Maybe you feel a little itchy about the idea that, as Psalm 139 says, all the days that were formed for you were written in his book before any of them existed.
Perhaps that makes you feel like the main character in that movie about the Truman Show, in which Truman is the only one who doesn’t know his life is a TV show, and that everything that happens to him is a script.
But, that’s not what we’re talking about here. Even though God has always known you and loves you perfectly, that does not mean that God has determined your life for you.
You were made in his image; he gave you the aptitude and desire to be creative and opportunities to create – which means you have choice. He made you relational, too, like he is, and gave you relationships from your earliest days, in which you have a part — relationships which you may choose to grow or end.
He made you free. We began with the freedom to choose good or evil, to create good or evil in this world, to choose our relationships and especially, to choose to relate to him.
That’s because he has always loved you and desires your love: it’s because Love isn’t love if it is coerced.
But because of that freedom, in our complex world of good and evil, of deceit and greed and idolatry as well as love, joy and creativity, we are each affected by our free choices and of others, in some ways for good and others for evil. And God, although he knows us and loves us, did not overrule the consequences of those free choices. Freedom means the freedom to be hurt.
So it’s also true that we are each born into a world which has been misshapen by sin, and because of that we are not ever really entirely free. Jesus said, that the one who sins is a slave to sin. We who desire freedom, who were made for freedom, have had our freedom circumscribed before we ever begin — and not by God, but by sin and the brokenness of this world.
So the truth is, God who has always known us and loved us, does not determine our lives for us and ruin our choices. But he came to rescue us, so we might again know his love. He rescued us for relationship, so we might again “walk with him in the cool of the day.” He rescued us to renew our freedom, to restore us to the image of God, to give us back choices.
Let’s talk a little theology here:
One of the things our tradition sort of rediscovered and which shapes us as a worshiping community, is that God did not have to be assuaged and talked into loving us.
Do you ever think that? That God is far away, because he’s mad at you? That Jesus had to make an offering, to make him care?
There’s a story in the Covenant that goes like this:
Several of our theologians, in the early days of the movement, were discussing the Lutheran Augsberg Confession, when one of them said, “Isn’t it wonderful that in Christ, God was reconciled to us?” (That is to say, that God, who was turned away from us, was turned back toward us in the work of Jesus?)
And in response, one of them, Paul Peter Waldenstrom, said something like, “Wait a minute – where is it written? Where is it written in the scriptures that God turned away from us, and had to be turned back toward us – ‘reconciled to us’ by the death of Jesus?”
He began a determined Bible study to figure that out. And he learned that the idea that God had to be reconciled to us, is not in the Bible! Instead, what the Bible says is that we are the ones who have turned away from God, who mistrust him, who rebel against him, who wish to “do it ourselves” and refuse relationship with him, who exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve created things instead of the Creator.
We are the ones who turned away, who must be reconciled, who must be turned back toward, God.
God never moved, from his knowledge of us or his holy love for us. He took what we dished out against him and sent Jesus to make a way home to him possible for us.
When you think about it that way, the idea of the “wrath of God” makes much more sense and doesn’t negate God’s love. Personally, I never understood what was meant by the wrath of God until I became a parent. I’m not sure you can ever get as mad at anybody else as you can at your own kids, if they choose the foolish way after being warned about it…If they demonstrate that they heard you but they don’t give a fig and do their own thing and then get hurt, after we have spent so much of our lives trying to keep them from danger!
Do we love them?
Will we help them? Yes we will.
Do we want to whack them? With a 2×4.
How much more, then, does the Relational God who created us for holy love have wrath toward us whom he made, warned, rescued time and again, but we continue in our way of ignoring him?
His wrath is a sign of his love. The opposite of love is not wrath, but indifference.
But listen to this! God, who has always known us and always loved us, took that wrath upon himself – applied the 2×4 to himself – and came as Jesus to take our rebellion on himself , that we, like the prodigal Son, might be free to come home.
This is love, the scriptures say, “not that we love God but that he loved us, and sent his son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:8)
God, of course, is the author of love. And when we think about it, it makes sense that we could not talk about love, if God did not love.
It is the love of God that Paul describes, when he talks about what true love really is in 1 Cor 13: that love is patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. That love does not insist on its own way, isn’t irritable or resentful; it doesn’t rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. And the love of God, perfectly, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things…and his love never ends.
It’s that kind of love that God brings to our relationship. But it’s also in this chapter that Paul writes about us that now, when it comes to our relationship with God, we see like we’re looking through a bad window, which is to say, “dimly” – and that’s why we still mistrust him, don’t believe him, ignore him…but one day, Paul writes, when we are in God’s presence, we will finally get it – we will see face to face, and then we will know him and his love for us fully, even as, for all this time, we have been fully known.
And we will know how much we have always been loved.
I think it is the first task of the church to remember and remind one another of just this basic fact: that God has always known you, and has always loved you, perfectly.
And that’s because I think we were made with a desire to be loved like that – which makes sense. But all of us, no matter how much our parents loved us, how loved we are by spouse or children or friends, never felt that the hole within us for love was completely filled. And of course it is even worse for those of us whose parents weren’t perfect, whose spouses aren’t unflawed, whose kids aren’t perfect, whose friends drop the ball and who are ourselves as imperfect, flawed and prone to miss the mark as anyone. Which is to say, all of us.
We could spend a lot of time telling of the empty places within, and of the hurts we may have experienced…or inflicted, and sometimes we must do that. But really, what we need is to turn our hearts and minds and selves toward God and accept the truth. Because he has always known us, he knows the number of hairs on our heads, he knows every cell of our bodies and stays updated as they turn over, and he loves us, as we are, and as we are going to be in Christ.
If we need proof, the scriptures tell us to pay attention to Jesus.
Have you suffered, and been overlooked by others?
Jesus sees you, like he saw the bent-over woman in the synagogue, though no one else paid her any attention. She was the one he called a daughter of Abraham, and healed and made straight, even on the Sabbath.
Are you bitter, losing hope, feel overwhelmed and like nobody notices how hard you work?
Jesus sees you and knows you and loves you, like he did Simon Peter the fisherman who worked hard and paid his taxes and never got ahead, until Jesus called him to fish for men and his faith was called the rock on which the church was built!
Are you not so sure you count at all, not sure you understand just what is going on here, but you want to believe?
Maybe you are like the boy whose lunch Jesus used to feed everyone, the one who trusted Jesus just enough for that and got to see a miracle.
Think you have a lot to lose by trusting this strange Jesus who doesn’t seem to fit into the way things are?
Jesus sees and loves you like he did Nicodemus, who he told to stop trying to have it both ways. Nicodemus, whom Jesus said needed to be born over again in the spirit, and to step out of the darkness and be public about his faith in Jesus.
Have you sinned, in ways that you think if people only knew they would turn their backs on you?
Jesus sees, and he has always loved you and will not stop, and he will make you new, like he did the woman at the well, or the woman who washed his feet with her hair, or Zacchaeus who robbed his own people . He has always known and loved you. Turn to him: When Jesus says you are clean, you are clean indeed.
Are you proud, because you know you have lived a holy life, and you’re kind of annoyed that the folks who haven’t are getting into the kingdom of God for free?
Jesus sees and knows and loves you, too, like the Father in his story about the two sons,
who loved and went out looking for the son who stayed out in the field, the one who was so bitter about his sinner-brother coming home. He wants to heal you, and bring you into the celebration, too.
Are you broken, because those who should have loved you did not, and those who should have cared for you stole from you, and because those who should be with you now have left you?
Jesus, who cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,”
knows all about it, and he sees you, he knows you and he has always loved you and always will. He will be your sufficiency, will be all you need, if you will find your real life in him.
This is why Jesus tells us that it is children who know how to enter into the kingdom of God.
Children know how to accept and receive love, and they know enough to want more and more of it.
Let us take one more step in understanding God’s love:
Christian theology teaches us that the notion of Trinity is our small human way of describing what is the revealed relationship of the three persons of the Godhead: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They dwell together, and always have, in a mutual relationship of shalom – of peace, wholeness, harmony and flourishing. The relationship among the persons of the Trinity
is the purest definition of love, without competition, without resentment, without hierarchy, without fear.
It is so alien to us that we cannot draw a good picture of it, or even hold onto the idea too long before it slips from our understanding. And yet, it is this love that is extended to us in the coming of Jesus, and it is this intimacy, familiarity, ease, comfort, peace and love into which we are being drawn, when we put our lives in the hands of Jesus and say, yes, I trust you.
When we put our lives in the hands of Jesus, we are joined to him, and we live IN the love of the Trinity, one for another.
That’s why Jesus says stuff to us like, we may enter boldly into the throne room of God; we may ask God for anything in Christ’s name; that he is in us and we are in him like we read in John today, and what it means that he has given us his glory: we are in him and with him and part of him even now, within the Trinity, safe and present IN THE GODHEAD.
That’s what it means when we say that when we say yes to Jesus, our eternal life has already begun: we are already, spiritually, there.
And it’s why Jesus keeps saying, peace be with you. Shalom be with you. Within the Trinity, is where true Shalom is found.
Dallas Willard died this week. Do you know who he is? He became famous for writing about the spiritual disciplines – he wrote The Spirit of the Disciplines, and also A Divine Conspiracy. He was a philosopher and professor at USC for decades. Jon Ortberg said of him that he thought very carefully about what words mean, and thus what he said was very dense to the rest of us, but it makes perfect sense, when you unpack it.
So, Dallas Willard said, that a person is a series of conscious experiences, and that for the one who trusts and follows Jesus, death itself has no power to interrupt this life. And thus, he said, when he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer that he thought that when he died, it might be some time before he knew it.
After a long life of practicing trusting Jesus and coming to know in his deepest self that he was known and loved, knowing the perfect love of the Trinity, Dallas Willard had come to a new understanding of what, finally, is “real,” hadn’t he?
And this is what is real:
God has always known you and always loved you; you are deeply known, and deeply loved. Open your hands and your heart, and receive his love.