It happened in an instant.
I clicked on the TV as I started to make dinner, and there was that video, of the black-clothed man speaking with a British accent, holding a knife, giving a speech before he was about to behead an American reporter, his captive.
It wasn’t just the heinousness of his act, which I already knew about. It was the arrogance of his posture, what I took to be the hubris of his threats toward us – me! – and the casual manner he affected as judge and jury over another.
In an instant, I informed his image on my TV what we would do to him. We’d give him even better than he’d given so far. Did he not know who America is in the world? Not only will we defeat his army but we’ll save something especially brutal, just for him, I told him.
It didn’t take a second heartbeat before lots of arrogance and brutality came from my mouth.
Why is that?
There is certainly a place here for “wrath,” isn’t there? And it’s not entirely an unrighteous wrath. YES, the wrath of God is on godlessness and wickedness of people who suppress the truth of God (Romans 1:18)! YES, the wrath of God is deservedly on such hateful and destructive speech and acts…on the hubris of people who take life…life which is the gift and province of God.
The book of Revelation paints us a picture of the wrath of God being poured out. “You are just in these judgments, O Holy One, you who are and who were; for they have shed the blood of your holy people and your prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve.” (Rev. 16:5-6). God who loves people made in his image is right in his wrath against the hubris and arrogance of humans in their hatred and violence. It is part of his love to feel wrath toward us when we turn into our own and one another’s enemies and arrogate to ourselves the right to treat others this way. In his love, God is wrathful toward us for it.
And it is, of course, only natural to feel angry and bitter toward someone who is actively threatening us…isn’t it? Actually, I am quite sure the terrorist’s posture and attitude is calculated to produce the maximum amount of matching hatred in us, the better to pursue what seems to be his agenda: some kind of war between our nation and the “nation” he is trying to declare.
But right there…right there…is where the Spirit of God intervenes in the believer’s heart.
Such a response is natural to our fallen state, “in the flesh” as the Bible puts it. But we who have put our trust in Jesus are “born again” – we no longer live “according to the flesh,” the Bible tells us – living by the dictates of the flesh just produces death. [The “flesh” in the Bible refers to ourselves unconnected with God, living only for this life.]
When we trust Jesus, the Spirit of God lives within us and we are called to live “according to the Spirit.” Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God, and God’s Spirit produces in us what the Bible calls the “fruit” of the Spirit: not anger, malice, bitterness, hatred…but love, joy, peace and patience (Romans 8, Galatians 5).
So by the Spirit of God I was drawn up short and reminded that the terrorist, so casually and arrogantly about to take a life he had no power to give, is a human lost in sin and fear as all humans are. That Jesus died even for him. That “vengeance” is not mine to take (Romans 12:19), not even through the television screen, because it is God’s to do with as God will (but remember: he took the wrath for sin on himself, in Christ! Neither do we get to dictate what God should do with his wrath).
What is mine to do is to obey Jesus, even in my heart, face-to-face with a heartless video. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing,” Jesus said while terrorists nailed him to a cross (and yes, this is one of ISIS’s favorite ways of torturing people, too). We take sin too much for granted. We do not realize that the sin which persuades us to hate our neighbor or coworkers is part and parcel of the same sin that persuades terrorists to kill; Jesus said it was on a continuum with calling that arrogant driver who cut you off this morning a moron. The sin we casually dismiss on our own part is under the wrath of God, too, because it is destroying us as well as others.
The Jesus answer to arrogant hatred and violent power is to turn the other cheek. NOT in powerlessness, but in the power of a love that has already transcended hatred and violent death. Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and to give over our “advantage” to those who want to hurt us BECAUSE there is nothing they can win. By refusing to respond with hatred or fear, Jesus’ followers disarm their weapons. If we are ultimately safe in Christ, our eternal home and relationships secure, what can any enemy take from us?
No, Jesus isn’t here talking to a government or army. The Bible continues to give the state the power “of the sword” in order to do good with it – to defend those it is empowered to protect. My own reflection on this is not about what our government should do in response to what has happened. I do pray for those for whom this IS their decision, for great wisdom in the face of this arrogant evil.
But I can’t help but remember that in my lifetime I HAVE seen those who used these “Jesus” principles to effect major change. These are the principles that underlie “civil disobedience” such as Martin Luther King Jr taught during the civil rights struggle. Those who sat at lunch counters, with heads bowed as their neighbors threw food at them in hatred, made those who hated them for their skin color look ridiculous, and defeated the hatred by making their actions look as ridiculous as they were. The hatred was real; the anger it must have aroused in the hearts of those treated that way must have been huge. But by their self-discipline they conquered it in ways that matching hatred and violence would never have done. There is indeed power in claiming the transcendence of love over hatred.
As for me, I had a need to repent. While it is a feeling, and a natural one, to respond in kind to hatred and threats toward me, I am born again by the Spirit. It is not Spirit to issue threats. Instead, I am compelled to pray, even for the black-clad terrorist who hates me…even if he were to actually succeed in coming close enough to me to do what he says he longs to do to me.
My life belongs to Christ, and neither he nor any enemy can take it, for real. In the meantime, I am called to let the Spirit of God reign in me, to so keep in step with the Spirit that Christ “leaks” out of me…so that anyone who threatens me would know that they were encountering Christ. And make no mistake: all who do evil are not really in service to any cause other than the cause of Evil. And Christ has already defeated that.
I can’t become this kind of Christ-leaking person in my own power. It needs to come from, as my denomination’s affirmations say, a “conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit.” It needs to come from a turning of my heart and mind to worship, so that by turning myself over to Christ my mind and my vision might be transformed, so that I will not block the Spirit who is already present in me, from producing in me God’s love, peace, patience, gentleness and joy. Did not God already defeat such evil utterly, in the death and resurrection of Christ? Will not God one day make all things new, and will such evil itself not be destroyed? Has God not already shown us the way, in Christ, to stand against it? “It’s not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” (Zech 4:6)
It happened in an instant.
I read a terrible story this morning, about how conservative Shia Muslim militias attacked a house of prostitution in Baghdad and executed 29 women and two men, all shot in the head, some of them in their hiding places.
was about how the Iraqi government can’t come down too hard on the militias – they need them to be the enforcers of the law in some places where the government isn’t getting much cooperation.
But what caught my attention was the very idea that these people, allegedly trying to be faithful to God, took the lives of others in order to enforce “holiness.” “This is the fate of any prostitution,” was inscribed on the door of the building. What this militia deems moral crimes can be punished by summary execution, and the only warning you’ll get was the last murder in your neighborhood.
We humans have some very strange ideas of “holiness.” If we’re going to enforce moral standards, what are the crimes against which we’ll fulminate? Wouldn’t murder be an important moral line not to cross?
But frankly, we do it all the time. I am often bewildered by this, that we, who so far have only been able to “create” life in the reproductive sense, think it makes us powerful to take life. That creation is outside of our skill set ought to make us pretty shy about extinguishing life, but we seem to regard that as the highest kind of power. Yet, it isn’t really all that hard to do. I don’t see how it makes us powerful at all. Ungrateful, yes. Full of hubris, indeed. Powerful? Why?
We even thought it was powerful to execute the Son of God, according to the New Testament. But he was allowing it all along, even putting up with our arrogance.
Please don’t misunderstand: what struck me about this story is not that it’s about Muslims. It’s easy to write off this deed as just “what they do,” but my point is that it is what humans do (yes, I know there are stories of this kind in the Old Testament, too). In my opinion, they are doing it for all the same reasons of fear and control and anger and defensiveness that we all do it. We pick a victim and we let that victim carry all of what we want to control, and by killing them we think we have won something.
But this is why Jesus, who shows us what God is like, is so striking. Jesus taught us that when we hold someone in contempt in our hearts, we are on the road to murdering them.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca [Aramaic term of contempt],’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.” Matt 5:21-22
We protest: no, Jesus! We would never do that! But Jesus, who “had no need for anyone to tell him what was in a man,” knew whereof he spoke. There is murder in all our hearts, even if we never set out to do it.
He’s only telling us so he can save us from it.
And that brings to mind this: we are no better if we rail and rant against sinners, or against those who don’t belong here, or embrace the death penalty to get rid of the evil among us. Whenever we reduce anyone to what we don’t want them around here for, we are on the way to murder. Whenever we pick someone’s story up and tell it so we and all our friends can laugh with derision at it, we are on the way to murder. Whenever we think it makes us holy to call out the sinners, and powerful to determine their destiny, we are on the way to murder.
I have been on the way to murder. Have you?
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” Matt 5:23-24
There are two different kinds of “peace” – and it matters which one we are pursuing.
One is, the kind where nothing is bothering us. A couple of days ago I had the gift of a peaceful hour on the deck in the sunshine, with nothing assaulting my ears but bird song. It was very “peaceful,” in the sense that there was no tension in it, nothing I had to do about it, nothing adversarial in it. There was nothing pulling at me about it. I didn’t need to fight it, flee it, do something about it, put it away, put it on my schedule…it wanted nothing from me and gave me freely a quiet in my soul.
There is that kind of peace.
But then there is the “shalom” kind of peace. The meaning of the Hebrew word for peace, which is transferred into the Greek word for peace, means a state of well-being for the community. It is certainly about lack of conflict, yes – but it is about more. It is about a personal sense of well-being (enough food, enough security, no grief) but not just for me – for everyone in my community. Shalom in its ideal state is what existed in the Garden of Eden, and will exist again in the “new heavens and new earth” of Isaiah 25, and Revelation 20.
That kind of peace can’t be had only by me. I can’t have that kind of peace if others are suffering, being robbed or assaulted, or fighting with one another.
So, paradoxically, we who follow the Prince of that kind of Peace must in this life take up a little conflict on behalf of others.
It is true that shalom won’t be in full flower until Jesus comes, but we are the ambassadors of his kingdom (2 Corinthians 5). As such, we live out a demonstration model for others to see as the kingdom – that’s why so many of our favorite passages have to do with relationships of well-being: 1 Corinthians 13 on love, Galatians 5 and the fruit of the Spirit, Ephesians 4 and maturing as disciples, for example.
The truth is, we can’t really pursue Peace #2 if we are dedicated to our personal Peace #1. And it’s Peace #2 Jesus assigned us to!
The other day someone told me they’d closed down their Facebook account because they were tired of arguing with people. They just wanted to have kind relationships with other people.
On one level, that is laudatory! I do know and confess it is easy to get into Facebook arguments and think you’re accomplishing something, but all you’re really doing is being obnoxious. This person is right to examine her own life and determine that this thing is not healthy or life-giving to her relationships. We all should be so careful about what we are doing.
But (and you knew there was a but coming, yes?) – and I don’t know this person well enough to know, so I’m not passing judgment on her, necessarily – to do that because you don’t want to hear things you disagree with, might not be such a good idea.
To close yourself off so that you only talk to the folks who already agree with you, so as to preserve for yourself Peace #1, just might prevent you from pursuing Peace #2. As Jesus continually told us, the fact that others mock us, fight us, persecute us and more doesn’t mean we’re not doing it right. (Those things don’t necessarily mean we ARE doing it right, either!) But wrestling over important ideas about what it means to be a community, and how to live together in ways that benefit everyone, are worth the conflict, discontent and tension.
The fact is, this world is not going to deliver Peace #2. It’s not organized for it, and according to Paul in Romans 8, it can’t even, to the extent that the Spirit of God is not at work in it. The voice of evil is too strong and the current of the combination of our own selfish and fearful desires with our rebellion against God pulls too hard.
Jesus, in suggesting that following him would include moments in which we have to turn the other cheek, was allowing for the possibilities we’d be struck! Pursuing Peace #2 is not going to feel good sometimes, so Peace #1 becomes one of those things we give up willingly in order to follow him in some situations.
Much more should be said about what Peace #2 means and how we contribute towards it, This summer I’m planning a sermon series on “How to Thrive,” which is another word (along with “flourishing”) that relates to the idea of shalom.
But while everyone needs an hour in the sunshine from time to time, a Sabbath from conflict and tension (even Jesus – thus the all-night prayer times recorded in the gospels!), let us admit that we can’t pursue that kind of “peace” for ourselves at the expense of forgetting the important aspects of our call to follow Him.
We don’t need to be obnoxious or ruin our relationships – but indeed we will enter conflict and tension, and it will not be comfortable if we do it Jesus’ way. Let’s embrace that consciously.
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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.
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.
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)
John-the-letter-writer is talking about being afraid of God.
He’s talking about the kind of fear of God that’s not awe or reverence, but cowering fear that convinces us God is out to get us, that he is keeping a list and we are on the bad side, and sooner or later he is going to let us have it for all we’ve done wrong, or all the good we’ve forgotten to do.
I don’t know, but I guess that John is familiar with the kind of religion that makes hay off that sort of thing. Because John goes on at length to point out that God has already shown us how he feels about us: “this is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
God has already made a huge investment in rescuing us and bringing us back home, and he made the first move. If we have the idea we need to show God some adoration and some life change before he might turn his face toward us, we’ve got it wrong – he already came here looking for us.
And what about the punishment we might deserve? That’s what Jesus was doing: taking the penalty for our sin.
The amazing thing is that God has shown where he’s coming from: he wants us. He loves us completely – “perfectly.” He has shown his cards – he’s not keeping anything back. He’s poured it all out for us, so we could come home to him.
He doesn’t want our fear.
Love? Yes. The respect that goes with love? Yes. Our worship and praise? Yes – when we realize who he is. But God has shown us in Jesus that he is not interested in our trembling fear – that’s what John is saying.
Instead, he is out to make us new – to finish us and make us whole – make us “perfect” – as we were meant to be – in his love. There is no fear in this love.
So, if someone wants you to be afraid of God, they are not talking about God, the father of Jesus Christ, and they’re not talking about the good news of Jesus. If they’re trying to reinstate fear, they’ve missed the point – that’s really what John is saying here.
I’ve heard this verse used other ways – like, because Jesus loves us we don’t have to be afraid of tornadoes or snipers. Maybe that’s true, although all humans come equipped with a fear of things that might kill us, Jesus included. It’s true that because Jesus loves us, if we have turned toward him in faith, we don’t have to fear death ultimately – we know that we are eternally safe, in Him. So, in that way, his perfect love does cast out fear.
But what John was talking about, was the devil’s attempt to make us fear and suspect God, in fact, the devil’s accusation of God, to us, that he wants to keep us afraid.
We have the ultimate demonstration that it isn’t true: Jesus.
The Bible is an intensely human book.
David, the man after God’s own heart, expresses joy and faith…but also fear, anguish, fury and grief.
Paul, for whom “to live is Christ,” expresses irritation, fear, jealousy, fury, sorrow, resignation and a serious need to be right…as well as huge joy, humility, deep peace and bold faith.
And of course Jesus, 100% divine and 100% human, demonstrates for us implicit trust in and joyful obedience to his Father, but also an anguished desire for “another way” in Gethsemane, deep sorrow and anger at the rejection of ‘institutional Israel’ of their Messiah, and even irritation a time or two with the disciples and their lack of faith.
Yes, the Bible is inspired by God’s very breath, but tells human stories and is written by human hands and all of the human experience is in its pages, while it testifies to us of God.
This is one reason why it is important for us not to grab verses and passages out of context and claim them as God’s word.
This is why it is vital for us to learn and know the whole arc of the story of God and humanity that the Bible tells (and why its many writings were gathered together in one library).
This is why we who teach God’s people need to push back against the marketplace’s demand that we keep things short and deliver useful nuggets of advice for everyday life whenever we command their attention – because without knowing the whole arc of the story, what nuggets we deliver are rootless and confusing.
And what happens when we don’t understand the whole arc of the story, is that we risk of baptizing the most human parts of the Bible as though they are God’s word. Which vindicates us when we live out of fear and anger.
But Jesus, though he certainly understood our natural fear, anger and grief, called us not to trust fear and anger, but instead to avoid being afraid, to put away our swords, and to find our peace in him.
“Do not be afraid” is a common theme when humans encounter God – and not just because to encounter God can be terrifying, but because the whole point of what God is doing is to deliver us from fear.
And James writes, “….let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1:19-20) But we, in our humanity, forget that – and if we can find some angry writings in the Bible we can justify our own anger with them, and do much damage.
I am learning that in following Jesus I need to always question myself about what I’m angry about and what I’m afraid of, and to root out the resentment, competition, jealousy, fear of losing my place or my livelihood, fear of losing my status or my assumed superiority…all the things that lie underneath my reactions which take the place of better responses.
When Jesus taught us to pray, “thy will be done, thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” it was to pray that we would begin to behave out of the peace and settled righteousness that exists in God’s presence, and less out of all the striving we do in our kingdoms.
Being still and knowing God is God, removes from me all the ways I think I am obligated to be God in my world. And it undermines all the ways I have crowned my anger and fear and given them Christianized reasons to influence the way I think.
And so we need to learn to read our Bibles and identify the human parts, the this-world’s-kingdoms’ ways of reacting. We see it clearly when the Psalmist (137) expresses delight in the imagery of God’s enemies having their infants’ dashed against rocks, but do we see it so clearly in some of the images of judgment so gleefully described in other places? Jesus said the Spirit would prove us wrong about judgment, because in his crucifixion, the prince of this world (eg, Satan) would stand condemned (and not those who we might think were his enemies) (John 16:11).
We are intensely human – what else could we be? But we are also called to keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, because of all we don’t know. And from him we get a vision of the kingdom — “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27).