The below sermon, delivered at Jesus People USA’s Aug 12 service (at Joan Arai School), was provoked by many things too personal to blog on. Suffice it to say that I find myself continually falling short of God’s agape (charity). And that these feelings have recently been racheted up a few more notches as I observed others I love dearly falling into patriarchal motifs of self-destruction and / or the destruction of others. It is not, on the face of it, a feminist sermon. But it is a mutuality sermon, and one which tries to go back to beginning things in order to contextualize my own (and maybe others’?) present place in the journey of discipleship. Questions, critiques welcome. One last note: I hope feminists will forgive me for quoting a fair amount of St. Augustine, that Church Father who was singularly anti-woman (and anti-sex) in some of the things he wrote in, for one, The City of God. But he also said other things, and I perhaps a bit intentionally focus on those things as a pro-mutuality Christian.
Warm Fuzzies. Anyone ever hear of them? How about seeing ‘em? Well, I have.
Many years ago, as a non-Christian, I attended a retreat with my church group. Now know that our denomination was very curious in its beliefs. For instance, when I questioned various leaders (including my pastor and my denominational bishop) about what exactly they believed about Jesus being a historical figure, and especially what they believed about the events of Good Friday and Easter, they answered back by asking me a question: “Jon, does it really matter?” You have to hear that with just the right sort of paternalistic tone of voice, by the way. As a non-Christian teen slacker cursed with my own set of God questions – questions which I back then and still now think were good ones, by the way – that reply did not do anything for me.
Anyway, about this retreat, or rather, the end of the retreat. The few hundred of us there were herded together, and each handed a soft little red, furry ball. “This,” the leader of the session told us, “is a warm fuzzy.” (And now you know what a Warm Fuzzy looks like. Thank me later!)
The feel-good rap offered us from the podium was that we were supposed to hand our warm fuzzy to someone else. Of course, as each person kept giving a warm fuzzy away, the next person would, it was expected, give them another. Isn’t that PRECIOUS? Really, it gagged me. I had visions of simply collecting all the warm fuzzies and stuffing them into my pockets, stuffing them down my shirt, giving none away – the way multinational corporations and Superpowers and billionaires do – but I didn’t quite have the guts to make that sort of nihilistic stink amongst all these happy happy joy joy people. But how could I join them to believe in this nice sort of wuv? As an unbeliever I didn’t know if love was anything more than sloppy emotions, and maybe love was even a sinister cover story for all the human animals out there using, using, using others. Tina Turner said it: “What’s love got to do with it?”
See, I didn’t want warm fuzzies. Now if the above experiment had been tried with, say, 100 dollar bills, I wonder how it would have gone?
A favorite verse of these warm fuzzy folks is this: “God is love.”
My cynical reaction back then? How about “Napalm is love”?
God is love. Hmm. What does that MEAN? Yet… Warm Fuzzies aside, because finding out what it means is going to cost you and cost you dear, God is love. And the older I grow, the more I have fitfully grown as a believer, the more my own story resonates first and only as a story it turns out is entitled “God is Love.”
So how did it start, this long journey toward knowing what that verse means? Previous to love I had to encounter myself. Not God, mind you, which is what I thought I needed to have happen; I tried all sorts of tricks, including insulting God and finally even ignoring Him, to flush Him from his hiding place. But looking back, I think I was the one who was hidden from myself, rather than God being hidden from me. As St. Augustine, whom I’ll quote a few times today, once wrote, “Don’t you believe that there is in man a deep [spirit] so profound as to be hidden even to him in whom it is?” We all yearn for love; it is the universal hunger. Yet we also seem unable and / or unwilling to do or be that thing which allows us to find the very love we seek.
My ecstatic beginning in Love, a moment which for me included such immersion in love that I did speak in tongues, was filled beyond my imagining with absolute Otherness directed not as much at me as through me. I confessed my broken helplessness at last, and via that experience God became real to me in a way I could not – despite a skeptic’s occasional struggles – ever deny again. I’ll let St. Augustine put it more beautifully than I could: “You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.”
Only a week or two later, my Mother softly commented in her neutral observer sort of voice, “I’ll say one thing; you certainly are more loving since last week.”
So everything was great, Jonny was a groovy little lovely, loving Christian. The End?
No, God’s love, which never fails, was the beginning and remained true and constant. My response is the rest of the story.
A key word, then, regarding love is a hard, unwelcome word: obedience. It is only through obedience that I – or any of us – will remain in love. This is not negotiable. Christ makes this crystal clear: “Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.” [John 14: 23,24 NRSV]. Now note, Jesus does not ask us as humans to do what He did not. “He humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!” [Phil. 2:8] Yet is he intent on torturing us, beating us, making us into a narrow, frightened community? No.
Nothing could be less like Christ than the Patriarchal, dominating God often pushed in some fundamentalist circles. Listen to Jesus’ own words: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” [Matt. 11:29,30 NRSV]
Remember, what Jesus is up to: creating a people who reflect His loving Character. And here are more key words regarding love: love is reverently relational. Not only toward God, Who after all deserves our love; we are called to love one another. Jesus said of this call that it was a new commandment given to us, to love one another as he first loved us! So, obedience is training in love, not training in legalism, false spirituality, or some sort of religiously-rooted death wish.
We are not reverently relational by default – it is the one thing we are least good at. We want it, but we have little idea as to the discipline involved in having it. After all, the word disciple is defined as one who is learning (a) discipline from another. Jesus is Love, and his discipline is meant to make lovers of us. His way is narrow because it requires our constant “yes” to create in us a maturity that truly reflects love.
Reverently relational also could be worded as being other centered over self-centered. And as Paul writes in Romans 13, there are far-reaching implications to this: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” [Romans 13:8-10 NRSV]
St. Augustine coined one of the most beautiful summations of the above theology I’ve heard.
I’ve slightly modernized his quote: “Once for all, then, a short precept is given you: “Love, and do what you will: when you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; when you cry out, through love cry out; when you correct, through love correct; when you spare, through love you should spare: let the root of love be within, of this root nothing can grow but what is good.” Love and do what you will is another way of citing a biblical idea that is hard to grasp and easy to twist wrongly. But here it is, clearly taught: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” [Gal. 5:22, 23 NRSV] And who is the Holy Spirit if not Love?
So, some more key words regarding love might be these: Love acts for God and for neighbor rather than laws and rules. Jesus worked on the Sabbath by healing a paralyzed man. This really ticked off the religious authorities, and they confronted him. The Law said you aren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath. Jesus’ response? “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” [John 5:17b, NRSV]
Let’s get personal here. I was – and sometimes still am – quite legalistic in how I understand God’s Word, usually when I’m applying that Word to someone or something else! But when it comes to me, I can go the opposite extreme and give myself a basket of warm fuzzies. That is, I find it easy to overlook the Scriptures aimed right at me while focusing on those aimed at others, usually those who struggle with sins the most unlike my own sinful inclinations. For instance, money doesn’t tempt me much, so I find it very easy to bash rich folks – you know, “yuppies.” Book of James: “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.” Alright, God, go git ‘em! Nail their Mammon-worshipping hides!
Yet it was a rich man, Josephus, who bravely went to the Romans possibly risking his own life to ask for the body of Jesus, and then laid Christ’s body in a tomb he’d purchased. In the current class war in Uptown, isn’t the yuppie as much my neighbor as the poor person? Yes. So I have to balance my biblical advocacy of the poor with my remembrance to love those who are not financially poor. I sometimes forget that they may well be even more impoverished – that is, without spiritual life – than their materially poor neighbor. Which brings me to another, very hard, set of words regarding love:
“Love your enemies.” Oh, my. All of us give this one lip service. Then we all hunt for the exits.
As G. K. Chesterton observed, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies, probably because they are generally the same people.” Funny, yet isn’t that what Jesus was saying with his parable of the Good Samaritan? In that story, a person viewed by Jewish culture as a lesser being, an “evil other,” acts more humanely toward a Jewish victim of robbers than do various social and religious representatives of Jewish culture! And get this right – neither the other New Testament writers nor John the Apostle was anti-Jewish, being Jewish himself and worshipping a Jewish Savior. He, along with Paul and the others, was anti-legalist, anti-moralist. John was intent on knocking down man-made self-righteousness which had been wrapped up in God’s Law by his culture. Why?
Remember John at the last supper? Where is he sitting? What is he doing? The Scriptures say he was reclining next to Jesus, and even laid his head upon Jesus’ chest. John himself says that he was “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” That may sound arrogant to some, but I think it is the exact opposite. My wife and I have an old etching somewhere of John reclining on Jesus that, whenever I view it, stirs deep emotion in me. John well understood that legalism is the enemy of love, an outward show of obedience which at its heart is disobedient to the Law’s heart.
That, too, reminds me of something I sometimes fear I have lost in love. Remember how I said that my story in Jesus began with his baptizing me in Love? My heart flew out to Him, and I really did become a Jesus freak that day who did not care who knew about this burning passion inside me. My family knew, my schoolmates knew, people I met for the first time soon knew. I was intensely romantic for God. I still feel that passion, yet often I do not pursue God as I ought.
Do we often care too much about how others perceive us to openly love God? I often do not hold that first love as precious as I ought to hold it. So, the key words here are “return to your first love.”
To return to your first love – or for those of you who do not yet know Jesus Christ, to enter into your first true love – is also to find your own true self. Augustine – quoting him quite a bit today – has a curiously moving comment about his own long journey toward faith. He writes (again I’ve modernized this): Too late I loved You, O You Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! Too late I loved You! And behold, You were within, and I outside, and there I searched for You; deformed I, plunging among those fair forms which You had made. You were with me, but I was not with You. Things held me far from You, which, unless they were in You, were not at all.
Consider St. Augustine’s words. God was close to him, so close. But Augustine sought God through sexual excess, through worldly philosophies, and through other sensual pleasures of mind and body. He calls himself a “deformed I” among fair forms God had made. Those forms were human forms; those forms were art, books, lovemaking, great conversations, food, and other good things God had made. Yet these pursuits only took him further and further away from God, and also further away from himself. He literally did not know himself. Pride barred the way to sight.
In my way, I also experienced this. I believed God was hiding from me. Yet instead, I was hiding from me. I was hiding from God. I was tormented by two sets of desires set in opposition to one another. One set had to do with all my God-questions, my hunger for Him, even my anger at him which was a sort of distorted but real yearning for Him. The other set had to do with wanting a story without the empty moralisms, the warm fuzzy nonsense America was and is flooded with every day. And in both of these was a self that was afraid, that was arrogant and proud to an extreme, that was rigid in its self-righteous judgment of both Christians and non-Christians, which without compassion found in humankind the disgusting, the stupidly or willfully ignorant, the ugly. Yet in all my double-mindedness there was also the very man I most despised – a user of other human beings for his own selfish sensualism. Yet at the heart of all of this I desperately wanted love – to be loved and love only that truly worth the loving. Double-minded and so unstable in all my ways.
What about a person such as me who is so blind he cannot see God anywhere, while others – including a Christian friend I regularly mocked to his face –seemed able to see God everywhere.
Do you, Christians or not, ever sense a hard ball or knot of something within your spirit, something made of equal parts fear and rage and rebellion? I sure do. This whole week has been about a sort of godless anxiety for me. I haven’t caved into it, but I have failed at it. A fair number of times, actually. So whether you need this or not, I sure do.
Here’s a huge secret I learn but keep forgetting. God cannot and will not redeem our old nature. Do you hear me? In my flesh dwells no good thing. That flesh isn’t meaning the body, by the way. It refers to that part of my nature which was – and which still is – as hard as a stone, as mean as a rabid dog, as fearful and hateful of others as a Klansman with a rope in his hand. We Christians keep thinking that getting to be more like Christ – learning to be more loving – is to keep getting nicer. Well, true confessions: I used to be real nice. I got over it. After all, even Hitler smiled and patted little girls on the head. Nice is what any salesman learns first. Nice is about being safe, being comfortable, being our own little quietly manipulative, destructive monsters when anyone dares challenge us into the unsafe, the uncomfortable, and most of all the truly loving. Love exposes nice for what it is. Nice people crucified Jesus. Nice crucified Love.
Which brings us to a finally, finally. And a very big finally it is, too, God’s love is forgiveness. It is so tempting for the Christian to want to be the hero of his or her own story. “Suuuuupersaint!” And one way to be the hero of our own story is to make a big deal out of our failure, either by wallowing in shame and guilt or by elaborate repentance which really shows how humble we are.
True love in Christ, mature love, learns how to gracefully rebound from sin. When a mature believer repents, it is so refreshing. An honest confession – because she doesn’t really care about her reputation – followed by asking forgiveness of those wronged and then once again turning toward Love to pursue Love in obedience. Christ does not condemn us, so how dare we condemn ourselves?
So. There are a few of the lessons of love God is teaching me. I don’t claim they are learned yet, not by a long shot. This is my lesson I am trying to learn. I hope you will pray for me as I continue in it, and I hope it encourages you to continue pursuing that first, passionate, and central love which either is – or is not – the reason for which we live and the desire which sets our minds, hearts, and bodies on fire. Because at the end of things, passionate love for God ought to be joyful, just as passionate love for our fellow human beings ought to be an honor.
Let us pray.