Thursday, May 24, 2018

God's Love is Not Enough (John 3:16)

"For God so loved the world . . ."

So Jesus says in the 3rd chapter of the Gospel of John

I saw a bumper sticker once that said, “God loves you. No exceptions.” I believe this is so. And I believe that just accepting that can be life-changing (see here and here). It makes a huge difference to understand that, when God looks upon you, it is with eyes of love. I know there are some who have 'tapes' recorded deeply in their hearts telling them that they are not lovable. And I appreciate that the sentiment of the bumper sticker is addressing the reality that there are groups of people who have been made to feel as though they are somehow the exception to God’s love. So, it is important to remember that when Jesus said, “God so loved the world,” that includes everyone. Every. One. “God so loved the world” – no exceptions.

But, by itself, slogan on the bumper sticker is inadequate. Even less adequate is another slogan one sometimes sees, “God loves you period”. Wonderful as it is, God’s love is not enough. And there is no 'period' at the end of it because God's love means God is committed to our ongoing healing and transformation.

Just before the justly famous line in John 3:16, Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” What’s that about? Clearly, it is a reference to the passage from the book of Numbers,

From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
– Numbers 21:4-9

It’s a strange passage. But let’s start by reviewing the context. Israel was enslaved in Egypt. They were miserable. God heard their cry, called Moses to lead them, and through a series of miracles delivered them from their bondage, setting them on the path to the Promised Land. Soon after, they became impatient and ungrateful and began to complain about how God was managing their deliverance. We have here an example of that complaining.

“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?”

“Well, because you asked me to. And because I love you and desire your good.”

“To die in the wilderness?”

“So far I have provided for you at every turn, haven’t I?”

“There is no food and no water.” That is an outright lie – or willful forgetting. God had miraculously provided water. God had rained down upon them the wonder of manna, "the grain of heaven," for their nourishment. And quail as well.

“We detest this miserable food.” Now we’re getting a little closer to the truth. It’s not that they have no food, but that they are dissatisfied with the food God has provided. As the Psalmist sang,

So they ate and were well filled,
              for he gave them what they craved.

But they did not stop their craving,
    though the food was still in their mouths.
                                                (Psalm 78:29-30)

As a result they are afflicted by an infestation of poisonous snakes. But God commanded Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it up on a pole. If they looked at the pole, those who were perishing would live.

That is the story in Numbers. But, Jesus interprets the story allegorically as referring to himself as the “Son of Man” and what he accomplishes on the cross. What does that mean about Jesus, about us, and about God’s love?

The Hebrews in the wilderness are representative of the attitude of humanity in general. And of each one of us. It is our story. Are we not impatient with God and one another? An early church theologian, Ephrem the Syrian, suggested that impatience might be the sin that started it all. He wrote that God all along intended us to have a share in his divinity. But, Adam and Eve, at the suggestion of the Serpent, were impatient with God’s timing and seized the fruit the serpent promised would make them like God.

Are we not often ungrateful? Discontent with enough? And even more than enough? Are we not inclined to believe we are our own and that what we own is ours alone without regard for God and others? All that I have, moment by moment, I receive from God – whether I receive it gratefully or not. All creation and every person I encounter is the gift of God to be received with gratitude. But much of the time I turn my heart from God and from most others. I detest this miserable food.

Like Adam and Eve we listen to the Serpent in our impatience and ingratitude. We are ungrateful for the good things God has provided, always craving more – often enough at the expense of others and the rest of creation. And we are ungrateful for the gift of our neighbor and the stranger who just might be messengers to us from God. And, as with Israel, that turning of our hearts from God and others gives birth to the serpents of sin in our hearts, the poisonous serpents of our own impatience and ingratitude, our own envy and enmity, our own unlove. God loves us. But, our spiritual snakes make us unable to receive that love fully or mirror it back or reflect it adequately to one another. The serpents of our own hearts bite us and bite those around us. And we perish.

And worse, we have become addicted to the poison of our own serpents. Like an alcoholic, we are addicted to the very thing that causes us to perish. This might sound harsh, but that is because we take too lightly our own failure to attend to God and to one another, our failure to love, our lack of true generosity and hospitality. Our impatience and ingratitude. And when we turn our hearts from God, our hearts begin to breed the serpents of sin. And we perish.

Still worse, we are rather fond of our own nest of spiritual snakes and do not really believe they are snakes. We mistake their poison for an elixir of power. We both hate and love our snakes and are not sure we want to be rid of them. We cling to our suspicion of God and others, our resentments, our self-love, pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust. God loves us. But, we resent and fear the awesome love of God that would extract the snakes and poison we have come to love. And we perish.

As troubling as anything, Christianity teaches that we are unable to help ourselves. That is why hearing that “God loves us with no exceptions” isn’t enough. If I am trapped at the bottom of a pit full of rattle snakes, having someone shout from the top, “I love you,” isn’t all I need. Even if that one jumps into the pit with me to tell me how much I am loved, that only does me so much good. No, I need deliverance. I need someone who can extract the poison. I need an antidote. I need someone who will come into my heart and drive out the serpents like Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. We need God to “take away the serpents from us.” The serpents in the Numbers 21 are an outward and visible manifestation of our inward and spiritual impatience, ingratitude, and selfishness. But, in the story from Numbers, God provided a means of healing through the bronze serpent attached to a pole for the people to look upon and be healed. Jesus claims that, lifted up on the cross, he will be the means of the antidote to the spiritual poison that infects us all. God loves you. No Exceptions. But, God has not left it at that. In Jesus Christ, God has also acted for your healing and deliverance,

This is the heart of the Gospel, not, ‘God is Love’ – a precious truth, but affirming no divine act for our redemption. God so loved that he gave; of course the words indicate the cost to the Father’s heart. He gave; it was an act, not only a continuing mood of generosity, it was an act at a particular time and place.

Pieter Lastman

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so was the Son of Man lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” God has provided the means of our redemption, our deliverance, our healing, and our restoration. God does not love us and leave us as we are, beset by the serpents of our hearts. There is no period at the end of God's love. He has acted on our behalf to drive out the snakes and heal us of their venom.
Crux Est Mundi Medicina – the cross is the medicine of the world. “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4).

God loves you. No exceptions. But the really good news is, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Turn your heart to him and in trusting faith receive the gift of God and allow the Holy Spirit to deal with your snakes and their venom.

See also:

All You Need is Love – or Maybe Not

Saturday, May 5, 2018

All you need is love – or maybe not

“All you need is love, love; love is all you need.” So sang the Beatles. I saw a bumper-sticker once affirming a similar sentiment: “My religion is kindness.” My first thought upon seeing this was a twinge of guilt and sadness, because I took it to imply an indictment on Christianity which many have experienced as less than kind. But, Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” and “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The measure of our faithfulness to Jesus is loving others with love like his. And St. Paul affirms that love is kind. So, when people think of Christianity, they should immediately think, “Ah, yes, the religion of kindness.” That they don’t is a scandal.

But, upon a little more reflection, something else occurred to me regarding the bumper-sticker. “My religion is kindness” suggests that I need not be bothered by all the other trappings of religion – ideas about God, creeds, doctrines, prayer, worship, church, etc.  Love and kindness is all there is to it. But is it? It certainly is an attractive notion. But, is it that simple?

The Christian religion – the religion of love and kindness – asserts that the answer is ‘no’. Christians can affirm that the Beatles and bumper-sticker are definitely onto something. Our story is that the world was created out of God’s love and humans, created in the image of God, are created for love. And we do well to remind ourselves of that basic truth. Our fundamental rule of life is Jesus’ new commandment to love one another as he has loved us – serving one another self-sacrificially.

To be followers of Jesus – to be his disciples – means to pursue the disciplines of love, e.g., humility, kindness, gentleness, reverence, forgiveness, mercy, patience, hospitality, generosity, reconciliation, self-control. We need to take that much more seriously. The classic spiritual disciplines like prayer, worship, fasting, Sabbath, etc. are meant to open us to receiving more of God’s love and making us better channels of that love.

But that is only part of the story and insufficient by itself. Our problem is not simply that we need to know that love (or kindness) is the most important thing. If it was, then Jesus and the Church would be unnecessary. The Christian insight is that our problem is much deeper and more serious than that. Our problem is our inability to love rightly. Or even as well as we want.

We don’t know how to love as we ought. In her book about St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Dorothy Day wrote, “We want to grow in love but we do not know how. Love is a science, a knowledge, and we lack it.” We confuse other things with love – co-dependence, manipulation, conflict avoidance, being nice, or even being mean and calling it love. We sometimes define love in the framework of modern western individualism. We decide that some are worthy our kindness and love and others, not so much.

We do not just need to know that love, or kindness, is the point. We need to know what that means. That is why Jesus doesn’t just say, “love one another”. He defines love. In fact he declares himself the very definition of love. To know what love is, we look to Jesus. That means we need to make the effort to know Jesus and his way of love rather than how we might imagine him to be. By becoming familiar with the Gospels for starters.

And what is that way? It is not primarily about how we feel, though Jesus does demonstrate deep feeling toward others. Love is about desiring good for others. It is the way of self-sacrificial service. It is the way of forbearing, cheek-turning patience. It is love, not just of family, friends, political allies, fellow citizens or other Christians, but extends to all neighbors – and enemies. It is indiscriminate, profligate love like the love God demonstrates in the rain that falls on the good and the wicked alike. It is mercy. And our mercy is to be perfect as God is perfect.

I can pat myself on the back for being loving. But, if I look to Jesus as the definition of love, I know that where he has gone I have not gone. I And cannot go on my own.

And that is another part of our deep and serious problem. We know love is what we are supposed to be about. But we aren’t very good at it. We’re not good at the kind of love Jesus is about. But we’re not even very good at love by more mundane measures. If we were, the divorce rate would be much lower. We would all have wonderful, uncomplicated relationships with our parents and children and extended families. The church would not be divided.

Our love is skewed by our own fears, suspicions, and insecurities. Our love limps due to our own emotional wounds. We are masters of rationalization by which we excuse or deny our own failure to love. We convince ourselves that our words and actions are loving when those on the receiving end often experience them as less than loving. We are often selfish and self-absorbed. We are busy, distracted, inattentive, and indifferent. 

Most of us are aware of the painful realization that even our attempts to love those who are near and dear to us are so broken that we end up hurting one another. The Beatles sang, “All you need is love.” And then they broke up. As St. Paul famously wrote in Romans 7:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

Our religion is kindness – the love of Jesus is kindness and then some. But, we are, to one degree or another, failures at love. That is why I am glad one of the lines in the Apostles’ Creed is “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” (“We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” in the Nicene Creed). I need love. But, that is not all I need. I also need forgiveness for my failure to love. I need to be honest about that failure and repent. The assurance of forgiveness frees us to do that.

Jesus doesn’t just say love one another. Jesus doesn’t even stop at showing us what that means. Jesus bears all our unlove on the cross and makes a way for us to enter into the forgiveness of God who is love (1 John 4:8). Receiving that forgiveness does not just free us from the guilt we feel for our failure to love. It frees us to love better and more fully.

I need love. I also need freedom. I need to be set free from all that keeps me from loving. We need deliverance and healing because we are bound by our fears, insecurities, and all the emotional wounds that get in the way of our loving freely and fully. And it is freedom and healing that Jesus brings. Not all at once perhaps. Not without our participation. But, by the power of his Holy, healing, liberating Spirit he will work in our hearts to that end.

That transformation can begin now. But, it will not be complete until the End that we hear about in the Revelation to John when there is a new heaven and a new earth. The world is a mess. We are a mess. We are not very good at giving or receiving love. And the mess of the world is testimony to that. Our fractured or broken relations are testimony to that. The violence and destruction that is so much a part of the world is testimony to that.

Even more troubling, we know that while each of us loves in more or less broken ways, for some the ability to give and receive love is more profoundly broken – people suffering from personality disorders, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and other mental illnesses that will only experience partial healing this side of the kingdom. "All you need is love" and "My religion is kindness" are inadequate in light of such brokenness. Without the hope of healing, that is just sentimentalism. There are therapists who work to bring emotional and psychological healing. But, for many that healing will only be partial. Christians are still celebrating Easter and the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection is the first fruits, the down payment, on the promise that all creation will be healed, restored, transfigured, and renewed by and in his love.

And that is another reason why we need Jesus. We need the resurrection hope of healing and restoration.

“My religion is kindness” is a good start. But it is not enough.

“All you need is love” is a good start. But it is not enough. It is mot all we need.

We need Jesus.

We need to know what kindness and love look like. They look like Jesus.

We need forgiveness for our failure to love. Jesus cries out on our behalf, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

We need freedom from and healing of all those things in us that get in the way of and sabotage our being able to love as we desire to love. Jesus gives us his Holy Spirit to heal, liberate and empower us to love.

And we need hope that love triumphs in the end. Jesus’ resurrection is the assurance that we will all know resurrection and restoration.

That is the promise of Jesus. That is the promise of Christianity.

That is the promise of a faith that is kindness and love – and much, much more.

We are called to live into that promise.

We are called to live with love at the center. Jesus is at that center and he will enable us to grow in that love.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

See also: