I want to know what Love is…

Sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

Among scholars, the letter to the Ephesians is one of those biblical books that you either love or you hate. Certain commentators simply can’t get enough of it, suggesting that it is the paragon of epistles that articulates a soaring vision of what Church is called to be. Other interpreters are less complimentary, arguing that the text is overblown and lacks the apostolic clarity of other New Testament letters. If I’m honest, I tend to sympathize with this latter opinion. Ephesians is adjective-happy and sounds like it was written with a thesaurus at hand. Just listen to passage we heard this morning, which mentions both “the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” and “the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” Phrases like this lack authenticity: the letter seems to be written the way one is supposed to write, rather than with a clear voice. More significantly, at least from our perspective, the author of Ephesians makes an enormous assumption about the way we understand God when he refers to Jesus Christ as “the Beloved.” This is not language we are accustomed to these days. Many of us would probably hesitate to refer to our spouses as “the Beloved,” at least in public. Calling someone “the Beloved” means that person is worthy of our love. But frankly, the concept of love has been so thoroughly sentimentalized that the notion of loving God feels downright foreign. So, what does it mean to love God?

One of the reasons the concept of love can be hard to grasp is that our culture tends to equate “love” with “affection.” Love is a romantic gesture, a tender hug, or a pledge of fidelity. It’s a little strange to apply this notion of what love is to our relationship with God (“giving God a hug” is kind of a bizarre image). In reality, however, love has less to do with affection and more to do with the way we order experience of the world. If we love someone, we have made room for them in our lives. Generally, we will not make room for another person in our lives for very long unless we believe they have also made room for us. The same is true of our love for God. Loving God with our whole heart, mind, and strength means that we have devoted time and space within our lives to our relationship with God. Significantly, loving God also requires us to believe that God loves us. This, of course, invites us to wonder what this means. What does it mean to believe that God loves us? This, as it turns out, is a more complicated question.

Last week, I was stopped at a light in North Philadelphia with my windows down. There was a guy going from car to car asking drivers if they could help him out. When he got to me, he asked if I had any food, and I told him, “No,” but that I could give him a couple of bucks. As I handed him the cash, he noticed my clerical collar and said, “Next time, I’ll ask you about my salvation.” I wasn’t quite prepared for this, but managed to say, “God loves you very much,” before the light turned green. He glanced at the crumpled bills in his hand, announced, “I believe that now,” and walked to the next car. Apparently, that’s all it took. All he needed was two dollars to believe that God loved him. As absurd as this statement was, however, I suspect that few of us have given significantly more thought to what it means for God to love us. We tend to take the fact that God loves us for granted, which is surely one of the reasons it was the first thing I thought to say to this guy. But the reality is that believing God loves us demands that we adopt certain perspective on the world, a perspective we are not usually inclined to engage. Invariably, when we talk about the love of God, the word “unconditional” comes up. God loves us without condition. This is one of the articles of faith that is dearest to us. It is difficult to appreciate the nature of “unconditional love” without first reflecting on what conditions there could be. The passage from Ephesians we heard this morning implies that the fruit of God’s love is the “forgiveness of our tresspasses.” In another place, Paul makes the connection between forgiveness and love explicit when he writes when he writes, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Indeed, this may be the central assumption of the Christian faith: God loves us despite our sins. Appreciating the love of God, in other words, requires us to recognize our sinful nature. Here’s the thing, though: do we really believe that we are sinners?

For the most part, sin feels like an outdated and outmoded concept that has little to do with the way we live today. The idea that we should be concerned about violating some abstract code of behavior is almost insulting. After all, when you get down to it, most people are good. Most people are just trying to get through life and do what makes them happy without hurting anybody. And yet, we know from experience that, despite our best efforts to make sure that no one is hurt by our actions, we frequently benefit, directly or indirectly, from activities that cause others pain. Now, we could dismiss this realization and argue that it’s not our fault, but this doesn’t prevent wrong from being done. We could try to boycott every system that causes people pain, but we would quickly find ourselves with few, if any, places to engage. The more one thinks about it, the more paralyzed one feels. This, ultimately, is what sin is. Sin is the fact that, no matter how hard we try, we are complicit in a widespread failure to honor God’s creation. At baptism, we renounce the sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. Before we can renounce them, however, we have to acknowledge they exist. We have to acknowledge that we are in thrall to forces that are beyond our control or our comprehension, that there are moments when, despite our best intentions, we corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. But here is the gospel: even though we have all sinned and have all fallen short of the glory of God, God loves us anyway.

A love like this invites a response. When we both apprehend the magnitude and the inevitability of sin and understand that God loves us despite that sin, then calling God “the Beloved” no longer seems like such a stretch. Moreover, the recognition that we are all sinners increases our capacity for compassion. It is much harder to condemn others for their misdeeds when we appreciate our own susceptibility to sin. Ultimately, this is what it means to love God: to make room in our lives, not only for God, but for those other sinners whom God loves.

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