Monday, June 16, 2008

A: Proper 6 (15 June 2008)

Romans 5:6-11

A full moon rises over the ocean on a balmy starlit night. Waves roll gently onto a deserted beach—nearly deserted, that is. A young couple walk hand-in-hand, barefoot, along the sand. Their feelings are enhanced by the beauty of their surroundings, but they are scarcely even aware of where they are, because they’re totally focused on one another. They stop, look deeply into each other’s eyes, and indulge themselves in a long and lazy kiss. They each whisper to the other those three words hallowed by centuries of human usage, “I love you."

I love you.

What will become of these two young lovers? That’s anybody’s guess. Will they whisper the same words to each other fifty or sixty years later as they look back on a lifetime of devotion and commitment? Is this the very first time either of them has spoken these magical words, or is it the second or third or tenth or twentieth time? Is this the last person each of them will utter these words to, or will there be one or two or a dozen others before settling on “the one”? What is the sign of their love? Is it merely a kiss, and the utterance of words? Or will it be manifested by the submission of each one’s needs and wants to the needs and wants of the other? What is the measure of their love? Will love persist only as long as the attractiveness of youth persists? Will they love each other only as long as there is strength of emotion, as long as love is returned—in other words, as long as it’s easy to love? Or will it still be there in the hard times, when the flame of feeling seems to flicker, when the other one doesn’t love back with the same intensity, when love is tested by poverty or disease?

What are the signs and what is the measure of their love? Do you really love me? How much do you love me? Will you always love me? What will you do to show that you love me? These are the questions that we are vitally interested in. We ask them directly and indirectly, consciously and sub-consciously, verbally and nonverbally, countless times in the course of our lives. We ask them of our parents. We ask them of our siblings and friends. We ask them of our children. But most of all, ultimately, we ask them of God. After all, that's the bottom line, isn't it? If God doesn't love us, it doesn’t make all that much difference whether anyone else does.

Fortunately, for those of us who hunger after God’s love, the religious climate that we live in tries very hard to give us what we’re looking for. Unlike other times in the Church’s history, when the judgment and the wrath of God were proclaimed from the pulpits of all Christendom, we live today in an era of “God loves you.” In fact, this is so much the case that the very meaning of God’s love seems to be devalued, robbed of any deep significance. It has become, for many, a sentimental platitude. God loves me—that's great. But I still yearn to know, what is the sign of God’s love for me, and I want to know, what is the measure of his love? We all want to be assured that he loves us, and, preferably, that he loves us a whole lot!

So ... just what is our basis for affirming that God loves us? What are the signs of that love? And what basis do we have for believing that God’s love is more than just a passing affection? How do we know that the measure of God’s love is as deep and broad and powerful as we need it to be? Some would suggest ... that it’s merely self-evident. Look at the world, look at the universe, and you will find the sign of God’s love. Why would a supreme being bother with a race of creatures that is so outstandingly unique with respect to its environment if it were not out of sheer love ? It seems to exceed the limits of credibility to conceive of a God who would waste so much effort in the creation of humankind, for that act of creation to not be motivated by and followed by love. It would be like Leonardo da Vinci not caring about the Mona Lisa or Beethoven feeling indifferent toward his Ninth Symphony.

Of course, the reply to this line of reasoning is equally self evident: Would a God who loves his creatures allow them to be subject to earthquakes and floods and tornadoes and cancer and drunk drivers and all the other causes of human suffering? No ... it simply won't do to say that it’s just intuitively apparent that God loves us. The world around us can be construed as a sign of God’s indifference or his active animosity just as easily as it can be construed as a sign of his love.

If one is inclined to dabble in theology, and also is blessed with a logical mind, one could reason like this: The Bible says that God created humankind in his own image—in others words, in some spiritual way, we look like God. In this sense, we are all his children, and we all know that parents find their offspring irresistibly attractive, impossible not to love. How can you not love your own baby—if nothing else, it’s a moral obligation. Well, the problem is, most people are not inclined to dabble in theology or don’t know or couldn’t care less what the Bible says, and have known too many instances of parents who really don’t love their children, and I’m not just talking about guppies who eat their babies. In short, it is not a logical necessity that human beings are irresistibly attractive to God. Our being made in the image of God is not a sure sign of God’s love for us, much less that he loves us a lot.

Another direction from which to attack the problem might be this: God is by definition “good”, he’s not only a deity, but a benevolent deity—otherwise, he’s not God at all, but some form of devil. Now this one, it seems, has possibilities. The very notion of God is a sign that God loves us. So we have, possibly, a sign, that God loves us. But—I’m afraid it’s time to rain on the parade once again—is mere benevolence what we're looking for? Does it scratch us where we itch? Are our deepest longings satisfied by a God who merely likes us, who is amused by us? I certainly hope that the dog and the cat that live in my house don’t take the fact that I occasionally think they’re cute, that I sometimes find them amusing, as a sign of my profound love for them!

My friends, we could go on all day speculating about the sign and the measure of God’s love for us. Fortunately, we don’t have to. In the eighth verse of the fifth chapter of St Paul’s epistle to the Romans, we are told that “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

While we were yet sinners ... Christ died for us.

The sign of God’s love for us is not that it is intuitively self-evident, not that God is obligated to love us because we are made in his image, but that Jesus Christ, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, born in Bethlehem of Judaea of the flesh of the Virgin Mary his mother, true God and true man, allowed himself to be put to death on a hill outside the city of Jerusalem for you and for me and for every other man, woman, and child who has ever walked or crawled on the face of the earth. The sign of God’s love for us is not abstract or conceptual, but is as tangible as a corpse, as concrete as a crucifix. We need not agonize or speculate—we need only look into the face of the Crucified One to see the sure sign of divine love.

And as to the measure of that love—how deep and broad and full it is—we need only reflect on the fact that Christ’s death took place while we were yet sinners. St Paul tells us, in verse six of our epistle from the fifth chapter of Romans, that “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” There are indeed people and causes worth dying for. People quite frequently are willing to sacrifice their lives for something they consider to be of surpassing worth. But Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, while we were still weak, while we were alienated and estranged from God. Most of us have had the experience from time to time of trying to love somebody who is not inclined, for whatever reason, to love us back, or even to show gratitude for what we’re trying to do. At times we try to love somebody in the face of outright resistance or hostility. It's hard, isn’t it? Many times the emotional price is simply too high to pay and we back off just in order to maintain our own sanity. It takes an extraordinary outpouring of divine grace, I’m convinced, to persist in loving someone in the face of such adverse circumstances.

This is precisely the situation—only magnified an infinite number of times—in which God approaches humankind with his love. Herein lies the yardstick which allows us to measure God s love. Not only are we not cute or irresistibly attractive in God’s sight, but it is painful for God to even look on us, because he’s holy and we’re sinners. We have, like the Prodigal Son, squandered our inheritance as God’s children, and radically alienated ourselves from him. Yet, God demonstrates the measure of his love for us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Indeed, God probably doesn’t always like us, and he may not even ever find us amusing—I don’t know—but we can rest assured that he loves us more than we could ever ask or imagine. St Paul continues: “If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” This is our hope—with so much of an investment in us—the incalculable investment of Jesus dying on the cross—God is not about to spare any effort in bringing to completion the work that he has begun in each of us. The God who loved us enough to send his only Son to die for us while we were yet sinners, is surely going to persist in loving us until we are once again lovable, until the sin has been eradicated and the image of God restored. This is the work of growth in holiness, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, that each of us is engaged in, allowing the full measure of God’s love to be showered upon us.

“I love you," God says. But those are not mere empty words, vague sentiment, or the feelings of a moment. It is a concrete promise of boundless depth, signified and commended to us by nothing other than the death of Christ for us, while we were yet sinners. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

1 comment:

The Underground Pewster said...

Thank you for using the reading from Paul as the foundation of your sermon. When I heard the reading on Sunday, I had the feeling that we at our church could have heard more about God's love and sacrifice, but instead we took another track and focused on Matthew 9 “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” I like your approach better.