But recently I just don’t feel like talking. It’s like the words just aren’t there. Yes, even Jesus gave us a prayer to help us in times like this. The Lord’s Prayer is a good, corporate prayer that focuses on the basics of life...God, Food, Forgiveness, Protection.
But sometimes it’s not enough to get me to that place where I need to be. That place where all my secrets, anxieties, fears and pains hide. The place where I need God the most. It’s in these times, that I turn to the Psalms.
I had a great professor in seminary who said, “If we want to learn to express ourselves before God in praise and prayer, there is no better place in the Bible than the Psalms. They don’t teach us how to worship, they show us how.”
If you are not familiar with the psalms, they are these poetic songs and prayers found in the Old Testament. There are exactly 150 that cover a wide spectrum of emotions and situations you might be facing today.
But best of all, I've discovered the psalms give us a language that’s authentic and real. Whether they’re psalms of praise or protest, each one reveals God’s greatness while providing us with a way to express ourselves to God honestly.
So, when I found myself lacking the words to pray this week, I sat down with this psalm...Psalm 25. I read the verses slowly until a particular word or phrase spoke to my heart. And freed me to speak to God’s heart.
READ: Psalm 25:1-10
watch the message here
Suffice it to say, Psalm 25 is an unusual beast. It’s one of three alphabet psalms, meaning each verse begins with the successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Now these are difficult psalms to write. As you might have noticed, they often lack any clear, logical structure. By comparison to others, this one’s all over the place – much like my thoughts when I try to pray.
But here’s the thing. Personal prayers often lack structure. They are more stream of consciousness versus a set pattern. That’s what makes them uniquely yours.
There’s a good example of this in the movie The Apostle, starring Robert Duval who plays Sonny Dewey, a womanizing Pentecostal preacher with a violent temper. Having lost his wife and his church, Sonny’s life spins out of control. There’s a great scene in the film where he’s pacing the floor of his attic and what might seem to some like the ramblings of a madman, Sonny shouts out this prayer:
Like most of us Sonny has a complex relationship with God, but his prayers are always full of honesty and raw emotion. Even though they are scripted, his words feel real because he speaks to God through his fears, anxieties and hope. The very essence of Psalm 25. Despite it being all over the place, this psalm, like all the others, give us a hope-filled language to speak from our heart, whether it’s in joy or in pain.
Now this particular psalm as a lament – a passionate complaint or cry for help. When read in its entirety, Psalm 25 plumbs the depths of loneliness and affliction. It then swerves upward in praise of God before descending into fear again. Heck, it even tries to manipulate God into forgetting any past wrongdoings. Imagine having permission to change God’s mind. Like a child trying to get out of trouble by making stuff up to see what sticks, Psalm 25 meanders all over the place as if the writer knew everything sticks with God.
You see, God doesn’t care what we say or how we say it. God just wants us to show up and start talking. God is relational, always there for us. And even gives us a language to use for whatever we are feeling in that moment.
I believe that’s why God gave us laments, so we can have a way to talk to God when we’re mad and pissed off. And to do so without feeling guilty or ashamed. Walter Brueggemann made the commented that “it’s an act of profound faith to entrust one’s most precious hatreds to God, knowing they will be taken seriously.”
Whether it’s prayer or praise or just an avenue to voice your anger, the psalms free us to relate to God as real people. We can go to the extremes. Be vulnerable and authentic, knowing and believing God is big enough to handle our pain and suffering.
Given what we’re going through today, we need psalms like this. Psalms that say, “I’m mad at you God” or “Where are you Lord? Don’t leave me hanging out on a limb for you.”
Maybe you’re like Sonny. Maybe your life is unraveling, and you don’t know what to do. If so, then psalm is for you.
Maybe your life isn’t as dramatic as that, but maybe you’ve hit a wall with your faith or lost direction of your life’s purpose. If so, this psalm is for you.
Maybe something happened a long time ago that has left you feeling alone, ashamed, or afraid. Perhaps some underlying anger or deep resentment that is causing you to react in a way that is well, not very Christ-like. If so, then this psalm is for you. It's been given to you by God for this purpose – to draw you closer to the very source of life so you can find your peace and salvation.
But as you leave today, remember this: When you’re hurting inside because someone hurt you or you hurt someone there’s a psalm to calm our pain. And to give you a voice to forgive.
When the racial injustice in our country has caused our cities to erupt in violence and your temper to boil over there’s a psalm to calm our rage and to lead you to righteousness.
When you’re suffering from the emotional, physical and spiritual pain caused by this pandemic, there’s a psalm to calm you fears and anxieties that draw you closer to God’s healing love.
When the ugliness of our human condition causes you to clinch your fist and scream there is a way to say to God exactly how you feel.
Trust me, there’s nothing you can say that God hasn’t heard before. When you’re feeling directionless, or even faithless, the psalms lead us back to the open arms of God who is mindful of our needs and merciful in love, always generous with grace.
Ours is a God who is always looking out for us. Who always knows where we are and what we’re feeling, because this God is always with us, always beside us, in us, and all around us just waiting for us to show up.
So, let me say it one last time. No matter what you’re feeling or what challenges you are facing right now, God is here inviting you to seek salvation from the ugliness of the world. You don’t need the perfect prayer or even the perfect words.
Nothing is required for you to show up. Just show up. As you are. In whatever mood you’re in. Speaking whatever language you need to get your point across.
God can handle it. Dare I say, God even loves it. Why? Because you trusted God with your most intimate and most vulnerable self. I can’t think of a better way to pray or more holy act than that.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word Year A Vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011 pp. 104-109.
Distorting the facts, or simply making them up for your advantage, has become the norm since then. Now more than ever people, and especially politicians, are almost cavalier about it. Ironically there are millions of Christians who believe this is okay. It’s as if the truth no longer matters.
Come November 3rd we can pretty much guess 48% of our country will vote Democrat, and 48% will vote Republican. If my math is correct, the fate of our country rests in the hands of roughly 4% of the population. To think that a small minority can have such an enormous impact on our lives.
If you find this information alarming, consider this – the entire mission of the church was entrusted to only a few, unqualified people. I believe that when Jesus handed his disciples the keys to the Kingdom, he did so knowing God would be doing all the heavy lifting. All they had to do was trust and remain faithful to God’s Word. For better or worse, that’s exactly what they did.
Today, despite of who we are and what we’ve become, God continues to put his faith in you and me – entrusting us to care of one another. How we vote will say something about our faith...about who and what truly matters in our lives.
This is not me being political. It’s me reminding anyone who dares to take the name of Christ, must also take the cross of Christ and continue his ministry and mission of living the gospel out into the world...by living in the will of God.
Today’s reading isn’t part of this week’s lectionary. It was chosen because it seemed to be the perfect conclusion to a theme that had unexpectedly emerged over the last month or so. It is also the conclusion of John’s gospel that tells a symbolic story of Jesus, after his resurrection, visiting his disciples for the last time to make sure they know their calling in life. (John 21:1-217)
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. - John 21:15-17
I love this story on so many levels. It’s profound, it’s personal, it’s intimate and inviting. It’s daybreak, my favorite time. It’s quiet and calm, the world seems settled and manageable.
It’s a time also when Jesus goes to the beach to have breakfast with his disciples for the last time. Having grown up on a beach, I imagine the water is glassy and still, and the morning mist gives it an eerie calm. A light chill sneaks around in the silent breeze. Along the shoreline you can almost hear a slow, melodic heartbeat; the rhythm of small waves lapping upon the rocks and shells.
I imagine Jesus standing there barefoot. And why not? Walking on sand in sandals is no easy task. With the damp sand squishing between his toes, the resurrected One calls out to his disciples who are fishing about 100 yards offshore. When Peter notices it’s Jesus who is calling out to them, he immediately jumps overboard and rushes towards his friend. Thankfully the others are a little more sensible taking the boat full of fish with them to shore.
Peter is always in a hurry, isn’t he? It’s so like him. And very much like us today. It seems like we’re always rushing here and there with little regard to what’s going on around us. The problem with rushing through this story is we might miss the wonderful subtleties and profound symbolism that offer insight to the ways God works in our lives today.
For example, notice what Jesus is doing. He’s waiting; sitting on the beach for his disciples to come home from work, which by the way isn’t going so well. So, Jesus intervenes; helping them out by nudging them in the right direction.
What does this say to you about how Jesus works in your life? Here’s what I think. Jesus is waiting for me; watching over me as I go about my day. While he waits, he guides me and helps me navigate the work he has called me to do.
And so the first thing we learn is in Christ God is intentionally present in our lives; not just waiting for us, but working and caring for our success.
Next, while Jesus waits and watches over them, he is also preparing a fire for his friends’ breakfast.
This task might seem mundane. But in scripture, fire is highly symbolic. You might recall it was a pillar of fire that led the children of Israel through the wilderness, and tongues of fire that leapt from the mouths of the disciple on the day of Pentecost. Fire is the symbol of the presence of the Holy Spirit. So it says something about Jesus’ presence on the beach.
Also, John tells us this is a particular kind of fire. It’s not one made with pieces of driftwood but with charcoal – something you don’t just find charcoal lying around a damp beach in the morning. At that hour, I can’t imagine there were venders out there selling any. No, Jesus had to provide the materials himself. He had to carry the dirty, bulky load with his own hands. This tells me what Jesus is willing to do for us.
Now there are only two places in the New Testament where we find a charcoal fire. Believe it or not, both are in John’s gospel.
The first time is on the night Jesus is taken into custody. While warming himself around a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the high priest, Peter will deny knowing Jesus three times. The second time we see a charcoal fire is here on the beach, where Jesus redeems Peter three times for his betrayal. So, first we see that in Christ God is intentionally present in our lives, and next we see that God carries our burdens and redeems those who seek forgiveness.
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The next clues might seem obvious. They are the fish and bread being prepared by the fire. We’ve seen this pair before when Jesus feeds the hungry crowds. It was there by the seaside that thousands of people gathered to hear Jesus speak and only one small boy was bright enough to bring something to snack on – a few small fish and a couple loaves of bread.
Now that we have one kid away in college, that measly meal might feed my family. But 5,000? Leave it up to Jesus to do the impossible – being able to take those ingredients and distribute them to everyone so that no one would leave hungry.
Another interesting thing about this beach breakfast is Jesus doesn’t feed them his fish. Instead he instructs his disciples to get theirs. Did Jesus not prepare enough for everyone? Maybe he wants to see the results of their labor? After all, he has called them to be fishers of people.
Again, Peter is quick to respond. He runs to the net and hauls the bounty across the sand by himself. For all of you Cross-Fitters out there let me see you add that to your routine. Despite the abundance of fish in their bounty, 153 to be exact, the net did not break.
This tells me that in Christ God is intentionally present, carrying our burdens always ready to redeem us and has faithfully equipped us so that we can do the work he has called us to do.
Lastly, there is the beautiful symbolism of the bread. Like fire, bread has a rich history in Israel’s past too. From their exodus out of Egypt to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness to the Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples on the night that he was given over to his death, bread always symbolizes something greater than physical food.
It represents God’s Word. As it is written, “People do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” The Word of God is the Bread of Life. In the beginning of John’s gospel, Jesus is described as the perfect embodiment of God’s Word.
Whenever we see Jesus and bread together, we know we are being called to a heavenly feast were God’s words nourishes us and instructs us to do our job that is to love and serve God and one another. Today in the church, this meal has many names: the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. Whatever you call it, the meaning’s the same. That God is calling us to the table of blessing.
At this Holy Feast, we are reminded that Jesus is the bread that is broken for all who seek to feast on God’s abundant life and salvation.
Through Jesus, God is intentionally present in our life, always ready to redeem us, equip us, and feed us along the way. Whatever your need is — relational, spiritual, physical, or emotional, — God is waiting for you, ready to take care of you.
God’s redeeming love transcends all our human brokenness and sin. It frees us from all our burdens and fills us with all life. God calls you and frees you for a purpose, a calling, which is to carry the bread of life out into the world where love is so desperately needed.
While we see in the final verses Jesus redeeming Peter for his denial, we also see our own redemption and calling. Jesus asks his beloved friends, “Do you love me?” And Peter is quick to respond. In fact, he even gets a little annoyed that Jesus keeps asking him the same question over and over again.
There is something to be said about that repetitiveness, beyond the symbol of redemption. It’s not that Jesus needs to know if we love him. Instead he wants to make sure we know what we are to do with that love.
“If you love me,” Jesus said, “then feed my lambs and tend to my sheep.”
This is the most honest and honorable political act that still rings true today. This is our calling.
Watch over one another. Redeem and forgive each other. Equip and feed and care for those who are not able to do for themselves.
Do not be a wolf in sheep clothing, deceiving people for your advantage.
But instead be the bread of life that welcomes anyone and everyone to the heavenly banquet where God has prepared a place for you and me.
*This is a modified version of a sermon I preached on October 3, 2016 at First Congregational Church, Greenville, Michigan.
Last week I read a quote from Henri Nouwen who said, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. And we all love poorly.” Which is why we need forgiving in the first place.
If we want to love, truly love like Jesus did, then we will have to forgive those who have hurt and harmed us – whether it’s big or small – we have to make amends in order to truly live into the love from which we are created. When asked by his disciples Jesus said this about forgiveness. It’s found in the gospel of Matthew 18:21-22.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
That’s a lot isn’t it? I mean, seven times seems like enough to let someone off the hook...but seventy-seven times? Really? To borrow from George Bush this seems like “fuzzy math.” The numbers don’t add up. At least not like we want them to.
Now I’ve never been particularly good at math. But then again, I’m not particularly good at forgiveness. I understand the basics, but when I try to work it out in life, it does my head in. I’ve learned that’s not uncommon for most folks. Because we don’t take forgiveness to heart. It’s not our go to action when someone wrongs us.
Now, I picture Peter stretching out his arms and asking, “Lord, should I forgive people this much?” And Jesus shakes his head. You see, Jesus knew the ancient rabbinic tradition that says you should forgive the one who sinned against you as many as four times.
Leave it up to Peter to try to impress his teacher by one upping the other rabbis. And leave it up to Jesus to turn what we know upside down. He tells Peter, “Seven is good. But it’s better to forgive seventy-seven times.” I’m sure even back then that a little overkill.
New Testament scholars will debate whether the Greek text translates it as “seventy-seven times” or “seventy times seven times.” Either way, Jesus gives us an enormous number; one so big that we can’t begin to calculate it. I suspect that’s the point.
Forgiveness isn’t absolute like math. There is no perfect set amount because each act of forgiveness has its own set of problems and calculations.
Peter wants a hard number. But Jesus just wants him to forgive more than he can imagine so much that it becomes second nature. Think about that. What emotional reactions are second nature to you? How fast are you to forgive someone for something we are all guilty of doing?
Now, what do we know about forgiveness, other than it’s so hard to do? We know it’s good for our health and wellbeing in that it frees us from carrying the burden of guilt, anger and resentment. Such actions rarely ever lead to anything good.
True forgiveness is a self-healing process that starts with you and gradually extends to everyone else. The bible tells us that when Jesus healed people, forgiveness was often attached to their healing. Divine, spiritual healing transforms us from the inside out.
We also know Jesus instructed us to pray for forgiveness like we do for our daily bread. It’s as if he wants us to always remind ourselves how important forgiveness is to nourish our souls. And so we are taught to pray, “Lord forgive my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.”
Here’s the problem with that prayer. We’re all in for God forgiving us. But heaven forbid we should extend the same grace to others; especially to those who have wounded us beyond repair. And yet Jesus said, you aren’t only to forgive them, but to do so with some ridiculous amount. It’s the only way we can truly heal from our brokenness.
You see, the number seventy signifies spiritual perfection. Like with any spiritual practice, the more we do it, the more it becomes habitual or a part of who we are; as natural as our own heartbeat. It’s no surprise that every major religion regards forgiveness as a vital emotional and spiritual practice.
But here’s the thing, Jesus doesn’t give us any specific guidelines other than you are to make the deliberate decision to let go of your feelings of anger, resentment, and retribution towards any person you believe has wronged you.
Take, for example, the story ofLouis Zamperini, the subject of the best-selling book Unbroken. Zamperini spent over two years in a Japanese POW camp during WWII being beaten and tortured in the most unforgivable ways. After spending decades trying to numb the pain with substance abuse and other means, Zamperini realized the only way to be truly free would be to forgive the man responsible for his pain. And that’s just what he did.
And then there’s the story of Dylann Roof. You might remember he’s the white supremacist who murdered nine black lives during a bible study inside an historic church in Charleston, South Carolina. Two days after the horrific and very calculated murders, five family members went to his bond hearing and chose to offer Roof their forgiveness.
While the rage and anger was still boiling around them, these five deeply wounded people chose to follow Christ’s example. They knew it was the only way their families and community could heal from the pain that one man caused because of his racist beliefs. By forgiving him of this horror, they reclaimed their freedom from the chains of deep seeded hatred that had shackled them for far too long.
As research suggests, holding on to any kind of pain or resentment does nothing more than eat you up inside. Desmon Tutu likens the unforgiving heart to someone taking poison hoping for the other person to die. That doesn’t add up.
Let me ask you this, how often have you thought, “How many times do I let this person hurt me before I cut my losses and go?” One? Seven? Seventy times seven? Jesus pretty much said, “As long as it takes to love that person again.”
Jesus isn’t telling us to condone the behavior or continue in an unhealthy relationship. He just says forgive them as much as it takes to love them.
In the following verses (Matthew 18:23-35) Jesus tells his disciples a parable, a story about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. And again, the numbers don’t add up if only because the numbers can’t be added up.
The story is about a guy who owes the king ten thousand talents. Now, a single talent was more than 15 years’ worth of wages. Take all the money you’ve made in the last 15 years and multiply it by 10,000. It’s a ridiculous amount of money for anyone to borrow, just as it is to pay off when the debt is called in.
When the king threatens him, the man drops to his knees and begs for mercy. And the king, knowing the impossibility of repayment, forgives the man of his debt, every last cent. As a result the king sets the man free. What kind of king does that? A king who loves you no matter what.
We are in the process of refinancing our home. I can’t tell you how happy I’d be if the bank just decided to forgive our debt completely. But that isn’t going to happen. It doesn’t work that way in a capitalist economy. The money you owe will be paid one way or another.
But it’s different in God’s economy. There is no paying back, because it would be impossible to do so. It’s called grace. We don’t earn it any more than we can buy it. It’s given freely through Christ to anyone who wants it.
Thus C.S. Lewis said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
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Maybe there is someone in your life that you need to forgive. Maybe you have a friend who hurt you with something she said or did that has made you angry.
Maybe someone close to you that has wounded you so dearly that the very idea of facing him, muchless offering forgiveness, sickens you.
Maybe it wasn’t one big thing that someone did, but hundreds of tiny annoying things that have been building up like a cancerous wall inside you.
Maybe the person who needs forgiving is you. Maybe you have cause harm or done something that is eating you up inside.
If so, I hope that you hear this. We are not perfect beings. Show yourself some grace. Free yourself from any guilt or shame or hurtful judgments that are keeping you from becoming your best self.
Lewis Smede said it best, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” It might take one time or seventy-seven times before you realize that in Christ, God has already forgiven you.
When you ask for it, you receive it. There are no catchers or conditions attached. There is no quid-pro-quo when it comes to receiving God’s grace. That’s how love works in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus simplifies the entire mathematical equation down to this – Forgive one another as God has forgiven you.
It’s the same equation for love. As in love one another as God loves you.
It’s the same fuzzy math that applies to everything in our lives. Heal one another, feed one another, care for each other, do to one another as God does for you.
And so, as you leave here today, I invite you to open your heart and receive the power of God’s grace. Then go out into the world to be the healer, the lover, the forgiver that Jesus made you to be.
The forgiveness that we are to pass on to others is the forgiveness we have in union with Christ.
Which is why we need to practice it daily, until it becomes second nature. Like breathing - and like love. Amen.
Excerpts from an original sermon Immeasurable Forgiveness September 16, 2017.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 68-73.
Pagano, Joseph S. Forgiveness. September 7, 2020. https://episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/forgiveness-pentecost-15-september-13-2020 (accessed September 11, 2020).
West, Cindi. Forgive Someone Seventy Times Seven. July 1, 2019. https://devotableapp.com/daily-devotion-forgive-someone-seventy-times-seven/ (accessed September 11, 2020).
When I speak of love, especially the Divine Love Of God, I often hear the inner voice inside my head cackle. My inner sarcasm is triggered and my ego tries to bully its way above the noise. In other words, there are times I want to believe what I read but I have trouble doing so. Is this lack of faith? Or just the reality of living in this noisy, bombastic and apathetic world?
In these moments I feel myself getting beat up by myself. And that loud ego inside me punches the real me harder than the real me can punch back. Flat-faced on the floor, I want to give up and sink into the carpet.
But there’s another voice inside my head. One that is much like the had been boxing Micky, played by Burgess Merideth in the 1976 blockbuster film Rocky. I picture his soul-piercing stare and hear his raspy voice barking at the fallen underdog to “Get up, you son of a bitch, Mickey loves ya!”
Occasionally someone else’s words are spoken that encourage me to lift my battered body and swing back. More often than not, that ringside coach (as if this hasn’t been made clear from the numerous post that quote him) is Richard Rohr, the Franciscan brother and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation. In a recent meditation he wrote these encouraging words on the power of God’s divine love:
“Love is the only thing that transforms the human heart. In the Gospels, we see Jesus fully revealing this divine wisdom. Love takes the shape and symbolism of healing and radical forgiveness—which is just about all that Jesus does. Jesus, who represents God, usually transforms people at the moments when they most hate themselves, when they most feel shame or guilt, or want to punish themselves. Look at Jesus’ interaction with the tax collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10). He doesn’t belittle or punish Zacchaeus; instead, Jesus goes to his home, shares a meal with him, and treats him like a friend. Zacchaeus’ heart is opened and transformed. Only then does Zacchaeus commit to making reparations for the harm he has done.”
Rohr reminds me that Jesus is the one who, like Mickey, is by our ringside - always ready with a stool for our wobbly legs and bottle of water to quench our thirst. Jesus is the one pushing the sponge into the bucket of ice water to bath and soothe our wounds. Just as Jesus stitches our bleeding eyebrow, Jesus whispers encouragement in his words of love.
Jesus doesn’t give up on us. He stands in our corner and empowers us, believes in us, and loves us through the toughest of fights...the ones we have with ourselves. He meets us where we are and gives us what we need in that moment to get up off the mat and continue with our mission (to love God and neighbor). All the while, showing us how we can forgive or love or care for ourselves.
Above is a quote from Mickey to Rocky. But today I invite you to read it about yourself. Imagine your true self saying this in your head, And do me a favor, make it louder than the voices that want you to stay down.
Adapted from Richard Rohr: Essential Teachings on Love, ed. Joelle Chase and Judy Traeger (Orbis Books: 2018), 78–79.
Love is a temple. Love is the higher law..." ~ from the song One, by U2
Before he was Paul, he was Saul – a pious man obsessed with upholding the law. In the Acts of the Apostles it’s written “Saul was destroying the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women and imprisoning them” (Acts 8:3). But then something happened to Saul that changed his heart and point of view. He was blindsided by Christ, the Spirit of God’s love (Acts 9:1-22).
Like what happened to Peter, it was such a profound event that it called for a re-naming. He went from being Saul – a law and order kind of guy – to being called Paul, an unapologetic proponent to the Way of Christ. A way, as Paul will write, that is defined by practicing divine love. In his profound letter to the Roman churches, Paul writes:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10, NRSV)
In three verses Paul, sums up the entire ethical teachings of Torah law. An ethic that Jesus himself not only embraced and taught but commanded his followers to uphold no matter what. That ethic, and commandment, is love.
Christian mystics say love has two feet: love of God and love of neighbor. You don’t need to love God first in order to love your neighbor. The two are inseparable because in Christ God has become the neighbor. And of course, Jesus defined neighbor as anyone we interact with.
If you are a regular of this church, then you know that love will always be woven into whatever theme or scripture we are studying. The reason for that is simple. Jesus said love is the one thing that sets Christians apart from the world. It is the singular mark of discipleship. While there are many ways to show love, there is only one way to define it – by practicing it.
Christlike love is more than a feeling or a matter of the heart. It’s the kind of love makes sacrifices for the other, caring for his or her interests above your own. To Paul’s point, we fulfill the law by acting in love - be it towards our families, our enemies, our friends, the clerk in the convenience store, or the homeless vet holding up a sign at the freeway off-ramp. Love is the law that shows us how to care for the other through just and fair practices.
For most parents, it’s easy to love their own children (most of the time) and to show that love by taking care of their needs. But those same loving parents might have trouble helping a single parent who can’t afford to feed her own child. Or they might have some reserve about having their tax dollars spent to make sure that child has healthcare.
This is where heaven and earth remain apart - at the intersection where law and love meet. The two might stop and recognize each other but then they turn and go in different directions. The way I see it, God didn’t take on human flesh so we could be separated from God’s will. No, God came to us so we could be united in God’s love and change the direction of our lives accordingly.
The incarnation wasn’t a one-time event. It happens day after day – minute by minute, second by second. Likewise, the commandment to love your neighbor is an on-going, daily task for all who dare to follow the Way of Christ through the messiness of life.
Which takes us back to the question: How should followers of Christ order their lives? By bowing to the law of the land, or upholding the love of the heart? Depends, perhaps, on who or what you put your priority on.
I will be the first to say that laws are important. They’re good for setting the standards and boundaries for acceptable behavior in our communities. We can’t just have people driving all over the road, or practicing their tubas at 2 a.m. Laws need to be created, executed, and adhered to so the entire community can be safe and flourish without fear.
However, every law is susceptible to abuse. Many are violated on a daily basis. As history has shown us, laws are violated more effectively by those in power, and those who understand how the law works. This is true in our own government just as it was in the Temple in Jerusalem where Jesus entered and exposed the dark side of strict obedience to the law by shining the light of love on it.
As followers of Christ, we must not only see our neighbor through Jesus’ eyes...but we must also love them through Jesus’ heart. Because “What the law cannot accomplish, love can.” To quote Bono from U2, “Love is the temple. Love is the higher law.” The song reminds us that love doesn’t nullify the law... but in fact, shapes and solidifies it.
I think Jesus said love is the greatest commandment, because he fully understood that love is the very foundation which upon all things begin. God’s love for you and me is so powerful that it can make you, shape you, and if needed, transform you. It collides with you at the intersection of life. And spins you in the right direction. This is the good news.
As Jesus showed us, the Spirit of God’s love doesn’t hold grudges but forgives – offering grace upon grace...and peace to anyone who desires it. God’s love unites life, and all that it entails. What God’s love does for us, must also be true about all that we do. Including the laws we put in place.
If you dare to love God and neighbor, then there is no need to keep monitoring or policing what the law requires because the one who embodies love will not harm the other. As Paul puts it, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” If the law requires me to love and care for my neighbor, then I can do it with the assurance that someone will do the same for me.
I’m sure many of you are rolling your eyes when you hear me say that. You might think I am naïve or have drinking too much of the holy Kool-Aid. There’s no way such a world could exist, right? It’s too broken, too corrupt.
But here’s the thing, we’ve never tried it. We might call ourselves Christians and think we’re following Christ. But let’s be honest. We’ve never really put our faith out there in such a way that would make love grow, and overflow, in our communities.
We’ve never fully loved our neighbor as we would want to be loved, have we? But imagine what might happen if we made love the first priority in all that we do? How might hearts and communities be transformed? Even the law would be affected to show love’s power.
As the Bible shows us time and time again, the law bows down to love, not the other way around. Paul discovered that on the road to Damascus. The woman caught in adultery learned this when Jesus forgave her sins. And of course, Jesus proved this point on the cross. Just when it looked like the law would win, God turned the world upside down so that love would win.
Like we’ve learned recently love is the cross we are called to carry. It is all the little stones that build up the church...the body of Christ. Love is you. It is me. And the world comes to know it, in the ways we practice justice, in the ways we tend to the needy and heal the wounds of the broken, and lift up the down and out. One of the best and most common ways love is seen and felt, is in the way we forgive the other.
Henri Nouwen once described forgiveness as “the name of love practiced among people who love poorly.” And we all love poorly, don’t we? Thankfully, God doesn’t judge us by the quality of our love, but by our willingness to be the visible presence of love in our little spaces in life.
I hope that you will remember this: Love, like forgiveness, is a daily practice that invites those who come in contact with you to become a part of you. The wider you cast your love, the bigger your community becomes. “And the more easily you will recognize your own brothers and sisters in the strangers around you,” adds Nouwen.
In this light, we can see what Jesus meant when he said, “Everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
At this church we uphold love above all else. We invite you to do the same. To go out into the world and act with a kind and giving heart to all people, having the best intensions for them as you would wish for yourself.
I urge you to go and make love grow. In your heart, in your house, in the business you frequent, the conversations you have, and yes, even in the way you cast your vote.
For some reason, God has entrusted you and me with this awesome power. Let us go and shape our life accordingly.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 38-41.
Hultgren, Arland J. Paul's Letter to the Romans. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011) pp. 480-485.
Nouwen, Henri J. You Are The Beloved. (San Francisoco: Convergant, 2017) accessed on September 1, 2020.
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An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”