Posts Tagged ‘love of god’

JAMES 1:17-27

17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James presents us with the portrait and prescription for an authentic humanity, much as the psalmist had in his eulogy of the king as God’s viceroy on earth. This is, in fact, one of the principal preoccupations of true religion: to envision, contemplate, aspire toward, and finally bring to realization the fullness of what we are essentially, if at present only potentially, deep within our nature.

There are many occasions in life where we will be tempted away from this inner truth and evolutionary ideal of our human fulfillment, lured in the direction of something more superficial, convenient, and instantly rewarding. We know when we have left the path for such deceptive promises and hollow pleasures. Our experience in these moments is one of frustration and disappointment, which ought to alert us to the fact that we are diverging from the intended aim of our existence (the literal meaning of ‘sin’), but too often we instead redouble our efforts in the direction of our fantasy and thereby merely amplify our discontent with life.

The evolutionary ideal mentioned above is not something we can attain or actualize on our own individually, for human fulfillment leads inevitably towards and depends on the formation of genuine community for its flourishing. And yet, paradoxically, genuine community itself is only possible as individual members awaken to the life of compassionate coexistence and the cooperative pursuit of peace. How can we begin? The counsel of James is that we start by being “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” That way, we make room for the love of God.

Advertisements

EPHESIANS 2:11-22

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

How did Christ make both groups, the Jews and the Gentiles, into one? How is it that “both of us,” Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews), now have access in one Spirit to the Father? The writer believes that Jesus “in his flesh has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” What does that mean?

The “hostility between us” is a function of the dividing wall that separates the saints from the sinners, the “chosen people” from the damned heathen, the insiders from the outsiders. Before Christ, the insiders believed they were pure and set apart from the filth and sin of the world, and, further, that all outsiders were without the hope of salvation.

In his life, Jesus was already breaking down this wall of prejudice and delusional thinking, by reaching out to and confirming the precious value of every “sinner” as well as shaking awake as many of the puritans he could. He showed all of us by his example that ritual purity and Bible-based orthodoxy are not the path into life in its fullness, but that love is – pure, unconditional, and sacrificial love.

His death on the cross – “the blood of Christ” – reveals this divine love with such clarity and power, at least to those few who are open to its message, that all our claims to exclusive possession of truth or to the only way of salvation have been exposed for the “wall of hostility” that they are. This path of love transcends orthodoxy and even religion itself, as the way of redemption and peace and one communion under God.

ACTS 10:44-48

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said,47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

For Peter and the rest, this inclusion of the Gentiles in the universal community of the gospel was not the decision of some “warm tug” at the heart. Rather it was an act of fidelity to what was unmistakably the work of the Holy Spirit, alive in the world outside the Christian circle as thus far defined. Such fidelity must be recognized as a genuine aspect of love, filling out and expanding our usual notions that tend in more sentimental directions.

Love isn’t always a feel-good experience. There are times when the unifying energy of love exerts great stress on our self-definitions, stretching and sometimes breaking them open in its powerful advance. Our experience in such moments is far from pleasant, and can even be downright terrifying. If God wants to open you up and you want above all to hold it together, then God will appear more demonic than benign, more “wrathful” than benevolent.

That is precisely when it serves you well to know the deeper ways of God.

JOHN 15:1-8

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

A branch that does not abide in the vine cannot bear fruit and will wither for lack of nutrient energy. Apart from me you can do nothing, Christ tells his disciples. Clearly we have moved beyond the mere flesh-and-blood Jesus into the expansive reality of the mystical and post-Easter Christ. In order to draw together the distinct strands of our previous reflections, we might see it the following way.

As we develop and mature into our fully self-conscious ego, we undergo a series of “falls” away from conditions that had earlier determined our sense of reality. First the womb, then mother herself, then the body and its urges, followed by further events of negotiated control, over our impulses, our relationships, and our beliefs. All the while, something good and important is happening: we are moving into what will hopefully become a self-standing, unique and responsible human being.

But as we know, this process also carries within it a subtle amount of anxiety, which, if left alone or suppressed, only fuses and intensifies over time, making the later stages of letting go more difficult and fearful. The Bible’s appraisal is that each and every one of us is possessed by fear and therefore to some degree unwilling to leap into grace with the kind of abandon that deep communion with God requires.

What we must do is die to the old self (the fearful and guarded ego), as the Ethiopian eunuch did; “remember and turn to the Lord,” as the psalmist hoped the nations would do; let go of our dogmatic notions about God and plunge into an authentic experience of God instead (1 John 4); get connected to the true vine (John 15) who is Christ in us and in all things – the very Love of God made flesh and fruit in our next word and deed.

1 JOHN 3:16-24

16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

The divine Mystery shows itself to be multifaceted by virtue of the countless facets (or faces) through which and by which it is felt and known. While standing here on the near side of the threshold, the symbols that have revealed and embodied the divine are a variety as numerous as the world is wide and the imagination deep.

But on the far side of the threshold, behind the symbols as it were, all this nearly overwhelming diversity resolves into a single reality – or rather, it is seen as converging in and then pouring forth from the one gracious outreach of God. Sponge away the foreground array of symbols and you are left with a Mystery wholly unknown and unknowable, but lose sight of the reality beyond and all you have is a litter of competing idols.

Throughout history, what we are calling the gracious outreach of God has brought human beings into a progressively deepening encounter with the divine reality. At first, the power of God was experienced through the events of nature, then increasingly it became personified in more human-like qualities and actions. When Jesus came, we were shown the depths and energy of love to a degree never before witnessed (or even suspected). Christians experienced this radical love of God in the person of Jesus, and that has been their name for it ever since.

JOHN 20:19-31

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The really good news of Jesus was that God’s fidelity to the world is so great and so wide that nothing we do can either earn or disqualify us from the love of God. This insight arises out of the biblical precept, assumed without debate as the bedrock beneath the foundation of Western theology, that God and creation are not co-equal, nor are God and humankind equal partners in the covenantal project. In some early traditions, this disparity between God and humanity produced a definite anxiety over whether God might at some point become so exasperated with the shortfall of human obedience as to commit the entire fiasco to damnation.

By the time of Jesus, however, the ideal of an infinite patience and unconditional love in the heart of God began to open human experience to a divine grace so far-reaching and irresistible, that (perhaps?) nothing could permanently escape its redemptive power.

The term for the extreme energy in love that penetrates every resistance, absorbs every attack, returns kindness for malice, and welcomes the prodigal with a generous embrace, is forgiveness – the fourth essential element of true community. In brief, forgiveness is the act of remaining faithful to covenant while working to rebuild a trust that has been broken or betrayed.

PSALM 68:1-10,

Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered;
    let those who hate him flee before him.
As smoke is driven away, so drive them away;
    as wax melts before the fire,
    let the wicked perish before God.
But let the righteous be joyful;
    let them exult before God;
    let them be jubilant with joy.

Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
    lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds—
his name is the Lord
    be exultant before him.

Father of orphans and protector of widows
    is God in his holy habitation.
God gives the desolate a home to live in;
    he leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
    but the rebellious live in a parched land.

O God, when you went out before your people,
    when you marched through the wilderness,
the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain
    at the presence of God, the God of Sinai,
    at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
Rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad;
    you restored your heritage when it languished;
10 your flock found a dwelling in it;
    in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy.

32 Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth;
    sing praises to the Lord,
33 O rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens;
    listen, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice.
34 Ascribe power to God,
    whose majesty is over Israel;
    and whose power is in the skies.
35 Awesome is God in his sanctuary,
    the God of Israel;
    he gives power and strength to his people.

Blessed be God!

If you were to spread the writings of the Bible along a line according to the chronological sequence in which they were likely produced, you would come to see how the concept and representation of God evolved through the centuries. A strict biblical literalism would then be forced to conclude that God has changed over time, which obviously conflicts with the Bible’s own claim that with God there is “no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

A better explanation is that something has indeed changed (or evolved); however it’s not the reality of God but the mythological imagination of humans contemplating that reality. As human beings have evolved – from hominids to homo sapiens, and through the numerous stages of cultural development – the notion of a hidden agency and supreme intelligence behind things has steadily advanced. What becomes evident to us, then, is the fascinating way in which a regional population of human beings became increasingly rational, ethical, and inclusive in their orientation and behavior.

Before we file our exceptions to this statement, let’s quickly review how the Bible’s representation of God progressed over time. In the earliest traditions, god* is the jealous warrior deity of nomadic tribes that originally settled the region of Sinai. Yahweh’s idol may have been a war box that announced his arrival to towns and villages under invasion. At this stage, god’s love was a subordinate quality to his aggression, violence, and conquest.

A while later we find Yahweh inviting select individuals and their families into a formal ritual of agreement called a covenant. By obeying his will and worshiping no other god but him, the people are given assurance of Yahweh’s protection, blessing, and future prosperity. This use of the covenant metaphor is a strong indication that humans were progressing into a more stable, rational, and cooperative way of life. God’s love is coming more to the forefront of his personality, as one who cares for his people.

                                                                                                      

In the time of the prophets, the complexities of urban life advanced new concerns for marginalized members (orphans, widows, and other poor). Even outsiders coming to the gates as strangers were to be looked after and offered hospitality. In the prophetic consciousness, this ethical concern of god’s for those who suffer forced frequent confrontations with kings and political administrations that oppressed or neglected them. The love of god was opening out into a wide compassion, not only for insiders but outsiders as well.

Finally, with Jesus – who stood in the tradition of the prophets but took their challenge to another level – we hear that god’s love extends all the way to his “enemies.” These may be outsiders or insiders; their defining characteristic is an utter disregard for god’s will, even an outright antagonism to his way. In short, they are “sinners.” Jesus declared that all sinners are forgiven, that humanity’s debt to god has been released. His message of unconditional forgiveness was so revolutionary in its implications and so radical in its reach, that Christianity itself was unable (or unwilling) to carry it forward for long.

In all these various evolutionary frames, the representation of God is just out in front of human development. The depiction of god’s love in art, story and theology is an idealized projection at first, praised and glorified as an exceptional virtue of the deity. And because worship of god is also the aspiration of devotees to be like god – to love as god loves – this virtue is increasingly activated and gradually takes its place in the human moral repertoire.

*In order to distinguish a representation of God from the reality of God, we use the convention of a lowercase ‘g’ when speaking of the concept of God in art, story and theology. The reality of God is a mystery beyond words.