..a thorny issue for Christians. And no, I’m not going to advocate breaking out the sacrificial knives and trying to catch pigeons to dispatch during our worship services. But, contrary to the spirit of our age, is law always loveless, and love always lawless? That’s the challenge laid before us in John’s Second Letter:
OF LAW AND LOVE
I John 5: 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. 4For(everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.
The American man who bought the Italian woman flowers expected, or at least hoped, that she would get the point: that he loves her. Instead, she got angry and agitated. Then someone explained to him: the red poppies that he thought were so beautiful—and they are—she grew up knowing to be signs of eternal slumber, used at funerals. Woops.
Sometimes its hard enough knowing how to show our love for flesh and blood people. Two weeks ago we considered the stirring and strenuous words of John chapter 4: “This is how we know what love is—Christ Jesus laid down his life for us.” If the willingness to die for someone, if need be, is the litmus test of love between people, then how do we mere mortal humans express love for God? Especially a God who already owns everything, especially a God who has given us life, the world, and himself through Jesus, who died for us? After all, that’s what our gathering here is about today, isn’t it? That’s what our hymns and prayers are about, expressing love to the God who loves us, to God who is love. Is that all it means to love God?
So I imagined the following dialog between myself and God, over the stretch of many years. As I pondered over today’s passage, I came to realize that this very question, “How am I to show love to the God who loves us, the God who is love?” is the driving question of my spiritual journey. So I start this imaginary dialog with God at a visit, some 25 years ago, to a beautiful, ornate, Medieval Gothic style cathedral in southern Belgium. The light filtering through the stained glass windows, the glow of candles, the sound of the organ, the smell of incense, the layers of gold enfolding sacred objects, the jewels and pearls on boxes holding the relics of saints who long ago gave their lives for the love of God (so they say), were so magnificent and inspiring, they had had me wondering, “Is this how to show love for God? By building or enriching these majestic cathedrals with their spires towering over the fir trees and farm fields of southern Belgium? Is this how I should show you my love, O God, by building or maintaining such monuments to your glory as this?” I wondered.
And it seemed as if, down through the years, I have almost heard the whisper of a voice from a realm more solid and enduring than this one, saying, “My child, do not judge too harshly those who came before you in the faith, for you are no wiser nor purer than they. But do not be too quick to copy them either, for as I told King David, another imperfect servant who loved me, ‘I do not dwell in houses made by mortals, nor can any building made by human hands contain me. Instead, I am building a home for fallible mortals like yourself. Indeed, I am making of you a temple in which I dwell, a temple built of all who love me, together. Such people have met and worshiped me in spaces like this sanctuary that humbles and inspires you. But if you are also distressed by the fact that the gold adorning these objects was obtained by conquest and loot, taken from the mouths of the poor and the needy, I am all the more so, for it was done in my name. If it grieves you that from this ornate marble pulpit was preached a call for Crusade to kill Muslims, allegedly for the love of me, know that it grieves me all the more. For anyone who says he loves Me and yet hates his brother is simply lying. At least to himself. My dear child, if you would show your love for me, I would much rather you built up and strengthened the cathedral of flesh and blood, of loves and lives that I am building, than that you would ever build me a cathedral of stone, gold and glass.”
And then I came back to my country to find that people were building cathedrals, yes, of glass and concrete, but more so of power, wealth and success, also in God’s name, for love of God. Some were building religious and political coalitions on the political right to advocate for war and weapons or against certain social changes, while some were building religious and political coalitions on the left, to advocate for social changes. Again, they were all doing this in the name of God, for the love of God, the same God, and with equal militancy, stridency and even anger. But with widely different opinions about what pleased God.
And so I prayed, “Is this how you want me to show my love for you, O God, by joining and leading one of these strident political and religious crusades? By building cathedrals of coalitions, mailing lists, phone banks, donor banks, lobbyists and legislators? If so, which one, on the political right or the political left? Because they both have compelling arguments, and passionate spokespersons. And they both invoke your name.”
And it seemed as though I could just hear a still, small voice coming from a realm more pure than mine, and yet as close as my own heart, which said, “Do not be too quick to judge people in either camp, for I know better than you which ones truly love me most, and which ones love power. But do not think that the wrath of man can achieve the purposes of God, nor that my power is beholden to the power of princes, nor that my will can be fully explained by the limited alternatives and definitions that mortals can comprehend. The closest you can come to knowing me, and my will is through something your political demolition derbies fail at: love, love that looks like a cross.”
So if God doesn’t need us building cathedrals of worldly stone, glass, gold, or of power, wealth and influence, then how do we show God that we love him? Then it occurred to me: We can just tell him, with our mouths, as we do in worship. There’s a lot of that in Bible. Like Psalm 116: “I love the Lord, because he heard my cry for help,” and Psalm 18: “I love you, Lord, my strength, my force!” And in response, God said: “”The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me? I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your evil assemblies. …. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen.”
Oh dear. I didn’t just hear that in my heart or soul. I read it from the Prophet Isaiah, in response to the worship of his contemporaries. Why, I wondered, would God ever reject his people’s worship, the corporate and public expression of their love for him, and in such hair-raising, spine-tingling, devastating terms? God goes on to say, “[Because] Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” Amazing, God takes so seriously, so personally the way people treat each other, as though the way we treated others was the way we treated God. Get that down right, and then our worship will be pleasing, our expressions of love sincere.
Which is what John the Beloved seems to be saying. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.” Is that how we’re supposed to show our love for you?” I asked. God. “By keeping and obeying your commandments?” Then I asked what looks, in hindsight, to be the world’s most stupid question: “What does your law have to do with love?”
It seemed that from the throne of glory I could hear a chuckle. Or was it a sigh? And then a voice that asked me, “O my child, are you so enslaved to the spirit of your age, that you should think that my law is always loveless, and that love is always lawless?”
I had to hand it to the Spirit there, that was a pretty good description of the age I live in. And that was the lesson, unfortunately, of all those hours in theology and ethics classes, reading books like Situation Ethics. Most of our ethical deliberations and discernment in those classes were based on case studies, true-to-life, of someone, say, in a Nazi death camp, like Auschwitz, in which the hero of the story has to decide between stealing food from other inmates or letting her children starve, or selling her body so that her children can eat. Then we pitted two laws against each other, like “Thou shalt not steal” against “thou shalt not kill.” By the time we were done haggling such things out, we would throw up our hands and say, “You can’t say one way or the other, everything is relative, everything is dependent upon the situation, you can’t rely on God’s laws, like the Ten Commandments; you just have to determine what is the most loving thing in any situation.” And so we taught a whole generation of people to assume that law was essentially loveless, and that love was essentially lawless. And that’s why I asked God, “What does your law have to do with love?”
And then it also occurred to me: Nearly 100 % of the time, my pressing moral questions are not, “How am I going to handle this terrible catastrophe, or survive this life-threatening hardship?” but “How am I going to handle my privilege, my power and everything that comes with my relative wealth, strength and security?” I don’t live in Auschwitz or a Japanese POW camp. For such a blessed, privileged life as mine, there is no reason to search for an exception clause to “Thou shalt not steal,” or even, “Thou shalt not covet.” If anything, my responsibility to such laws is greater because of my privilege and security.
Thirty years later, it seems obscene to have used so much of our leisure, education and power thinking up reasons why people might not be able to honor their parents or be faithful to their wedding vows. It is better by far to use our powers and privileges to work for a world in which people are not put into the heart-breaking, gut-wrenching dilemmas that we debated so hard and so long. For that, following the Ten Commandments is a necessary start.
But I wasn’t done arguing with God. “I thought we weren’t saved by obeying your commandments, but simply by your grace through our faith,” I said. Once again, I couldn’t tell if that was a sigh or a snicker coming from above. And it almost seemed, again, as though I could hear the Lord of heaven and earth asking me, “What did I save you for, my child, but for an eternal life of love? And what better definition of love have I given you than my commandments? What better description of love have I given than in the kinds of relationships bounded by my commands? What is the essence of the law but that you love me and your neighbor? And how can you love and obey me if you don’t trust me? What did my Son say to those who asked him, ‘What is the work of God, that we might do it?’”
I paused and searched my memory until God said, “If that doesn’t ring a bell, type the words into your internet Bible site.” I did, and up came John 6: 29: “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one whom he has sent.” So there it is, the first work of the law is faith, trust in God. Faith is where obedience starts. Love is the nature of the law, and God’s laws give form, definition and boundaries to love. Yes, of course Christians are released from the ritual and ceremonial laws of Moses. But from the earliest times Christians have taught, and have been taught, the basic moral and spiritual structure of God’s covenant with Israel, embodied in the Ten Commandments, and in the supreme law on which they hang: to love God with all our heart, mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. And there you have clear descriptions of love.
That’s when I remembered something from an Old Testament class. That the Ten Commandments can be translated not just as “You shall not murder…” or “You shall not covet….” but as “You will not murder” or “You will not covet….” In other words, to love God and our fellow humans, you will not have other gods before God; you will not make a graven image to bow down to and worship; you will not take God’s name in vain; you will honor your mother and father.
Since love is the nature and goal of the law, then we could even say, “Love does no murder….love does not covet…or coveting is not love.” Think of The Ten Commandments as the Ten Boundary Markers. Inside those will-nots, we have a lot of freedom. From those boundary markers and beyond however, we leave the land of love. Love will not steal; love will not bear false witness; love will not kill…”
So I asked again, “Is this what it is to love you, God? Simply to obey your commands?” As soon as I posed the next question, I knew it was foolish, but it popped out of my mouth anyway. I have a seminary degree, but still I blurted it forth: “But words like ‘obey’ and ‘obedience’ seem so harsh and so unloving! ‘Obey’ and ‘obedience’ are for taskmasters and people we fear, not for someone we would love. I don’t demand that anyone I love obey me.”
Then it seemed as though I could hear another sigh, and a voice repeating the words of John that follow his words, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.” The words were: “ And his commandments are not burdensome.” But disobeying them sure is burdensome. Just ask the business man who robbed banks to keep his office supply business afloat. Or at least he tried to. But the only place he could process all the money he got without raising eyebrows was at the race track or a casino. He hoped to be able to take his money from gambling to the bank with proof that it came from his winnings, not from banks. As often as not, however, he lost more than he gambled. And he may have gotten addicted to gambling, and to the rush of making bank tellers tremble. So he had to keep robbing more banks. By the time he was caught and sentenced, he actually said he was relieved. He wished they had caught him sooner! It would have been so much easier, he said, if he had simply let his office supply store go bankrupt and never get started on a secret life of addiction to theft and gambling. Obeying the eighth commandment, or the 8th description of love, “You will not steal,” would have been so much easier, much less burdensome.
But God didn’t tell me about the penitent businessman. I found his story in an online news source. Instead a question occurred to me: “When you object to words like ‘obey’ and ‘obedience’ have you forgotten just who is the Creator and who is the created, and what the Creator’s rights are?” But that wasn’t God who asked me that. It was me.
What God seemed to say was, “My child, I gave you my commands out of love for you, not out of any desire to burden you or stifle you. I want you to know joy and an eternal quality of relationships.” I didn’t hear that from heaven, nor from a burning bush. It comes out of the whole scope and sweep of the Bible, the sense that God gave his commands as a gift, not a burden. “He has revealed his word to Jacob,” says Psalm 147, “his laws and decrees to Israel. He has done this for no other nation; they do not know his laws.”
Twenty- seven years ago, when I taught at a Native-American-run school in St. Paul, I was given a precious gift. On a day when no students were in and we were catching up on grading and administrative stuff, the oldest teacher in the school invited me out to a hole-in-the-wall around the corner for coffee together. After we chatted about other stuff, like the students, I asked him what life was like when he grew up on the White Earth Indian Reservation, during the Great Depression. He organized his tales around the seasons: April was for maple syrup-making and fish spearing; May for planting gardens; summer for building, fishing, farming and gardening, fall for hunting and gathering fire wood; the dead of winter for cutting timber for pulp and lumber companies. Not only was he giving me lessons in history and culture, he was sharing an important glimpse of himself. I have always treasured the gift of that hour over coffee, talk, and self-disclosure.
That’s how our Hebrew spiritual friends and ancestors have understood the gift of God’s law and the commandments. Not as a way to earn God’s love, but as an expression of God’s love. Even as God expressing himself, giving us a description of himself, even a piece of himself. The commands we hear through scripture tell us as much about God as they do about ourselves, or what we can be. They call us to covenant faithfulness and trustworthiness with each other, because that’s who and how God is.
It is said that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. So we show the sincerity of our love for God by imitating God. God’s commands simply tell us how best to imitate God through love. The laws of God are love’s definition, or love’s boundary markers.
And then I think I heard God saying that any more words and questions on this matter would only show that I want to make loving God more complicated than its supposed to be, and therefore this would be a good time to stop talking and start doing and let a loving life of obedience and submission to God be the rest of my sermon. The end.