14 July 2005

Thoughts on the Father's Love

“Jesus Loves Me”

The children sing:

Jesus loves me,
This I know,
For the Bible
Tells me so.

Ah, but does the Father of Jesus love you? That’s a question worth pondering. You see, for years I have to confess to having misread John 3:16. I read those familiar words and understood them like this:

The Father loves me because of (and only because of) what Jesus did for me.

Which means, of course, that it is not me that the Father loves. The Father hates me and has to punish me for my sin. But instead of pounding on me, He sends Jesus into the flesh so that He can pound on Him and let me off from the punishment I so richly deserve. What a horrific picture of God!

But, of course, John 3:16 does not say that the Father loves me because of what Jesus did for me. It says, in point of fact, the exact opposite. The Father loves me and that’s why Jesus came to do what He did for me.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”

This “flip-flop” in understanding John 3:16 opens up whole vistas of grace! The Father is NOT full of rage and anger at you, ready to pounce on you for your sin, and only letting you off because He expends His anger on His Son instead. The Father LOVES you. You, the real you! He loves you in this way: that He sends His only-begotten Son into the flesh to defeat and destroy your enemies: sin and death and hell.

The cross, then, is not about God’s anger at sinners. It is about His love for sinners. If God is angry at anything, it is at sin and Satan and death – these corrupters of the children He loves. God is so implacably opposed to sin in our lives because He is so overwhelming in love with us and He hates and despises what havoc sin wrecks in those whom He loves.

So maybe the children’s song should be rewritten:

The Father loves me,
This I know,
His Son’s coming
Shows me so! Amen!

Homily for Trinity 1 (2005)

Homily for Trinity 1 (2005)

How many times can you read and ponder a text and miss something so obvious? This story tells us something vital about the nature of heaven, of hell, and the nature, then, of the Church.

The fathers say it simply: we are saved together; we are damned alone. When God made Adam he said, "It is not good that the man should be alone." Sometimes we'll hear someone say, "If I end up in hell, at least I'll have lots of company." Wrong! Hell is being alone, all alone. More than the water from the tip of Lazarus’ finger, what the rich man was longing for, aching for, and not even realizing it, was just Lazarus, the touch of another human being, someone to be with him. To suffer all alone makes the pain broader and deeper.

But what a contrast to Lazarus! He is not only with Abraham, but carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. He is precisely not alone in his death.

So here is heaven and here is hell. Heaven is communion, fellowship, togetherness, the embrace of human being and the embrace of angels and the welcome of the Father and the touch of the Savior’s hand to wipe away all tears. And hell is abandonment, loneliness, emptiness, forever and forever just you. Talk about agony!

What, then, does this show about the nature of the Church herself? It shows us that the Church is the gift of heaven on earth because the Church is the place, the location, where we're not alone, but part of a family that goes on forever – a family that not even death cannot tear apart. Think of how the writer to the Hebrews captured this reality of the Church:

“No, you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jersualem. Here are tens of thousands of angels, the whole festival gathering and church of God’s firstborn people with their names written in heaven. Here is the judge and God of all. Here are the spirits of the righteous who have been perfected. And here is Jesus, the Mediator of a new testament, and the sprinkled blood that has better things to tell than Abel.” (Heb 12:22-24)

The Church is the gift on earth of the joys of being together forever in heaven. It’s the exact opposite of being alone or even just "Jesus and me!" I will never forget a pastor preaching on suffering who quoted from the poem "footprints." You know it—Jesus says to the sufferer, "when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you." The pastor replied, "Ridiculous! There's never just one set of footprints. Everywhere and always, we're surrounded by angels, saints, prophets, apostles and martyrs!" That’s heaven and in the Church it is heaven on earth.

But then hell also has a foretaste, if you will. It is the life of the rich man, a life that is lived closed in on itself, for its own pleasure and purposes. He pampers himself, but he is completely blind to the dream and hope of God for all –that we share together a table and are all one family, feasting in unity and love. So he can even eat in front of Lazarus and then head off his jolly way, entertaining himself to death and ignoring all the while the gift of the people that God had placed around him for him to know and love.

It has long been noted that Jesus, in this story, gives Lazarus a name – a name of faith which means, God is my help. But what of the fact that the rich man had no name? Do you not see how it goes with loneliness not to have a name. Not to have anyone call you by who you are, because you are all by yourself and don’t need anyone else.

When the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers lest they come to that place of torment, Abraham answers that they have Moses and the Prophets, that is, they have the Word of God. And in the Word of God the witness is very clear that he has created His people to live together and not alone; that God has made us to share our lives with others and not to lock ourselves up in our own little world of petty pleasures. God created us and God has redeemed us in Jesus Christ to be a people who live together, bearing each others burdens, carrying each others sorrows, rejoicing in each other’s joys, concerned with each others' problems.

Have you ever thought about the long list of names in our prayers? You might think, “But we don’t even know most of those people.” But that is to be like the Rich Man. That is to imagine that the only people who need concern you are the people joined to you by natural relation and affection, if even them! To be in the Church, to be part of the Body of Jesus Christ, is to live in a fellowship where the sorrows of any member are the sorrows of every member, and the joys of one are the joys of all. This is the fellowship the Holy Spirit calls us into – and what a joyous gift it is. Then there are no strangers. Then there is no one who is not loved, no one who is not valued and celebrated as gifts of God, loved even as we love Him. It is true that “we love because He first loved us” it is also true that He has commanded us “if you love God, love your brother.”

And the love into which God summons us to live in the Church as the foretaste of heaven, is the love of Jesus Christ. He joined himself to our race to destroy the loneliness of sin by bearing it on His cross, to destroy the isolation of death, by filling it with His divine life, and to bring to an end the alienation of mankind from God and of mankind from one another. The life He calls us to live us is His life, and so the Church forever partakes of that life at the banquet He has prepared. In the Eucharist, no one is rich or poor, no one is alone, for Christ here is all in all. His righteousness He here gives us as our own. His love He here gives us to share freely with each other. His life of communion with the Father and the Spirit and with all His saints, He here gives us to live as our own life. Already here and already now – we get to live from the Kingdom that is to come. That’s the joy we share together; never, never alone! Amen.