“God is Love”

god_is_loveAlthough there is a prevailing myth that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, the most consistent thread that runs throughout both the Old and New Testaments is that God is love (1 John 4:8).

Throughout the Old Testament, God is constantly calling a people back to Himself and reclaiming a covenant to bring them in right relationship.

There is a refrain that meanders through the historical, prophetic, and poetic books of the Old Testament: God is praiseworthy because God shows “everlasting love” (or, in some translations, “loving kindness”).

The term used in this refrain and elsewhere, “hesed,” is a Hebrew term similar to the Greek term found in the New Testament, “agape.”  Both words are hard to capture in our limited, English translation.

The terms go beyond platonic or emotional forms of love.  The terms even go beyond the type of love newly married couples express to one another when referring to their commitment to one another.

“Hesed,” is an idea that expresses sacrificial love.  It is love that gives and a love that envelopes a recipient in a promise of an everlasting union.

We humans try to get at this type of love in the vows we make to one another, but we often fall short.  We are fickle creatures, and some days we don’t live up to that commitment.  On other days, we love passionately, but even then our promises seem shallow.

But hesed is about the actual nature of God, of who God is.

I had a bit of an epiphany the other day.  I was reflecting on the vastness of our cosmos and the expanse of the heavens.  I was also thinking about where God fits into all of this.

I learned long ago that God is not literally above us, but rather that God embraces us as spirit and walks with us in the person and presence of the Risen Savior.

I got a sense that I had it all wrong: I am still trying to understand God by my own limited faculties.  I then imagined that God is so big and God’s love so vast, that it is as if our entire cosmos fits within the palm of God’s nurturing hand.

Ever been in the middle of the woods where you are unable to see the vast landscape that makes up the entire forest?  You are so small and the forest so big, you only take up a fraction of space.

I came to the conclusion that we are in the middle of woods, and God is that great, grand forest so big that we can’t even see God if we tried–there is no spaceship large enough or fast enough to get us away from God to see the entirety of God from a distance.

All of those theologies we use to try and figure God out are mere trees, if not twigs, in the scheme of who God is.

Then I imagined that God’s love was that vast.  Every day, we are distracted by the things that we think are important.  We have to get our way; we get offended if someone wrongs us; our petty conflicts and arguments create rifts between friends and family alike.

Our issues, however, are often smaller than we are, and so they are but bits of dust in that grand scheme of love that should imbue every area of our life.

There is no fight or conflict worth destroying a friendship.  There is no situation–even those as tragic as the taking of life–that cannot be confronted with forgiveness and reconciliation.  There is no sense of uncertainty and anxiety that cannot be offered unto God in prayer because God is bigger than all of these.

God is love, and God cares.  This week, as you go about your day, remember the magnitude of God’s love.  Then remember that you can overcome any obstacle if you put that love into action.

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“Heaven-Shaped Relationships” (Heaven series, part 2)

This is the second of a four-part sermon series at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers.  For more information, visit Trinity online.

Paul in prison

Text:  Philemon vv. 8-18

“Perhaps this is the reason Onesimus was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother–especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

I.

In 1942 the Second World War was waging throughout Europe and Great Britain.  During that time, the villagers of a little town in south central France, Le Chambon, decided to re-define who their neighbors were and save Jewish refugees from Nazi genocide.

Led by a courageous pastor, Andre Trocme, the town saw the Jewish people–both in their midst and those coming from all across France–not as people who looked different or believed different than they, but as God-image-bearers to whom they had a sacred responsibility.

The villagers quickly made false IDs for Jewish families, assimilating them to village life as seamlessly as possible.  Eventually the day came when the Gestapo visited the town to ask if they–the townspeople–were harboring Jews.  Pastor Trocme met with the Nazis and simply stated, “There are no Jews here; only men.”

Because the villagers took seriously God’s call to love neighbors, they managed to save some 5,000 Jews by the time the war ended.  You know, with all of the persecution and war that was taking place around this little town, it certainly wasn’t heaven on earth.  But it was close.

Last week, we began a discipleship series on heaven in which we realized that the Bible calls us to “set our minds on things above” rather than on the cares of earth.  We discussed the importance of seeing our world, our future, our very lives from heaven’s perspective.  We were reminded that the Lord’s prayer, “on earth as it is in heaven” is something that shapes and molds our priorities and commitments.

If this is the case, and we are to see our very life from heaven’s point-of-view, from God’s perspective, then we too are called to live differently with our neighbors and see people, not as foes, but as God-image-bearers in our midst.

II.

When we started this heaven series, we took a closer look at Paul’s letters to the Philippians and the Colossians.  Today, we are taking a closer look at one of Paul’s letters to a specific Colossian: Philemon.

We have to assume that, since Philemon was a Colossian, that he too received the letter in which Paul encouraged his readers to “set your minds on things above.”    The letter addressed to him, then, was merely an encouragement for Philemon to put that philosophy into practice by welcoming back a slave–Onesimus–as a brother in Christ.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is quite short, only one page in my Bible; and because it is so personal, scholars have a hard time figuring out all of the reasons why Paul wrote the letter in the first place.

There are some theories on who Philemon was and how Onesimus related to him:

  • One theory is that Onesimus was a servant whom Philemon sent to Paul to help Paul while Paul was in prison.
  • Another theory is that Onesimus was a fugitive slave.  He ran away from Philemon and went to Paul, hoping that Paul would advocate on his behalf.

Although we can’t figure out which theory is correct, we do have some of the facts:

  • Onesimus was definitely a slave.  Now, I have to clarify that slavery in the ancient world was very different than slavery we know of now.  Back then, slavery was not based on ethnicity, race, or even gender.  Rather, a person became a slave in different ways: birth, bankruptcy, war, and even by choice (indentured servanthood).We also know that slaves were not a social class.  Some slaves managed their master’s wealth or resources, some were highly educated.  Many were merchants, and others were simply beloved members of the family.
  • We don’t know whether Onesimus came to Paul because he was escaping slavery or because he was sent to serve; but, we do know that Onesimus underwent a transformation while in Paul’s care.  Paul uses the language of birth in v. 10, as if Paul “begot” Onesimus, which shows that Onesimus came under Paul’s teaching and mastered his teacher’s philosophy.The transformation is clear in the text: Onesimus became a Christian while serving Paul, and because of that fact, his relationship to both Paul and to Philemon fundamentally changed.

Paul’s letter to Philemon, then, is very clear: Since Onesimus and Philemon are both believers in Jesus Christ, both fall under a heaven-shaped relationship that redefined the master-slave dynamic.

Onesimus, as a believer, was no longer a slave (although he was still technically a slave in earthly fashion); rather, he became a “brother” to Philemon.  Onesimus joined the Body of Christ and became, in Paul’s words, like Paul’s “heart” (or “bowels,” splogna in the Greek–the very essence of a person) to Philemon and to other believers in their midst (v. 12).   Whatever the earthly relationship, heaven–God’s lordship and reign–defined the eternal relationship between the two men.

III.

The letter to Philemon shows just how powerful Christ’s reign is and what the implications of Jesus’ resurrection are.  Those who come to know Christ are now a part of God’s family–God’s very children–and must act as family.  There is no hierarchy in the family, and the old notions of master-slave, Jew-Gentile, rich-free, male-female no longer exist (Galatians 3:27).  Christ dismantled the old walls that separated people from one another.

This egalitarian idea was quite controversial in Paul’s time, and the Roman empire took notice.

  • When the Romans persecuted the Christians, one of the “accusations” against the Christians was that they were committing incest.  When one believer called another believer who was his spouse “sister in Christ,” the Romans took that a little too literally.
  • The Romans thought that the Christian communities–who were attracting slaves and the poor in large numbers–were scandalous because of the leadership and table-fellowship that occurred within the churches: Women became leaders like men; there was no division of rich and free in the sharing of wealth; slaves ate with masters at the same dinner table.  Each person now matter how well or broken broke bread and drank wine together!A letter from one Roman official, Pliny, to another noted that a controversy of one Christian community related to the fact that the church had for its leaders two female slaves as deacons.  Heaven-shaped relationships often lead to scandalous results!

“Heaven on earth” certainly redefined the boundaries between people, and we, like the people of Le Chambon, are forced to re-define who our neighbors–our “brother and sisters”–are from heaven’s perspective.

Now, here at Trinity, we have excelled in hospitality and showing guests a divine welcome.  We have worked hard to make our welcome more than superficial and have moved to a position of inclusion in our leadership and our very lives.

Yet, we here in Trinity still struggle with seeing our relationships from heaven’s perspective.  We still allow resentment, anger, annoyance, and even pride erect walls between us and our families, neighbors, friends, communities, and yes, even our church.

I don’t know what God is saying to you today about your relationships, but I’m sure that you can think of at least one person that you have yet to reconcile with simply because Jesus asked you to.

IV.

Sometimes the walls that exist between us and others are not as evident or apparent.

Kristina and I often watch a favorite movie called Couples Retreat starring Vince Vaughn.  In it, four couples go on an intensive marriage enrichment retreat on an exotic island.  On average, the couples do not seem to have many issues.  There is no real dysfunction, although the couples seem struggle with the normal issues other marriages have.

As the movie progresses, however, you find that the couples have deeper issues.  There may not be any deep-seated anger or resentment, but there is something going on and it takes most of the movie to figure out what that something is:  Each spouse takes the other spouse for granted.

There is one scene in which one husband upsets his wife, and the wife storms off into a jungle.  The other wives follow in order to encourage her and bring her comfort.  The husbands, meanwhile, argue over what exactly occurred and what to do about their wives.

The lead character played by Vince Vaughn tells the husband at fault that he–the husband–doesn’t appreciate his wife.  Suddenly, in the middle of the diatribe, Vince Vaughn pauses, looks intently at his friend and says with pointed finger, “You have an attitude!”

“You have an attitude!”  It’s one of my favorite lines.  It reminds me of our interim pastor, Jim, because Jim tells some folks now and then that they have an attitude.  We’ll be in Bible study, and one of the ladies will speak up and pick on Jim, and Jim will pause and say to another pupil, “You know, I believe this woman has an attitude.”  It’s classic and cracks me up every time!

When Paul writes to Philemon, Paul is basically telling Philemon, “You have an attitude!”

Folks, you may not have big issues with others and you may be living the dream, but it’s too easy to take others for granted.  You….You know what?  You have an attitude!

As a New Yorker, I know a thing or two about attitudes.  I have heard God tell me on more than one occasion that I have an attitude.

Just last week, my cat got stuck in a tree one night.  I came home around 9 PM, and Minnie the cat wasn’t in the house.  I called her and called her, and finally stepped outside to see if she got out.  She did, and all I could hear was meowing in the darkness.  She wasn’t running to the door like she usually does.

So I followed the meows and, sure enough, there she was about 20 feet up in a tree.  I got worried sick and, although my wife was certain she would eventually come down, I tried for hours that night to woo her down.  I even got a ladder for her even though it was about 8 feet too short.

I finally retired at 2 AM; and, the next morning, after I dropped the kids off at school, I came home and heard the meowing.  She didn’t come down, and I had to do something.  I got two ladders–one for me, and another one to hold up to her as high as I could.  By 9 AM, I was tired, the cat was tired and we were both annoyed and sick of one another.

And all the while, my neighbor’s dogs were barking at us.  I was trying to get Minnie down, and those dumb dogs kept barking and barking in our ears.  I got so annoyed at those dogs, as tired as I was, I got into my car, started my car, and drove around the block to my neighbor’s house to give him a piece of my mind.

When I pulled into the driveway, God stopped me dead in my tracks and told me, “Joe, you have an attitude.”

Now, Trinity, I didn’t have any situation or relationship in mind when I wrote this sermon, but there are times–and this may be one of them–when God comes along and tells you, “You have an attitude!”

You have an attitude, church family!

V.

I’m not sure what God is asking of you today.  Each of you will hear this sermon differently.  What I do know is that, as a missional community, our church is called to build heaven-shaped relationships in which we are to constantly re-define who are neighbors are.

We are to see one another as God-image-bearers who are called to be–and to act as–brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are to come together for the sake of the Gospel, to be Good News, in a divisive and partisan culture.

You never know: If we take this stuff seriously and see our relationships from heaven’s point-of-view, then maybe we too, like Le Chambon, will be able to save souls and win the world for Christ.  You just never know.

Christians approach the public square with agape love

It was Paul who wrote that Christians should, “Be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1).  At the time, he was writing to churches in the heart of the Roman empire that they were concerned with their relationship to the state.  And, ever since then, Christians have struggled with their role–and the church’s proper place–in government.

When I think of the various ideas surrounding the church’s relationship to the state, my first thought goes to German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose dissertation on how to find Christ in community in the late 1920s gained international reputation.  As his own nation was caught in the aftermath of the First World War and economic depression, he also caught the attention of Nazis who were set on taking over every aspect of German culture including Lutheran churches.

Bonhoeffer’s wrestling match with the state forced him to teach in an underground seminary.  There, Christians opposed Hitler, sought to free the Jews, and prophetically called the German Reich Church to repentance.

At the time, Bonhoeffer was not the only one wondering how the church interacted with the state. Churches throughout Germany were divided: some supported Hitler, some stayed out of the fray altogether, and the “confessing churches” sought to “jam the spokes of the wheels” when the state’s wheel turned towards injustice.

But how does one reconcile jamming the spokes of the state when the Bible, Romans in particular, declared that disobeying the government was akin to disobeying God?  The answer for Bonhoeffer was found in participating in government by means of agape, or unconditional, love.

Agape love motivated Bonhoeffer to protest against the state and side with people that the state marginalized, brutalized, and extinguished.  This ethic led to his arrest in 1943 and execution two years later, just three weeks shy of Hitler’s own suicide.

Although the Holocaust ended with the downfall of Germany, the lingering question of the church’s relationship to the state did not end.  It was Bonhoeffer’s good friend in America, Reinhold Niebuhr, who articulated several views on the church’s relationship to the state.

All of those views bring us right back to Paul, who sought to balance faithful citizenship with faithfulness to God.  In Paul’s time, some Christians believed that the church should pull out of the public square entirely.

Some stopped paying taxes while others were ambivalent to their neighbors and politicians.   But, like Bonhoeffer, Paul pointed to agape love as the reigning ethic for Christians: “Love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:1, 8).

Paul’s command to “be subject to the government” did not preclude a Christian’s active participation in that government.  Nor did it preclude the fact that, according to the rest of Scripture, every “nation” will give an account to God, to bow before God when Christ comes again.

Certainly, every Christian will answer the question related to the church’s relationship to the state differently; but all Christians are called to approach the public square–and the state–from that same spirit of agape love.

Election years can be anxious times; this year is no different.  But, whether a person is voting, engaging in some friendly debate with peers, or campaigning for his or her favorite politician, there is a way to engage in politics with love and, in all things, respect and understanding.

For “love,” Martin Luther King, Jr., once preached, “Is the most durable power in the world.”