This sermon was originally preached at Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church on February 24, 2018. Watch the sermon here, or read it below:
I give to you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.(John 13:34-35)
Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. (1 John 2:7)
1 Corinthians 13:1-11
I met my BFF some forty years ago. I come from a strong enduring Baptist tradition. We met by chance, but I am convinced that it was the will of God. She was short — and small in stature with huge bright beautiful SAD eyes. She was 23, four years married with an infant child, but looked like a mere child herself.
She taught me the scriptures in ways I had never before seen. She taught me the importance of healthy habits and how to cook vegetarian meals. But most of all she taught me love. Behind her sad eyes was deep compassion and care demonstrated in the way she embraced everyone without judgment — without condition.
It was this love that made me decide to join her faith community — the Seventh-day Adventist Church. She never asked me to join her church or mentioned baptism to me.
HER LOVE WAS ENOUGH
But this is not the end of the story. I will tell you the rest of the story at the end of my sermon.
Love is a metaphysical phenomenon.
Metaphysics – is traditionally a branch of philosophy that questions the fundamental nature of reality and being.In the Johannine writings (Gospel of John, 1, 2, and 3 John), Love is the very foundation of reality.
Love is the overarching concern of the Gospel; the answer to the culture of alienation and death that chronically afflicts the community of being.
Love — agape — is not a sociological thing that changes with time. Is not psychological — the expression of a feeling/emotion. It is not sexual attraction — that ebbs and flows. Those of us who have been married for decades know that these things cannot sustain a marriage. There has to be something absolutely fundamental that transcends and overcomes our emotions and our desires.
Love is not even about religion. It is not dogma or ideology over which we may squabble, victimize, and kill each other. Rather, love is the essential fiber of the community of being. This is the essential message of John. John says: “God is Love” and “whoever does not love abides in death…We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another” (1 John 4:8, 3:13-14).
The first epistle of John continues the conversation in the Gospel according to John. In the Gospel, Jesus leaves his disciples a new commandment: “I give to you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another” (John 13:34).
John goes on in his first epistle to say that the commandment to love is no new commandment, but one which was from beginning: “I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning” (1 John 2:7).
Note I do not say “from the beginning.” This is because the original Greek text does not say “from the beginning.” Rather, it says “from beginning.”
The word for beginning in the original language of the text is archē. And the entire conversation of John which begins in the Fourth Gospel and continues through to the three epistles (1, 2 and 3 John) begins with this very word — archē.
John 1:1: “In beginning” — en archē “was the logos” — the word, “and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.”
Beginning— archē is not about time. John’s audience is steeped in Greek philosophy. In the mind of his original audience, archē — beginning — is the very ground of being. And for John to go on to his first epistle — 1 John — to say that the commandment to love is in beginning — en archē is to say that love takes humanity back to ground infinity, back to our very source where we lose any sense of separateness from b-e-i-n-g itself.
In John, archē, God, logos, and love is one and the same. This radical proclamation tells us two essential things:
- Without love, humanity remains alienated not only from each other but from its very source. That is why John says: God is love, and those who do not abide in love abide in death. And those who love abide in God and God in them, and pass from death to life (1 John 4:8; 3:13-14).
- The story of the logos which incarnates in the person of Jesus, is not only the story of God but it is the story of humanity, who we truly are and are required to be. Twice John says: No one has ever seen God; but twice he counters the statement by saying that God is revealed in two ways:
- God is revealed through the only begotten son: “No one has ever seen God, it is God the only Son; who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1:18)
- God is revealed through those who love: “No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” “Everyone who loves is begotten of God.” (1 John 4:12)
So let me repeat: The story of Jesus the Christ is not only the story of God, it is also the story of humanity — who we truly are, what we have become, and what we ought to be. That story has been lost in human culture of alienation — a culture of alienation reinforced by layers and layers of religious/cultural tradition. Love restores that story: “…those who abide in love abides in God and God in them” (1 John 1:16).
“Begotten of God.” This is the true nature of human being.
In Luke’s genealogy (Luke 3:23-38), Jesus is son of Joseph, son of……so and so,…son of Adam, son of God. Jesus is son of Adam — son of God. I am daughter of Adam, daughter of God. In Matthew 25, Jesus says that whatever we do for or against each other, we do for or against God!
Let me repeat:
The Jesus story is not only the story of God, it is also the story of humanity. Religious tradition which gives birth to human culture, has marred that story and plunged the entire creation in a state of alienation — separateness. Christianity has often presented a one-sided and distorted story of the Christ event because it frees us from the responsibility to be perfect in Love as God is Love. It frees us from the profound spiritual discipline that Love requires and the radical ethical demand it places on us to be fully responsible selves within the community of being. Christian dogma encourages us to short circuit this spiritual discipline through a cheap cop-out we mistakenly call “grace,” and to put in its place all manner of unnecessary rules, traditions and policies that only serve to divide us, while we wait to evacuate this world, when we ourselves continue to enable and contribute to the chaos in it.
What does it mean to love? Let me point out three aspects:
1.Love is actually justice. This is the message of Jesus and the early church. The same word we translate righteousness actually means justice. Righteousness in the Bible is not a narcissistic obsession with piety. Rather, it is Justice — love distributed. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is about God’s justice:
“…seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice” he says (Matthew 6:33).
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice” (Matthew 5:6).
“In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you…” (Matthew 7:12). That is the totality of any valid religious profession, says Jesus.
2. Love for God is the same as love for others. According to Jesus, the greatest commandment is to love God with your entire being (Matthew 22:37) Then he says there is only one other commandment, and that one other is identical to this greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matt 22:38-39). So the prophetic message of the gospel is this: The only thing that connects us to God, is our connection to one another — not what we wear or eat, or what ideologies we subscribe to. To the very culturally and ideologically diverse Roman church Paul writes: “Owe no one anything but to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). That is true righteousness which is justice. Paul argues in Romans 13 and 14 that whether you are a practicing Jew or an idol meat eating Gentile, let this not destroy the work of God. Work together to bring the light of God’s love to the world.
What Does it Mean to Love God?
I hear people saying: “I love you God.” What on earth does that mean? I am struggling to love my fellow beings. That is where the rubber meets the road.
Back in the day there were people in church singing “I love thee I love thee and that thou dost know…” but those same people would not allow certain people to sit beside them because they look different, or because they do not conform to the dress code.
Back in the day there were “God lovers” who marched out of church towards the town square to take part in a lynching.
Today, the “God lovers” walk out of church if a woman is installed as the pastor, and threaten to break apart the church if women who God calls to gospel ministry are officially recognized as such.
3. Love defines faith. In the proclamation of the early church, Love is the FAITH OF JESUS. Love is what identifies Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ — the logos of God. The writings of Apostle Paul are the earliest literature out of the church. His writings appeal to the community to enter into experience of faith which he calls the Christ experience. “In Christ” is the term he uses. To be in Christ is to be daily anointed by and united with God through spiritual discipline — to walk as Jesus walked. That is faith.
Faith in the writings of Paul is not Religion, it is not denomination, or sect. The word translated faith in our English versions of the Bible is the word pistis in the Greek NT. It is the noun form of the verb pisteuō meaning, I believe. It does not mean to intellectually accept something as true. This meaning obscures the true meaning of the word in the proclamation of the early church, and uproots it from its foundation in justice — love in action.
The word pistis actually means “faithfulness.” In Greek rhetoric the pistis is the substance of an argument. It indicates your faithfulness to a claim that you make. This meaning is consistent with everything the Johannine author says about faith and love.
The words faith or believe, and love appear far more often in the writings of John than any other New Testament writing. The central verse in the entire body of Johannine writings is: John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” The First Epistle of John is an explanation of what it means to believe. It is an expansion of the Love commandment in his Gospel account. For example, the author says in 1 John 4:20:
Those who say I Love God and hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: Those who love God, must love their brothers and sisters.
To believe is to love; to fully embrace the infinite inter-connectedness of b-e-i-n-g. The phrase we translate “faith in Jesus Christ” in the writing of Paul actually reads “faithfulness of Jesus Messiah.” The phrase as Apostle Paul uses it signals an invitation to enter into the life of Messiah so that God’s justice may be established towards the full vitality of community.
So what then does it mean to be a believer? “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35).
There are many who claim that they will die for their beliefs. By that they mean they will die to hold on to certain dogmas, ideologies, and cultural practices. To claim that I will die for my beliefs often means that I will not only die for these beliefs, but will kill those who do not subscribe to what I believe.
But Jesus commanded his disciples to die for their fellow beings, to affirm their worth and dignity if need be: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). And that does not necessarily mean literally dying. It may mean risking one’s career, one’s means of livelihood, reputation, or position in the main stream of the institution. There are too many influential leaders who wait until they retire when they have nothing to lose before they begin to advocate for change of unjust policies in the church or elsewhere. Where were they when they had the influence to right these wrongs? They were not willing to lay down their lives to lose their positions, etc.
Jesus was executed because he criticized his own religious tradition and interpreted scripture in ways that were life affirming. They wanted him to preach and uphold the letter of the law — the traditions of the faith — the conservative values such as how to keep Sabbath, how to treat the women, and the lepers, and the eunuchs. But he chose love. That is the faith (fullness) of Jesus. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
There are those among us — leaders and laity who will pull down the Church community to maintain certain traditions and policies in the interest of power and control — uniformity. Kill for the “faith.” They are the grim reapers who want to “separate the wheat from the tares themselves — shake out the non-compliant so that we can become a uniform body of conformers waiting for Jesus to come.
Religious institutions and the individuals within them often get so caught up in the noise of their own truth that they fail to actually hear the proclamation of God TO LOVE.
It was the church in Germany — both Catholic and Protestant that provided the foundation for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the wholesale acceptance of his populist appeal to return Germany to its former greatness. Hitler called for a new nation built on traditional values. “Traditional values” was the bait Hitler placed before the church. The church ate it up — hook, line and sinker; and thus the church became the enabler of an ideological dictatorship built on racial and religious superiority justified by the scapegoating of Jews for the problems of Germany. Yes, the church anchored a reign of death and destruction. The Christian leaders and laity who stood against Nazism — including great theologians such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were on the margins — persecuted and imprisoned, and killed by both church and state.
When Jim Crow was alive and kicking, the Church gave him the best seat in the house.
When apartheid was the law in South Africa, the Church aided and abetted it.
And today a movement has arisen in this nation that stigmatizes Mexicans (meaning Latinos) as murderers and rapists, regards Muslims as human outcasts, regards black nations as SH— countries, values women by a number from 1-10, and insists on maintaining a gun-toting culture so that today no one is sure if their kids will get back home from school alive. And this movement has power today because Christians support and enable it.
Where are the prophets?
“There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way of death,” says Solomon the sage (Prov. 13:12).
Evil is most profound when it appears in the name of God. The most entrenched manifestation of sin is often what people generally accept as God’s will. That is why so many take that easy road to destruction. In teaching about love in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says: “enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it” (Mat 7:13). He was not speaking to the so called “people of the world.” He was addressing his own religion. Very few want to think it through, and submit to the discipline of love.
Because it is the very ground of being, because God is Love, in the absence of love is suffering — alienation — divided and fractured humanity.
Let us now apply a laser focus on the nature of this fracture.
All the great isms that divide humanity are symptomatic of a basic theology of domination characterized by hatred. At the most fundamental level, the way we think about God reflects in the way we treat each other. And the way we treat each other reflects in our God-talk. Rosemary Radford Ruether points out that the most basic expression of human community, the “I-thou” relationship between male and female created in the image of God has been distorted into an “I-It” relationship (Sexism and God-Talk).
Humanity is defined as male — man, mankind. God is perceived as exclusively male — father, king; and females remain objects and servants of male interests and desires. Our male-centered language about God and humanity is deep subliminal indoctrination that the female half of humanity matters less. Radford Ruether further points out that race and class relations in America seems to be a struggle between males (based on the affirmation that all MEN are created equal. A perception of God as exclusively male creates God into the image of a broken and alienated humanity. So it is not humanity — ADAM — male and female that is created in the image of God, rather in practice it is God who is created in the image of MAN — literally MAN.
BUT LET US NOTE that in Exodus 3:14, God identifies God’s self as “I AM.” That means God is immanent Being. God cannot be gendered. God permeates and transcends all that is. We cannot limit God to creatureliness.
But if we do describe God in human terms — father, king, etc., which is quite okay, it must be inclusive. It must not exclude one half of humanity that also bears divine image. If we can say Father God, we can also say Mother God, etc. If one cringes at the words Mother God, it is because one has bought into a theology of hate.
The ideal earthly parent comprises both Father and Mother. How does the heavenly parent get to be a single parent…and a father at that? Our exclusive male language for God reflects our distorted, confused, and broken humanity.
Jesus, in his last hours on earth when he contemplated the way his own religion distorted the will of God, uttered God’s anguish thus: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how oftenI have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”(Matt 23:37). So why do we sing “under HIS wings, and not under HER wings? Do roosters gather chicken under their wings? Why do we persist in a divisive misogynistic theology? Do we realize the extent to which this misogynistic theology perpetuates violence against women?
There are shelters around the world for battered and abused women and girls. There are many humanitarian and religious groups on the frontlines seeking to alleviate the plight of women and girls who bear the brunt of poverty and warfare. Women of every race and social class forced into silence in the face of sexual exploitation and all kinds of violence are now finding courage to speak. Oprah says a new day is dawning for women. “Time’s up!” But let us make sure we are not merely treating symptoms. A misogynistic theology and a culture that defines humankind as male — man, mankind — is a perpetual poison of human existence that must be checked at its source. As long as religious dogma consciously or unconsciously denies the full humanity of females, by defining humanity as male, by making God exclusively male, by denying the full social agency and spiritual capacity of women to represent God whether in priestly or prophetic ministry, by preaching an ideology of male headship and female submission — as long as this poison peddling continues, religion remains the chief graffiti artist defacing the image of God in womankind, and perpetuating a culture of domination that justifies abuse of women and girls in all its forms.
This is an urgent call to responsibility to those who claim to represent the voice of God. There is so much damage to be repaired.
Patriarchy is the most basic and pervasive culture of domination. And Patriarchy is not about men. Patriarchy is a culture that splits humanity at its core, and both men and women buy into it, and suffer because of it. According to Radford Ruether, this culture of domination finds expression in all other forms of “domination and exploitive relationship,” such as racism and militarism, feeding a “cycle of violence” in which some try to subjugate others, humanity subjugates nature resulting in a “vast reign of death” (Gaia and God, 259 cited in Brondos, 2007, 173).
It is called SIN!
It is time for the church in every corner to wake up and see the creation/fall stories in Genesis as a description of the state of alienation that characterizes SIN. It is time for us to see the Genesis stories as a call to responsibility to heal this fundamental rift in the community of being. It is time we cease to distort the gospel in service of a culture of alienation.
Yes, patriarchy is the cultural context of both Old and New Testament. That is why the language about God and humanity is predominantly male. But culture is not God. Culture is humanity in its struggle towards ideal community. And as Radford Ruether has argued, Jesus critiqued that oppressive patriarchal culture and places God on the side of marginalized and despised groups (Sexism and God-Talk, 22-23).
Jesus and the early Church pressed the boundaries of culture. Paul pressed against a Greco-Roman culture of domination by saying:
“in Christ…there is no longer Jew or Gentile…slave or free…male and female….” (Gal. 3:28).
In Christ man is not independent of woman nor woman of man…everything comes from God.” God is the only head.
In Christ submit to one another, subverting a Roman Household Code of domination (Eph. 5:21).
And we who represent Christ, must continue to press those boundaries that divide and oppress. It demands openness to being. This brings me to my final point.
Love Requires Openness.
The radical responsibility that love demands requires openness to change and growth — infinite possibility. Being is just that — b-e-i-n-g. It is not static; it is dynamic. Religious institutions fear openness believing it will lead to chaos. We have everything all carefully systematized, negotiated, and ironed out! Do not discombobulate it! But the call for justice is a call for openness to the other. And this call has always rankled those who seek the comfort of familiar ways of being. That is why they kill the prophets. That is why they killed Jesus of Nazareth.
According to the gospel preached by Jesus of Nazareth and the early Church, the only thing that is certain is love. In the great love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul tells the ideologically contentious Corinthian church community that human knowledge is partial and temporary, and the only thing that is permanent is love. Love opens us up to dynamic being: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child I thought like a child I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult I put an end to childish ways” (1 Cor. 13:11)
What makes me assume that I know everything in my finite existence? And why do I try to negate someone else’s experience because it does not match mine? This is the question that Paul asks as he addresses the issue of eating meat offered to idols: “Why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced…?” (1 Cor. 10:29-30)
By asking this question, Paul defends those who have no problem eating meat offered to idols. I am yet to hear a sermon that mentions this side of the conversation on idol meat in 1 Corinthians. What most of us know about the conversation is this: “If meat causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat… (1 Cor. 8:13). Many quote it in order to hold on to their own resistance to change, or their insistence that everyone does things their way. But we overlook the fact that Paul also defends the ones who have no problem eating it. His argument here is typical of his overall approach to the many controversies in the early church.
We should not seek to demonize the experience of another because it does not match our own. Listen to one another. We all have a right to be here in this beloved community, because we all have one source.
God is one (Romans 3:30).
A body of beliefs and practices is not God.
GOD IS INFINITE GROUND OF BEING BEYOND IMAGINATION AND EXPLANATION.
These temporal things will all cease to exist, for they always fall short of the infinite. Paul says: Love never ends, but as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part…”(1 Corinthians 13: 8, ff).
LOVE IS ENOUGH
So let me tell you the rest of the story with which I began.
My BFF who taught me all the rudiments of Seventh-day Adventism migrated to America. Many years passed before we met again. I visited her with my family during a family vacation to Disney World. She had become a Buddhist. She explained to me that she was tired of the dogmatism and the majoring in minors. She faithfully served her husband —a man of rigid traditional values. When she decided to go back to school to improve herself, he resisted it, so she left him,too. She told me that the Buddhist faith focuses on love and compassion, and helps her to find peace. I told her that these very things — Love, compassion, and inner peace lie at the foundation of the Gospel; and it is unfortunate that these have not been perceived to be the singular focus in the Christian tradition.
(The Christian tradition has been preached all over the world. Now it is time for us to preach the gospel!)
What is remarkable is that sitting before me on that blazing hot summer day was the same kind and compassionate soul that God placed on my path so many years before.
Today I am still learning about her, and the depths of her suffering since childhood.
She accepts me the same —no judgment —no condition.
And I embrace her the same —no judgment—no condition.
When we communicate, we pray for each other.
I pray for her children.
And she prays for my children.
There is so much that I do not know.
BUT of this one thing I am sure:
—LOVE IS ENOUGH—
Olive Hemmings is professor of religion at Washington Adventist University. This sermon was originally preached at Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church, on the campus of WAU, on February 24, 2018. Watch the sermon here.
Image Credit: Video still.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8632