A Question And Answer
I asked this a few years ago for sermon – and I ask again for those who would like to chime in. Do you think that God cares about you? About other people? About the world (people and/or nature)? – A question posed on Facebook by a pastor friend
I don’t get the chance to teach very much in churches. I do enjoy the occasional class where I get to sit and learn from others. The matter of Divine Love comes up again and again, and I usually find myself in the company of one or two people for whom the matter of Divine Love is either an unanswered question, or one they answer far too quickly and, honestly, far too glibly. Divine Love, to these latter, is not different than bourgeois parental love, filial love, and romantic love in some kind of odd combination. There are certainly Biblical precedents for each and all these positions; whether in the Fourth Gospel’s Jesus talking about his relationship with his Divine Father, St. Paul’s discussion of Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13 (the most overused and misunderstood chapter in the entire Bible), or the love poem Song of Songs, that equates human romantic and sexual love with the Diving passion for creation, there are all sorts of things in the Bible that point the reader to the conclusion that Divine Love is only human love magnified and expanded.
If we read the Bible beginning with both the teachings and sacrifice of Jesus, however, an entirely different picture of Divine Love becomes abundantly clear: This is a love that certainly is unending; it is a love that brings even death in to the eternal life of the interpenetrating love of the Persons of the Trinity; it is a love that wants only for creation to be what it was intended to be; in order to achieve all this, however, the faithful Disciples of Jesus Christ are called to follow a path of self-sacrifice that few would choose for themselves. At both the beginning and end of this path stands a bloody cross; it is both goad and goal. The path set before those who accept the call is lined with terror. Along the way, these terrors emerge in the form of rejection by family and friends; threats and acts of violence if one does not stop being a Disciple; the abandonment of the fulfillment, happiness, and actualization of the self; no instruction manual on how to get from here to there, only the call to do so and a promise of presence that doesn’t include some secret hidden promise of a miracle to help us overcome the dangers and terror along the way.
I think about this a lot when I think about the United Methodist Church’s mission statement: “The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make faithful disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” In our place and time, discipleship is reduced to a slogan, another journey toward self-actualization, with the promise of friendship and personal growth along the way. We are told if we preach the real Gospel, people will flock to the Word; yet all the evidence around us is that if we preach the false promise of safety, security, and the equalization of middle-class morality and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then and only then will people flock to hear us. Real discipleship isn’t just hard; it’s pretty much a horror show, a life filled with no peace like the world gives peace; it is a life filled with promises, glimpses of light in the darkness, and no maps save those who have traveled before us who all say the same thing: On either side of the road is written only Here there be monsters.
Such cheery thoughts should lead one to question why anyone in their right mind would willingly choose to follow Jesus on this path laid before us. The first answer is obvious: We Christians aren’t in our right minds, and are not called to be so. St. Paul noted in his Epistle to the Galatians that the Way of Christ is foolishness to the wise. Somewhere along the way in our history we forgot to remain foolish; we decided that madness was an illness in need of curing, rather than a way of life in need of emulating. The Truth is (please note what I did there with that word) to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ is to be more than a bit mad. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to know before we take one step forward that the only thing we’re asked to surrender is our lives. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ comes with no guarantees of anything other than the promise of Divine Love and Presence; we aren’t promised success or happiness or peace of mind or a happy family life or a lot of friends or power and influence or anything else.
All we’re promised is that same bloody cross at the end of our road.
But that cross? It’s empty. And that, friends, make all the difference in the universe.
Here’s the answer I gave to my friend’s question:
I tell people that I believe that God loves us (that’s what Easter’s all about, after all) but God doesn’t care about us very much. God’s love is a hard love. It is a love that calls us to sacrifice comfort, self-care, the good opinion of others, even family and friends, in order to be true disciples. It is a love that sends out with no understanding of the “how” we are to do what we are called to do. Abraham was told he would be the Father of a great nation, then told to sacrifice his only legitimate son; one wonders what he was thinking as he stood above the bound body of Isaac, knife raised. God doesn’t offer us happiness, inner peace, self-fulfillment, or anything else. All we are offered is a bloody cross and the call to follow the path that leads us to its foot where we bow down. Is it a wonder St. Paul noted that our faith is foolishness to the wise?