Archive for May, 2012

If God is love …?


Rev. Michael Woods

May 6, 2012

CSSS Chapel Vespers Service


1 John 4:7-21


Every time I read John’s first letter in the New Testament, it about drives me crazy! It drives me crazy because I think I’ve got this holiness thing all locked up! I go to church every Sunday … I lead a spirituality discussion group once a week … I’m a chaplain in a hospital … I’ve studied both Hebrew and Greek and can read the Bible in its original languages … I’ve studied the great theologians of the Christian church: Irenaeus, Calvin, Luther, Barth, Tillich, and Moltmann … I’ve been to church conferences … I’ve travelled to Central America on mission trips … I’ve helped serve meals in homeless shelters. If you could judge a person’s holiness by what they do – I would think I should probably rank somewhere up there in the higher percentiles. I’m not saying I’m Mother Theresa or the Dali Lama or anybody like that … but if I had to rank myself, I would say, “better than average.”

But then John comes along with these simple little words… plainly written … not hard at all for us to understand … and undermines every bit of smugness I may have in my spirituality, my pride in my humility, and my self-perspective of my own holiness. He humbles me. He ought to humble every one of us.

It’s easy for us to say, “God is love.” It’s easy for us to wrap up that notion in a rosy kind of sentimentality … make it sugary sweet and confine it to a simplistic notion of romanticism. But John doesn’t want to just say, “God is love,” and leave it at that. He wants to unpack it for us. “If God is love, then what does that mean?”

We know that God is love because of what God did and what God does. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God became a human being. He took on the form of a lowly carpenter, a day laborer who made his living from day to day, who didn’t know where his next meal would come from, who didn’t know if the present job or contract that he was working on would be the last that he would see for a very long time. He suffered as we suffered. He grieved the death of friends and relatives. He wept bitterly over the sorrows of this world and the unfairness of life. He experienced that unfairness, himself, personally. He was betrayed, abandoned, and denied by his friends. But though he was treated in such a way as this, he responded with love and in grace. At  the Last Supper, he washed the feet of those who would deny, betray, and abandon him. And as he hung upon the cross, his dying words were: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

God is love: this we know for we have the physical proof of that. What else but the very being, the very essence of love itself could do such a thing for the human race … to die because of our sins, to die for our sins, and in so dying free us from our sins? If God is love, then every bit of love that exists in this world comes from God. The love parents have for their children … the love that two people have for one another … this love comes from God, this love is God and is the very presence of God abiding in every man, woman, and child who has love and is loved. Love is not an artificial human creation – all love is divine love. Keep in mind that what we are talking about here is love – not lust or greed or avarice or desire.  The Greek word that John uses is agape, which means a self-sacrificing kind of love, a love that gives of itself. All love, therefore, is divine in its origin, and to have that love is is to have God dwell within you.There’s a great line at the end of the musical Les Miserables that expresses what John is trying to tell us in a very beautiful and artistic way. After the main character, Jean Valjean, has died and his spirit is being born away to heaven by two angels who have come for him, he turns to the audience and sings: “Remember the truth that once was spoken: to love another person is to see the face of God.”

John tells us: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them” (4:16b). That makes sense. John fashions a logical argument for us. He has proved that God is love, and if God is love and if we have love, that love must be from God and that love must also be the presence of God within us. But, here’s where I think John wants to challenge us a little bit. “He tells us: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars: for those who do not love a brother or a sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

He ties us up with his logic. He points out our hypocrisy. He humbles us. It’s easy for us to say, “God is love.” It’s easy for us to even say, “I love God.” It’s easy for us to focus all of our attention on our so-called “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and block out the rest of the world – forget about the people suffering oppression, hunger or famine in other parts of the world … forget about the millions of people in our own nation without healthcare insurance and who because of that are denied access to medical treatment everyday.  It’s easy for us to pretend they don’t matter … it’s easy for us not to love them and rationalize to ourselves that they somehow deserve the circumstances they are suffering from – “they made bad choices” or something to that effect.

And what about our neighbors … the people we see day to day, who live next door to us or down the hall … who maybe play their music just a little too loud … whose personality is a little gruff … whose lifestyle we maybe don’t entirely agree with … the kind of people that make it almost impossible for you to even like them, let alone love?

John makes this holiness thing hard, doesn’t he? Even Jesus, himself, reminds us in the Gospel of Matthew: “As you have done unto the least of these, so you have done unto me” (25: 40). And if you think that’s hard enough – to love the unloveable – John wants to up the ante. He tells us that somehow, someway, we have to love for the right reasons. We shouldn’t love each other out of fear of being punished, out of a sense of duty, or because that’s the way we earn our way into heaven. We have to love each other for the sake of love itself, and for the sake of each other.

For those of you who have studied philosophy, you probably know of the notion of Pascal’s wager. The French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, once argued that God was the safe bet. Because, if you bet that God doesn’t exist, as the atheists do, and it turns out at the end of your life you find there is a God, then you loose everything, your soul is damned to eternal hell. But if you wager there is a God, you have everything to gain and nothing to loose. Pascal’s advice is to take the safe bet.

But John challenges this advice in today’s reading because such a wager is based on fear – fear of eternal punishment, fear of loosing everything. The safe bet isn’t so safe if fear is what motivates you to make it. Love is it’s own purpose, it’s own excuse for being. Love one another not for any reward … not out of fear of loosing anything at all. Love each other because you see yourself in the faces of other people … because whether we are rich or poor, or Black or white … whether we are Catholic or Protestant or Jew or Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, we all share a common humanity. If we are cut we bleed … if a loved one dies, we grieve. We all experience hunger … we all have anxieties about our future … we all have regrets about our past. We all grow older, and death awaits every one of us. That’s reason enough to love … any other reason is just being plain selfish and that’s not love at all. For love is not selfish. “Perfect love casts out all fear,” as John tells us.

A Table has been prepared for us by our Lord … a Table prepared in love. The bread and the cup represent his self-giving sacrifice for us, a sacrifice he made not because he wanted to gain everything for himself – in fact, he had everything to loose – but it is a sacrifice he made for us, so that we might have everything to gain. We approach this Table in love, recognizing the common humanity we share with one another and the common humanity that we share with our God and Savior who came to us in this world in love.

In his holy name Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Leave a comment

A theological reflection on Les Miserable

There are two competing theologies struggling against each other in the musical Les Miserables represented by two characters who serve as perfect foils for one another. Inspector Javert believes in an orderly universe, where the good are rewarded and the evil are punished. His system of belief is expressed in the aria “Stars” where he reflects on his hope for capturing the escaped fugitive, Jean Valjean.

There, out in the darkness
A fugitive running
Fallen from god
Fallen from grace
God be my witness
I never shall yield
Till we come face to face
Till we come face to face

He knows his way in the dark
Mine is the way of the Lord
And those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward
And if they fall
As Lucifer fell
The flame
The sword!

In your multitudes
Scarce to be counted
Filling the darkness
With order and light
You are the sentinels
Silent and sure
Keeping watch in the night
Keeping watch in the night

You know your place in the sky
You hold your course and your aim
And each in your season
Returns and returns
And is always the same
And if you fall as Lucifer fell
You fall in flame!

And so it has been and so it is written
On the doorway to paradise
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price!

Lord let me find him
That I may see him
Safe behind bars
I will never rest
Till then
This I swear
This I swear by the stars!

There is no room or hope for forgiveness in Javert’s philosophy. Forgiveness is a sign of weakness to him. But as soon as Javert exits the stage, the street urchin, Gavroche, runs onto the stage and in a comical aside sings,

That inspector thinks he’s something
But it’s me who runs this town!
And my theater never closes
And the curtain’s never down
Trust Gavroche, have no fear
Don’t you worry, auntie dear,
You can always find me here!

There are other forces at work in the universe, besides law and order, and that are far greater. More importantly, there is another theology at work counterpoised to Javert’s: a theology of grace. After being paroled from prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children, Jean Valjean finds himself a marked man and an outcast in society. A local bishop takes pity on him, taking Valjean in for the night. But Valjean steals the bishop’s silverware and sneaks away, only to be captured by the police who do not believe Valjean’s story that the bishop gave the silverware to him as a gift. Yet when the police bring Valjean back to the bishop’s house, the bishop confirms Valjean’s story adding that the former prisoner left in such a hurry that he forgot the silver candlesticks, which the bishop had also intended as a gift. The bishop then presents the candlesticks to Valjean urging to use this newfound wealth “to become an honest man.”

All his life, Valjean has known only hardship: an “eye for an eye/turn your heart into stone.” But this experience of grace has profoundly changed his life and he cannot go back to the life he knew before. As the recipient of grace he can only respond in kind. He intercedes on the behalf of Fantine when she is left destitute, and when she dies, he takes her daughter, Cosette, into his home, raising her as his own daughter. And when Cosette falls in love with the revolutionary Marius, Valjean takes part in the uprising in order to rescue the young student. Valjean even extends this grace when he personally has much to lose by doing so. When an innocent man is mistaken for him, Valjean turns himself in to the French court so that the man would not have to take his place in prison. And after the revolutionaries capture Javert, Valjean convinces them to put the inspector in his care. But rather than execute his nemesis, which is what the revolutionaries anticipate, Valjean releases him to go free.

However, Javert’s reaction to being the recipient of grace is very different from Valjean’s. He sees the tables as having been turned. Valjean now has dominion over him and, rather than being free, the  inspector is indebted to a man who, in turn because of his crimes, is indebted to society. The inspector has been taken from the safe, secure world of law and order and placed in a world of grace – a world in which he has no idea how to live. In his final soliloquy, Javert sings:

And must I now begin to doubt

Who never doubted all these years?

My heart is stone and still it trembles

The world I have known is lost in shadow.

Is he from heaven or from hell?

And does he know

That granting me my life today

This man has killed me even so?

Unable to face this new world, Javert takes his own life.

But the musical promises a different end for those who live by grace. At the end, after Valjean has died and his spirit has been taken to heaven by the ghosts of Fantine and Eponine, the entire cast gathers onstage and sing the Finale:

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plough-share,
They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!


            The future that awaits is not a fantasy of some blissful life in a heavenly realm somewhere far removed from the cares and worries of this world. If that is the only hope that the gospel promises us, then Karl Marx is right and religion is nothing more than the opiate of the masses. The gspel promise is of a better future for this world. But that future will not be brought by revolution – Marius’ friends die on the barricades and their dreams die with them – and Javert’s theology of law and order is bereft of justice. The only theology left standing at the end of the day is the one of grace.

Leave a comment