Reconnecting with Love
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RECONNECTING WITH LOVE
A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on March 12, 2017 (Second Sunday in Lent)
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life
17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. – John 3:1-17
Many members of this church have expressed a desire to deepen their spiritual lives. During this season of Lent – the 6-1/2 weeks of preparation for Easter – my worship reflections will hopefully be able to help with that. I am reflecting on a book I read this past summer at Contemplative Camp: ‘The Rebirthing of God,” by John Philip Newell. Each chapter of that book invites us to “reconnect” with the living God in different ways. Last week it was “reconnecting with spiritual practice.” Today, it is “reconnecting with love.”
A couple clarifications: If you are reading the book, you will note that I am not following the same order as the chapters in Newell’s book. Today’s theme – reconnecting with love – is actually the final chapter in the book. Instead, I have tried to choose chapters that fit with the lectionary scripture texts for each week. Today’s lesson – the story of Jesus and Nicodemus from the gospel of John – says towards the end, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” It seemed to fit with “reconnecting with love.”
Also, a disclaimer: My talking about these different themes probably won’t deepen your spiritual life. But hopefully you will get a new insight, or perspective, or idea that you can think about and maybe even put into practice in your life in a way that will take your relationship with the Holy in a new way.
Let me also say something about the gospel of John, from which we will be reading for the next few weeks. John is a beautiful gospel, but it is different – in many ways. There are four gospels in the Bible – stories that narrate the life of Jesus, but not in the way we normally think of as biography or history. They are not interested in verifiable facts as much as they are interested in changing your life.
Of the four gospels, three are pretty similar: Matthew, Mark and Luke. They follow the same basic chronology of the events of Jesus’ life. Many stories are almost the same in the three – sometimes even word-for-word. In fact, many biblical scholars believe that the authors of Matthew and Luke actually used the gospel of Mark as the starting point for their gospels, but then they edited the text in Mark to give it their own unique “spin”, and then added stories from other sources. The three gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – are sometimes called the “synoptic” gospels – a word that means “seen together.”
But John is an odd duck. The chronology is different than the other three (e.g. the cleansing of the temple happens early in his ministry rather than at the end). It contains many stories not found in any of the other gospels (like turning water into wine). And, from what I have been taught, the original Greek language of the text is very simple, but the ideas it conveys are very complex. As in our lesson for today, the dialog between Jesus and Nicodemus suggests a misunderstanding because of different ways of understanding the same statement. Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be “born again,” or “born from above” – and he is referring to his spiritual relationship with God. Nicodemus is thinking about the birth of a baby. There is a clash of an “earthly” meaning and a “spiritual” meaning – if that makes any sense. I will probably say more about this in weeks to come, but you might find it interesting to read the gospel of John in the next few weeks just to get a sense of what I’m saying.
But back to Newell’s book. He observes (along with others) that the Christian faith as it has been taught and lived for centuries is – if not dying, then going through a chaotic period of reformation and renewal in our lifetimes. He is hopeful about the future, but it will require of us a reconnecting with the Source of our life and hope – the Ground of our Being (as Tillich called God). One dimension of that is reconnecting with love.
I once heard the story of a preacher who, when the time for his reflection in a worship service came, rose and stood at the pulpit and said…. “Love.” And then he sat down, and they started to receive the offering. It was one of the best sermons or reflections in history!
I am not nearly that elegant or concise.
What is love? We all desire it. We can’t live without it. We talk about it, sing about it, watch films about it; but we would be hard pressed to define it. John Newell, in his book, quotes Carl Jung – the great 20th century Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst – who, towards the end of his life said, “I have never been able to explain what it is.” Maybe it’s just one of those things we know when we see it.
But how can we “reconnect with love” when it’s hard to pin down exactly what love is?
John Philip Newell reminds us that, in the words of the New Testament book 1 John, “God is love.” And everything that God has created – including us – are “living vibrations” of that love. We were made as an expression of God’s love, and we were made to respond to that love by loving God in return, and every living vibration of that love. But we don’t always do that, because all created things can also resist love.
Newell offers a few thought-provoking definitions of love. He quotes Simone Weil, who wrote that love is about “giving up our imaginary position at the center of the universe and finding that the true center is everywhere.” She also wrote that to love is to “say no to the false use of power.” I think that fits with the gospel story we read last Sunday about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, when he refused to use his power to rule all the kingdoms of the world.
Christians claim that Jesus was the most faithful embodiment of God’s love, and one who loved God fully in response.
Newell sees the cross as a beautiful symbol of God’s love – particularly the Celtic cross, like St. Martin’s Cross on the island of Iona in Scotland (Newell was formerly the Warden of Iona Abbey). He sees the cross with the circle encompassing the intersection of the two are arms as a symbol of reconciliation – of holding together what has been divided: east and west, north and south, God and human, flesh and spirit.
But not everyone – and even not every Christian – sees love in the cross. Or sees God as loving, for that matter. Many people have grown up believing God is stern, judgmental, punishing, watching to condemn us for any moral misstep. And the cross, on which Jesus died, is a symbol of a particulary distasteful theological idea about Jesus’ death – that somehow God demanded that Jesus die in order to pay for the sins of humanity, which we could never pay ourselves.
That metaphor for the way we are reconciled to God does have biblical roots. There are three books in the New Testament that refer to the “atoning sacrifice” that Jesus made. But it is a metaphor, and not the only one for the meaning of Jesus’ death. And every metaphor is imperfect –helpful in some ways, but not in others.
The author the gospel of John also sees God’s love as cross-shaped. He writes,
“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.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Walter Wink argues that the Greek word kosmos that is often translated “world” (as here), can mean the human social order that is estranged from God. It is “the system” – even religious systems – that are unaware of their alienation from God, and that do damage to people.
That means that God loved this messed-up world of injustice. The first century Roman Empire was ruled by a man who many people believed was a god – and the emperor may have believed it himself. The top 1% had life pretty good, but the bottom 99% were poor and expendable. And yet we believe that God still loved it and its flawed people – not as it was, but as it was created to be and could be again. And so God entered into the mess in the person of Jesus, who rather than destroying it by military power, or taking political power, (which would have been a misuse of power) loved it and its people, even though that was dangerous. It caused him great suffering. It got him crucified.
For the author of John, the cross was where God’s love and glory were revealed. It was the place of willing, transformative suffering. He – or she – believed we are not redeemed by Christ’s death, but by witnessing the extent of his love for us.
Can we reconnect with that? Maybe our understanding of God’s nature needs to be “born again, born from above.”
And maybe, if we can reconnect with Love itself, we can also learn to love this beautiful, messed-up world – even the political and economic and religious systems that drive us crazy sometimes. And the people who are a part of them. Not because they are perfect, but because even they can vibrate with the source of love. And maybe they can be transformed – to be less anxious and self-centered and fearful as well.
I will conclude with a poem by Mary Oliver, which Newell quotes (briefly) in his book. It is a poem about offering what one has – in love.
The Poet Visits the Museum of Fine Arts – Mary Oliver
For a long time
I was not even
In this world, yet
Opened in perfect sweetness
In gracious repose,
In its own exotic fragrance,
In its huge willingness to give
Something, from its small self,
To the entirety of the world.
I think of them, thousands upon thousands,
In many lands,
Whenever summer came to them,
Out of the patience of patience,
To leaf and bud and look up
Into the blue sky
Or, with thanks,
Into the rain
That would feed
Their thirsty roots
Latched into the earth-
Sandy or hard, Vermont or Arabia,
What did it matter,
The answer was simply to rise
In joyfulness, all their days.
Have I found any better teaching?
Not ever, not yet.
Last week I saw my first Botticelli
And almost fainted,
And if I could I would paint like that
But am shelved somewhere below, with a few songs
About roses: teachers, also, of the ways
Toward thanks, and praise.
Robert J. von Trebra