*Delivered at Cathedral of Hope United Church of Christ in Dallas, Texas on 9/18/2014
We are in the midst of a series entitled “Wrestling with Romans.” I think if we are going to be honest with our self and study the book of Romans then we have to talk about the wrestlings of a Roman in the life of the Apostle Paul. For me, when I look to the life of Paul…I see someone who is constantly wrestling and struggling with one truth…God loves me. It seems that in our day-to-day lives and the worlds that we inhabit we wrestle with a similar question. The question of Paul is not all that different from our own question that arises in our own experiences. Does God love me? How can it possibly be?
Tonight, I am going to wrestle about with the question of love. What does it look like for God to be love and love being for us? If love is for us then what can be against us. Before we arrive to such a truth, we must first get to the point where we believe that love is truly for us. If we are able to reach that liberation and that place…then we truly become free. Paul talks about being unchained and unbound. Hopefully tonight, we will proceed a little bit along that journey together.
To proceed, we start with one basic affirmation…God is love. 1 John 4:8 states, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (NRSV). It is a simple three words, yet still so profound. That sentence forms the basis of all of scripture…God is love. Ultimately, does love and God become synonymous? If love and God become synonymous, then what does that mean for our worship and what does that mean for our lives? What does that mean for how we read scripture?
The scripture states, “Whoever does not know love does not know God…” We live in an age where people like to hold up signs that stating that God hates this and God hates that. Perhaps even in our own lives we slip up and say God hates them or that. How can love and hate coexist? If God is love then God has no quarter with hate. If God is love then that is the totality of who God is. God is love.
I am someone who is profoundly attached to beginnings. I think beginnings are so important. Part of it is that I am trained as a historian and have always loved history. But you know I think if you want to understand someone then you have to talk about and learn about where they come from. When we wrestle with Romans and think about the wrestlings of Paul throughout the New Testament, we must not remember to think about where he came from…killing Christians…a part of the upper echelons of society…it is not hard to see why Paul might need to do a little bit of wrestling. When we take the time to think about and look at where we come from, it is not hard to understand why wrestle either. I am going to take us back to the beginning to a place called Eden.
The scriptures say that humans were created in the image of God. We already said that God is love. So if God is love…then we are created in the image of love. There is tremendous profundity there. Love. We are created in the image of love. What is the image of love? You are. You are. Paul is. Paul was. What does that mean?
When we think about being made in the image of love and we think about all people everywhere being made in the image of love, it is difficult to believe when we watch the news. When people are killing and destroying each other, it doesn’t seem like all people are made in the image of love. People surely aren’t acting like it. Maybe sometimes we’re not acting like it. But I think there was a time when things were right. I think there was a time when people functioned in the image of God…they functioned in the image of love…perfectly. But ya’ll all know the story. We talk often about apples and snakes and what not, but for me the fact of the matter is that something incredibly tragic happened in those moments. When the temptation is given and the temptation is taken. One of the first persons comes to this moment and believes that God is a part-time lover. Don’t nobody want a part-time lover. But somehow in that moment, the first person is led to believe that God is a part-time lover…that somehow you have to go around God to get what you want…and that somehow God is not all that you need, all that you want and all that you will ever need. There was a fundamental inability to believe that God is love and that we are created perfectly in love’s image.
Well, the gates flew open or whatever flew open and the folks ran out. But the good news is that we all kinda made off like bandits and I think that is how this whole thing works out. In making off like bandits, we ran out carrying the image of love…the image of God…with us. If there is to be redemption for us…if there was or is to be redemption for Paul…it came from that piece that was left. That piece of God…that piece of love…that image of God…that image of love. For hundreds of thousands if not millions of years we have struggled to grab hold of that image of God…that image of love that is within us.
Well, then we have this Jesus pop up on the scene. I believe that Jesus comes to show us what love is. Even further, I believe that Jesus is the very incarnation of love. Jesus is the perfection of this image of love…this image of God. You see I think we call God…Jesus and Jesus…God because in Jesus we see love perfected.
Well, if we go to believing that Jesus is the incarnation of love and God is love and love is God then the way that we read scripture changes a little bit. In John 1:1 can you imagine if we have the courage to declare, “In the beginning was love, love was with God and love was God.” The word was love and love was the word and the word that was up was the word love. When we begin to go back, things change.
Beginnings are important. Jesus lives into the fullness of Eden. Jesus lives into the fullness of the image of God…the image of love. Then what happens? The love is attacked. Love is challenged. When we start living into the core of who we are…when we start living into that core of love that is within us…there will be an attack…there will be skepticism. If I looked at you right now and said, “I love you”…most of us would say no you don’t and you might even call me crazy. So let’s not be too hard on those folks who experienced Jesus walking around telling everyone that he loved them.
Ultimately, Jesus lives this way of love out. If we are going to follow Jesus then we have to follow the way of love. John 3:16, “For love so loved the world that love gave love’s only begotten love that whosoever believes in love shall not perish but have everlasting love.” When the story becomes about love, then it is all about love. When God is love and we believe that truth…when we live into that truth…our perception of the story begins to shift…we become less concerned about what is going to happen to me? and what’s going to become of me?…what can I do?…what do I need to be?…and ultimately we arrive at a space where we realize that we were created to be love. Now, if you are love then you are obviously going to be loving…but the first step is to be love…to be the image that you were created to be in the first place. That is the story of Paul. That is the wrestling of Paul…to be the image of love that he was created to be in the first place.
I do believe that love is the way, love is the truth and love is the light. So often we get to preaching and we want people to believe it exactly like this…bam bam bam…we talk about doctrine and dogma…my friends the message is simple…God is love and love is God and love can liberate all of us…if we will live into the way, live into the truth and live into the light.
When we talk about the incarnation of love and say that Jesus is the incarnation of love, we must not run past these basic truths. We must stay there and tarry for a little while. Folks talk often about following the way of Jesus…most folks don’t add that the way of Jesus is death. Jesus died and maybe that is the difficult part for all of us…because we realize that if we live into love and live into the image of God…then some things that we hold onto tightly here are going to have to die. The good news is that I don’t believe in death without resurrection…but sometimes we have to make a stop and figure out what is going on and figure out what needs to be put aside.
Everybody wants to talk about getting saved. I grew up as an evangelical and everybody always asks, “Are you saved?” The responding question should always be, “Saved from what?” If you want to be saved and truly saved, then embrace love…embrace the truth that is love. You see, I believe that this image of God this image of love that we all carry…that festers in us on occasion…I believe that image can carry all of us. Not only do you carry it, but I believe it will carry you. I think Paul had suspicions of that too.
When we get to Romans 8:38-39, I think you will hear the wondering of Paul. Can it be true? Can it possibly be real? God not only loves me, but the love of God is inside me. I think that when Paul uttered the words I am about to utter he is making a promissory note. Sometimes you have to think futuristically and declare a belief in something that doesn’t quite seem real yet. I am going to put my hand on it and grab it. Maybe I can’t totally believe it and maybe I’m not totally there yet, but that is where I want to go and that is what I want to believe. I think that is what Paul is saying when he says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (NRSV). You know you might move, but I don’t think you can shake it. You might sit down, but I think love will still be standing with you. I don’t think you can outrun love and if you can’t outrun love then you can’t outrun God because God is love. You might hide and think that you are hiding, but love is there. You might be laid up in the hospital bed and think that there is no hope, but love is there. There might be war raging all round you, but love is there.
This past week, I was with Willie Trottie on Texas’ Death Row. Who was executed about 7 hours after I got to spend a short amount of time with him. You talk about the most hopeless of hopeless of situations. Somehow though and I can’t explain it. I don’t even know how to describe what it felt like…but love was there. I knew that God was there. I thought about these verses. I was reminded that nothing can separate us from the love of God…and I hope that all of you here tonight knows what that means.
Whatever is going on in your life and wherever you are at, nothing can separate you from the love of God. I hope you know…and I based this on a really good indication and feeling that I have about how all of this plays out…that love will be revealed and perfected in you. 1 Corinthians 13:13 says in the end or there abides faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love. You see in that image of God and that image of love…that hope that you have within you…is like a cheat sheet on your heart that reminds you that somehow or someway everything is going to turn out ok.
When I think about the fate of all of humanity…when I think about Paul…when I think about Paul’s wrestlings and his desire to believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God…I feel like a baseball announcer during the World Series in the Bottom of the 9th inning and I want to cry out and scream out Love Wins! Love Wins! Love Wins! Hallelujah! Love Wins!