Sunday, May 14, 2023

Phil Kniss: Loving more than the idea

The Spirit of Jesus pours out God's love
Romans 5:1-11

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We are loved. We are deeply loved.
You and I and every child of God,
are eternally and unconditionally loved.
Believe it. And let it sink in for a bit.
And now, allow yourself to wonder, along with me . . .
Why are there so many
fractured, spiteful, self-serving, and violent interactions
between persons that are
equally loved and treasured by their Creator?

Perhaps, it is the nature of us humans
to love in the abstract, more than in the particular.
Sometimes the idea is easier to embrace than the actual.
Once I was in a group discussing camping in the great outdoors,
and someone said, “I love the idea of camping.”
We knew what they meant.
So, when it comes to loving ourselves—
the foundation for healthy relationships—
we love the idea of our self,
more than the actual self that lives in the real world.
We love our theoretical self, more than the self that is
just too . . . (whatever, fill in the blank),
or just not worthy of . . .
or just not enough of . . .
or could never achieve . . . and so on.
And perhaps we love the idea of our neighbor,
more than the actual neighbor that lives in the real world,
the one that is just too . . .
or not enough of . . .
or not worthy of our time and energy, and so on.

Sorry for starting my sermon
with a bunch of agonizing existential questions.
But I’d like us to ponder a paradox on this Sunday, especially,
when we are blessing some high school seniors,
in preparation for sending them out into the world,
and when we are remembering our mothers,
or those who have been like mothers to us,
who have nurtured us with unconditional love.
The paradox is this—
that we, beautiful and beloved children of our mothering God,
are at once capable of radiating
that beauty and belovedness into the world,
and are also capable of doing irreparable harm
to each other and to ourselves.
Why is that? How can we do more of the former and less of the latter?

I ask that because we live right now at the edge of some fault-lines—
we are earthquake-prone.
And I don’t mean the surface of the earth.
I mean our social, cultural, psychological, and religious ground.
There are fault-lines running through them all.
And they overlap. They impact each other.

I don’t need to rehearse the details of each fault line.
We know them, and feel them.
They have to do with our dysfunctional politics,
residual trauma from the pandemic,
climate change happening faster than we thought,
wars that shake up global alliances, threaten to go nuclear,
mass shootings, vigilante justice, domestic abuse,
an unstable economy,
a looming debt ceiling that could collapse on us.
church and denominational affiliations that keep shifting,
making institutions feel like they are on thin ice.

It’s precisely in these anxious and fearful times,
that we need a text like Romans 5:1-11.
Paul’s letter to the Romans, as Moriah said last Sunday,
is a letter to a church Paul had not yet met,
and thus, really, a letter to us all.
It’s his most comprehensive declaration of the Gospel.
And this passage in Romans 5 works like a pivot point
in his grand theological presentation.

In the first four chapters,
Paul establishes our common human condition of sinfulness,
that applies equally to Jews, Gentiles, pagans, everyone.
And he says grace is the only path to salvation,
the only way to be freed from the grip of sin.
And after today’s text,
Paul uses most of the rest of the book of Romans
to encourage followers of Jesus to live by the Spirit,
and to keep choosing new life in Christ.
He calls everyone to a consistently ethical life
of loyalty, love, and virtue.

But sandwiched in between
the opening chapters of recognizing our need,
and Paul’s lengthy invitation to new life in chapters 5-16,
these 11 sublime verses tell us . . .
We are loved . . . We are deeply loved.
You and I and every child of God,
are eternally and unconditionally loved.
Accepting this, and believing this,
is what can move us from being aware of our need
to living a new life.

This is the hinge of faith—
the knowledge that we are
covered and protected and warmed by the love of God.
It’s the same feeling, but I dare say even better,
than the feeling our three seniors will have in a few minutes,
when they are wrapped around with a quilt of our love for them.
Romans 5 is God’s quilt,
God’s comforter being wrapped around us.
If we got stuck at only being aware of our sin, and our need,
we would be in a sad state of affairs, marked by shame.
But Paul says is Roman 5, verse 5, that we are not put to shame,
“because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts
through the Holy Spirit.”
Poured out. Overflowing.
An excess of love is ours to receive.

And guess what? God loves more than the idea of us.
God loves the real us, in the real world,
with our real warts and all.
In case the reader doesn’t pick up on that at first glance.
Paul repeats himself. Several times.
“While we were weak . . . Christ died for us.”
“Even for the ungodly . . . Christ gave himself.”
“While we were still sinners . . . God shows love for us.”

God loves more than the idea of us.
God loves us as we are.
God loves more than the idea of our neighbors.
God loves them, as they are.
Yes, of course, there is more to be said about the Christian life.
Paul has another 11 chapters to go.
But first . . . first Paul wants to be sure that this hinge
is fastened securely, and is never in doubt.

You are loved. You are dearly loved.
Seniors, you are loved. You are dearly loved.
Mothers and mother-like-figures, you are loved. You are dearly loved.
And everyone else in earshot, you are loved. You are dearly loved.
Here. Today. As you are.
And as you become who you will be.
And if God loves us all like that,
we have more than a good reason
to shower that same love on everyone we meet.
Let’s go and do that.

—Phil Kniss, May 14, 2023

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