Love. Good. Holy. Omnipotent. Father. Creator. Caring. Provider. Almighty.
These are some of the adjectives we use to describe God.
Let’s reflect on others: Fierce. Wild. Intense.
To speak of God’s love in this way is to break out of the thinly walled compartments in our minds that limit love, limit God to our own notions, easily reduced to what we are able to fathom.
But God’s love is not limited, is not reducible to cliches or intellectual sound bites we can easily digest. God’s love is, frankly, as God is – boundless, expansive, reckless, mysterious, fierce, wild, intense. These words open us to experience what Brennan Manning calls “the shattering truth of the transcendent God seeking intimacy with us.” (The Furious Longing of God, page 24)
God’s love is reckless (cf Luke 15, especially the story of the prodigal).
God’s love is both boundless and yet specific: embodied in Jesus in ancient Palestine and present now, we believe, in the sacrament of His body and blood at the Eucharist.
God’s love is mysterious to both believer and non-believer alike.
God’s love is fierce – ready to face and embrace the cross to once and for all defeat the rule of death in this world.
Rule of death.
This is a peculiar phrase. It can refer to the powers and principalities which “seek to corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” (BCP, page 302). A menacing statement, to be sure, but also nebulous.
If we were to take that phrase with the same understanding as we mean when we say “rule of life” we might see in a way less nebulous and more specific. A rule of life, if you are not aware, is a listing of intentionally used spiritual practices meant to deepen and strengthen one’s faith. Thus, a rule of death would be a list of intentionally used spiritual practices which have the opposite effect.
The rule of death, in this sense, is practiced and expressed in anger which is a deep, unspoken fear of others, of the unknown. The antidote for this is faith, meaning trust, in God and in God’s sovereignty in the world. Fear and anger drive us to strike out, strike back. Faith allows us to to wait as God works everything out to God’s purposes on God’s time.
The rule of death is practiced in greed which is a habitual seeing and acting from a place of “scarcity,” that is, the “deficits,” that exist in our lives, our finances, our world. It feeds fear that we will not get what is ours – there is not enough to go around. That we are not enough. (This is why you will never hear me use the word “deficit” in describing our budget. And why you will receive a theological lecture from me should you use that word in my presence. It is not a Kingdom word.). The antidote for scarcity and the greed it festers is generosity. It is to practice the Biblical tithe as a way to change our scarcity perspectives to a vision of God’s abundance for our lives.
The rule of death is practiced through division, which arises out of a particular fear of others twisted in with a scarcity mindset. Division is bred in the petri dish which contains all the limiting thoughts humans apply to God. Division is meant to build both literal and figurative walls between ourselves and others. Division means since there is not enough of anything, God included, that one of us is good/chosen/right and one not. We can see how this feeds our human propensity to demonize others, to perpetuate and justify cultural violence, and feeds all sorts of unhelpful ideology which encourages partisan thinking. The antidote for division is practicing forgiveness, engaging in mission and service to others, having reconciliatory conversations and seeking out partnerships among those who are different.
Yesterday, I was blessed to participate in our Middle School’s annual Seder Meal. It is an opportunity to connect the dots – so to speak – about the commonalities between Jewish faith and Christian faith. In the midst of that meal it struck me how much the Jewish people throughout history have suffered at the hands of others. I remember critiques by biblical scholars who cautioned that care be taken in preaching John in light of the tragic acts of Christians of various ages who have used John’s gospel to vilify “the Jews” and justify so much hatred and violence towards Jewish people throughout the centuries. Participating in the seder meal provided a ray of hope that by teaching the common roots Jewish and Christian faith with our students we might break down the dividing walls, helping to prevent further walls as we find a way forward in making peace and reconciliation among all people.
This time spent with 150 of my middle school friends also provided a moment of clarity as I reflected on the rule of death. When the human habit of limiting of God, or to paraphrase JB Phillips’ words in his seminal book – we make God too small – is mixed with the practices of the rule of death – anger, fear, division, hatred, greed, scarcity – they become a volatile movement which time and again has left brokenness and death in its wake. It is always awful when this activity happens in the world around us. It is tragic when people of faith, when Christians, participate. And Christians are no less guilty than Muslims or Jews or any other group in “drinking the Kool Aid” that the rule of death offers as it promotes violent, divisive behavior as “holy” when it is in fact a perversion meant to further an agenda.
Jesus never partnered with power brokers. Jesus trusted in a powerful God he called Father.
We would do well to pay attention to Jesus. The rule of death has but one logical conclusion – death. The story of the Cross is tragic. Life and Love Incarnate – the innocent Son of God sent to save us from the power and rule of death – is nailed to the hard wood of the Cross. Love is rejected. God’s Love is rejected by God’s beloved. Relationships, including our relationship with God, are reduced to transactions. Blame, not grace, abounds.
Jesus is nailed to the cross. Jesus dies on the cross. Life and Love Incarnate is crucified. He who is both perfectly human and Divine is nailed to the cross. The rule of death, the powers and principalities of death defeat the rule of life.
We often say that, “Jesus died for our/my sins.” We mean that Jesus substituted himself to pay the penalty of our sin, by which we mean “wrong-doing.” This is a very useful, traditional theology to remember today.
We might also consider that Jesus’ death is “for” us meaning on “behalf of” or for “the benefit of.” We are beneficiaries of his suffering on the cross.
For us and for our salvation, Jesus bore the wounding of all that which festers in the dominion of death. He bears on his body the devastating marks of anger, violence, division, greed, fear, hatred, one-sided ideology and partisan acting. He endures all their wounding and the logical outcome (death) of the spiritual practices of the rule of death. But Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection mean we are freed from that rule. The power of death to “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” has been exposed for what it is and does. It has been soundly defeated by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Evil and death lose. Life and Love win.
Our challenge is that we still live in a world that bears the wounds of the rule of death. We still hear the subtle invitations to pick up the spiritual tools of greed, division, fear and anger which lead to death. Embracing the cross of Jesus and the victory of the Empty Tomb is our sole hope, our sure defense, our strength. We live as people who have already had the war won for us yet continue daily to extinguish the desperate skirmishes of our vanquished opponent.
Listen to these words from William Dixon Gray: “The resurrection breaks all the rules. Everything is shattered. Of the former structures there is nothing left. Not really. Of course things look the same. There is still death, and law, and government, and banks and times and seasons; but this is like an old skin being shed, a holdover while a new creation is being established. … The point is to get wise to this and stop acting, thinking, talking, and feeling as though a resurrection had never happened.” (From April 12 emailed edition of Synthesis Today, a free service that provides quotes for the upcoming Sunday Sermon based on the Revised Common Lectionary. Learn more at http://www.synthesispub.com )
The reckless of love of God still seeks us.
The fierce love of God in Jesus burns away the rule and power of death on the cross.
The wild love of God runs free in our lives having shattered the bits and bridles we use to harness God.
The boundless love of God breaks into our world one transformed heart at a time.
The mysterious love of God invites us on this day to live out the rest of our lives embracing the reality of Jesus’ victory over the cross; to bear witness that no despair or darkness can hinder the present and coming resurrection life as it blossoms and bursts forth into new creation.