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Costly Love

While I was recently visiting my hometown of Rochester, I was looking for a church that I might go to on Sunday, and I found myself reading a bit of a sermon on the website of an Episcopal church. The pastor talked about Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and how the disciples had expected him to return soon, but were puzzled as the years went on and he had not. She then talked about how Jesus promised to be with the disciples through till the end of the age. She then gave examples of events in her own life that pointed, she believed, to that continued presence. I’m having trouble remembering exactly what they were. They all seemed to involve some sort of generous act. In one, people helped re-fill an empty parking meter for her. Another had to do with people helping out at a church event of some sort. The overall message was that Christ is still with us, building his kingdom in all these little moments of our lives.

Reading that sermon, I got the sort of feeling I’ve had before with “watered down” Christianity. I have the sense that something essential is missing from the whole presentation they give, but it’s not quite being said what. In fact, it seems that they are almost going out of their way to give the impression that the faith they are proclaiming is still intact. They try to mention some of the key elements of it, to assure the audience that the truth has not yet been abandoned. And yet somehow it seems to all be drained of its real essence and power; somehow I am left feeling as if the pastor herself did not really believe what she was saying. I hesitate to write this, because for all I know, I have seriously misjudged her. Only God knows the state of her faith. But this was the impression I was left with: a Christian faith drained of its essence and power, being proclaimed by a person who perhaps didn’t really even believe what she was saying. And that impression is troubling to me. It makes the Christian faith itself seem so unreal. I start to wonder what it is that I really believe myself.

Later in the week, different circumstances brought about a similar unease. My Aunt, who is a Unitarian, was explaining to me one of the basic problems she had with the Catholicism she was raised in. She wants to be a good person, to do good. She obviously cares deeply about doing this. Moreover, she doesn’t want this to be motivated by a desire for reward, or a fear of punishment. She, like most people, would prefer that people did good for its own sake. She understands the basic moral truth that something is taken away from good actions when such self-interest is the only motivation. And this is the message she got, at least, from her Catholic upbringing–they told you that if you did good, you’d go to heaven, and if you did bad things, you’d go to hell.

I wanted to explain how the Christianity I believe in teaches something quite different: that you can’t work your way into heaven, that salvation is a gift of God, purely of grace, through simple faith to anyone who believes. I said some things, but I don’t know how well I got that point across. This basic message of grace, that I’ve heard hundreds of times, that I’ve saturated my life with, can seem so foreign when faced with the simple task of speaking it to one who does not believe it. I find myself wondering how it is that something that has seemed so powerful and real to me does not hit others with the same force, and can suddenly feel hollow or artificial when I try to explain it to someone who doesn’t share my conviction. And that causes me again to begin to wonder about the reality of what I am saying.

These sort of thoughts were floating around in my head as I went for a jog on my last day in Rochester. As I ran down the street, I wondered again what it was that was missing from this whole approach to Christianity I encountered in that sermon I had read. The sermon had indeed mentioned the death of Christ, and his resurrection, and talked about his continued presence in the world, all things I gladly affirm and consider at the heart of Christianity. And yet I felt something central was missing. I just didn’t have the words yet to describe exactly what it was.

As I jogged, I was listening to the Welcome to the Welcome Wagon CD on my ipod, and they were singing an old hymn:

Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,
Great David’s greater Son!
Hail, in the time appointed,
His reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression,
To set the captive free,
To take away transgression,
And rule in equity.

As I listened to these lyrics, it suddenly dawned on me what was missing from the sermon I had read: what was missing from it was any perception of the costliness of love. “Costliness of love” was the phrase that occurred to me–I’m thinking that this probably came unconsciously to me from my memory of Bonhoffer’s phrase “costly grace.” I decided that the costliness of love was what was missing–the costliness of God’s love and, consequently, the costliness of all love. Their was no acknowledgement of the reality of pain or sacrifice, especially that of love given but not returned. This is what was lacking in all the illustrations the pastor had made of Christ’s continued presence in the world. They were all examples of people being generous, cooperative, compassionate, thoughtful–certainly all good things. At their best, they approached the great command “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Good advice, indeed–in fact Jesus himself gives it. But Jesus doesn’t stop with that command, because he knows we can’t follow it, and he knows our world needs something more than advice. He came to do something greater than give us commands: he, as the song says, came to “take away transgression”–not simply tell us how to avoid it, but to break it down, to permanently break it’s power, to set us, the captives, free.

The song continued:

He comes with succor speedy
To those who suffer wrong;
To help the poor and needy
And bid the weak be strong;
To give them songs for sighing,
Their darkness turn to light,
Whose souls, condemned and dying,
Were precious in His sight.

Jesus comes to help the poor, but not just as an example to us. For we discover that we are all poor, and need his help, need what only he can give. We discover that our souls are condemned and dying, but are nevertheless precious in his sight. Missing from the sermon I read was the costly love of Jesus, the love of the Son of God dying for his enemies, to reconcile them to himself. Missing was God breaking into the world and putting it to rights himself. The costly love of Jesus is a redeeming love, a love that turns darkness into light.

But do we really need this sort of thing? Isn’t this too pessimistic; isn’t this brand of Christianity too grim–so much focus on our evil and sin, and on Christ’s death? I worry about this sometimes, and I do think it is a genuine temptation and danger to take “depravity” too far, to wallow in it and be so dramatic about it that the “light which lighteth every man” is obscured. But yes, we do need it. Just look around you, and inside of  you, and you’ll see that its true. It is even more dangerous is to forget about the darkness and brokenness in our own souls and in our world, to pretend that to fix things all we really need to do is start being nicer to each other. I find it very telling that, when the costliness of Christ’s love is forgotten, the supposed coming of the Kingdom of God, of God’s true reign in the world, reduces to this sort of thing. There did not seem to be any real hope in that sermon I read, and I think that this results from it having no real radical vision of God’s action in the world. This all stems from not really believing that God is active in the world, or even that he needs to be, but still trying to come up with examples of his activity anyway.

The song continued:

He shall come down like showers
Upon the fruitful earth,
And joy and hope, like flowers,
Spring in His path to birth.
Before Him on the mountains
Shall peace, the herald, go
And righteousness, like fountains,
From hill to valley flow.

“…righteousness, like fountains, from hill to valley flow.” How could claims like these be at all justified in a world with suicide and child prostitution? In a world where so many people lead depressed and despairing lives, where joy and peace seem so fleeting? I think they only can be justified if it is actually true that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ really do change everything, eternally. That through them God has made suffering both meaningful and redemptive, and has broken the reign of death. If this is true, we who believe it may have faith that this grand story is all still being woven together, that God has first come in weakness, but will come again in power, bringing justice and healing.

That is, besides the fact that he will come again in power, now in this age of weakness, we can really believe that the seeds of eternity are being sown. For the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which seems at first to be the smallest of all seeds, but grows into the largest plant. But we have to really believe that God himself is doing something, and that his plan is working, that the apparent smallest of the kingdom of God now is not unexpected, is not out of line with his plan. And even when or where we don’t think we see God at work, he is there–even in the midst of great wickedness, something is happening. Even in the slums and the crack houses, he is there. He is–probably more there than in our mansions, or country clubs, or wine and cheese receptions…but he is in those places also. The cross itself shows us that God’s manner of work in the world is not what we would first expect–no one expected the Messiah to be crucified. We see that our perception of size itself is skewed, and the things that matter most to God’s plan, we may easily miss.

The song finished:

To Him shall prayer unceasing and daily vows ascend;
His kingdom still increasing, a kingdom without end:
The tide of time shall never His covenant remove;
His Name shall stand forever, His Name alone is Love.

What I love about these words–and, in fact, and the words of the entire hymn–is how plainly declarative they are. No advice, no claims even about what we should be doing. Just simple and beautiful statements about what God has done and is doing, his costly love and the redemption it brings. This is a Christianity I can believe in, because I know it doesn’t depend on me and I know I could never have invented it. It is God’s work.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. July 27, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Real spot-on, here. I often ask the question, “Why are we seeking signs of Christ in the world today if we say that we have faith in Him in the first place?” If we know that He died and resurrected, if we believe the apocalyptic nature of Jesus’ messiahship, then doesn’t the public declaration of a parking-meter re-feeding seem a bit bland? I argue our problem is that we don’t think highly enough of what Christ did; that is, we don’t fully comprehend it. We hear He died and resurrected, we believe it, but we haven’t really wrestled with that to consider what it means. Sure, being a “good Samaritan” can be one of the fruits of being in Christ, but the more we only look to good deeds to find Jesus, the less and less we’re going to see Him.

    Just my two cents. Great post.

  2. July 29, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    Thanks Josh. Another thing that makes the parking meter story seem bland is that it really doesn’t really represent anything more than basic friendly behavior, something any decent person would do. I think there ARE stories in human life that come closer to modeling Christ’s story, stories of radical sacrifice. And, if we believe the cross is meaningful, many stories of apparently meaningless suffering may prove to fit into God’s overarching story in beautiful ways that we can’t see now.

    You’re totally right that looking to good deeds is not a good place to look for Jesus–rather, we have to look to him so that everything else is illuminated.

  3. Jerod
    August 7, 2009 at 10:29 am

    hmmm… did Christ rise from the grave just to hover around the earth and give little happy experiences to people at random? no, much more than that I think…

    good thoughts

  4. Dana Marie
    August 23, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    “And even when or where we don’t think we see God at work, he is there–even in the midst of great wickedness, something is happening.”

    This is often forgotten by me & I need to hear this.

    “This is a Christianity I can believe in, because I know it doesn’t depend on me and I know I could never have invented it. It is God’s work.”

    Oh that life is God’s work and not mine. That even though I don’t have things in control or see the bigger pictures, even with train wrecks like global poverty & AIDS, HE is in the midst. And working out the mystery that I cannot see with my mere human eyes.

    Good writing my friend.

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