Speaking of Love
The Rev. Dr. Christopher Bechtel
Dec 1, 2019
Our text is Romans 8:31-39, but we’re going to read the whole chapter. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in his little book Life Together that reading long sections of Scripture is one way for us to embody the unity of Christ because it means listening to the voice that gives us all life.
Embodying Christian unity is essential as you receive a new minister. Plus, the beauty and power of vv. 31-39 will be clearer when we have the context which I could summarize for you, but Paul puts it better than I can.
Do any of you know the name Brené Brown? She’s a professor at the University of Houston. She’s also a speaker; her TED talk on the power of vulnerability is one of the top-five watched TED talks. She’s also the author of several bestsellers, including a new book on leadership which has made a splash.
Anyway, Brené Brown tells a story about being at a conference for social workers. She is one herself, and in one of the plenary sessions she was the speaker. There were about 3000 people in the audience, and she asked a simple question: ‘How many of you talk about love in your practice?’ Remember, she’s asking this to people whose jobs engage folks who are bereft and desperate for the safety of genuine love.
She asks, “How many of you talk about love in your practice?” Three hands went up. Three out of 3000. That’s a tenth of a percent. That’s better than the rate on my savings account, but it’s still miniscule.
Then she asked, ‘How many of you think that love is important?’ Do you want to guess how many hands went up? A lot more than 3. Every person raised a hand. A hundred percent of social workers agreed that love matters for their practice. If that room had been a survey, there would have been statistical validity: 3000 is a legit sample size. The headlines could have read ‘social workers are unanimous: love matters.’
But of course that’s hardly news. It’s like asking ‘who thinks respect is important? Who thinks life is important? There’s nothing earth-shattering about the importance of love.
So then Brené Brown asked the obvious follow-up. If social workers are dealing with the problems that arise in the absence of love, if they all agree that love is important, even essential to their work, then why aren’t they talking about it?
I could ask you the same sorts of questions. Maybe you haven’t worked out what love has to do with your job, but you know it matters in other arenas. It’s a no brainer that all of you think love is important.
And, yet, with due respect, it’s not your opinion on this that counts, anymore than it’s the opinion of social workers that counts. They could have been unanimous that love was irrelevant, but that wouldn’t have made it so. The only opinion that counts on this topic is God’s, and in our passage this evening, through the apostle Paul, God tells us love is paramount.
But not just any love. It’s God’s own love. His self-gift is paramount. His unearned kindness is supreme. His loyalty, his affection, his love is what matters.
Look at our passage. Paul has come to pinnacle of his argument here. He’s been making the case that in Jesus the messiah God has fulfilled old promises. He has confirmed faith alone as the gateway into his global family. He has proven his own faithfulness. And all, says, Paul, because of his unparalleled love.
It is God’s love that secures us to himself. God’s love gives us standing in his holy presence. God’s love cancels the guilt of our moral failures. God’s love disarms the condemnation of others. God’s love comforts us in tribulation, distress, persecution, deprivation, danger.
God’s love undergirds our life, including our life together as the people of God, as we install a new minister this evening.
I’ll be honest: Romans 8 wasn’t the place I expected to land for a sermon at an installation service. There are plenty of other texts that obviously describe the office and work of a minister. There are so many relevant and fascinating topics—the place of preaching, the nature of the sacraments, the work of church government, the joys and sorrows of the pastor.
We could have looked at a congregation’s duty to trust and encourage her minister, to follow him with hope and prayer, to support him with generosity and patience. All those things matter.
But what sustains all those things? It’s the love of God in Christ Jesus our lord. In the life of the minister and the congregation, the central feature is not one of those important theological angles. It’s the love of God that comes to us all through Jesus the messiah.
I know that Nathaniel has been serving you for several months, but tonight is the formal launch of his ministry among you, and what you need to hear above all is that God’s love is supreme. Here are three reasons why.
1) First, God’s love answers the cultural question.
You might think, ‘What, there’s only one?’ No of course not. There are many questions in search of meaningful answers. But, in today’s America, the leading question is ‘Am I enough?’
It’s a question of identity. It rises from insecurity which itself grows out of a sense of isolation, and that has its roots in the long thinning out of Western thought that has been ongoing since the Renaissance.
A couple weeks ago I heard an interview with Reese Witherspoon. She said that in her work as an actress and writer and director, she’s always trying to give an answer to this question, ‘Am I enough’. It haunts it America, she said.
Before watching some video on Youtube, I saw an ad for makeup that flagged this too. The tag line was ‘be extra without paying extra’, which implies that you need to be more; what you are now is not adequate; you’re not enough.
The new Amazon fashion catalog does says this too? Did any of you get this? We did at the Bechtel home a couple weeks ago. I thought it was kind of funny to get a printed, full-color catalog for products that are only available online.
I also think it’s fascinating that in our wired world, the hip and savvy marketing technique is to send a hard copy. Apparently even the digital trendsetters recognize that being physical bodies is unavoidable. Christian theology would agree.
But, more to the point, the Amazon catalog was laced with the assumption that we consumers are asking this question, ‘am I enough?’. The pages advertising party clothes urge you to look your best, not for the sheer joy of experiencing beauty but, as the copy suggests, so that others will think you’re adequate and so that you’ll feel it yourself.
Andrew Root is an author I’ve appreciated recently. In one of his books called Faith Formation in a Secular Age he traces the story of our times. He notes that we now live with the assumption that we can define ourselves; we can make and remake ourselves into something cool, notable, authentic, desirable.
But the consequence is that we rarely feel adequate. This is especially true because standards of cool, etc. continue to shift, so we never arrive.
But when you start the day with the love of God in Jesus the messiah, then you arrive before your head leaves the pillow. You ask the question, ‘am I enough?’, and the answer is ‘yes, because of God who loves you’. And you know he loves you because he ‘he did not spare his own son’. He declared that ‘there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in the messiah, Jesus’ .
In Paul’s day, those words rang with scandal and power. They not only confirmed the individual in God’s family, but they laid the foundation for church and society as well, which was part of the point in Romans.
Romans is not a theological treatise. It’s shot through with rich theology, but its aim is less to educate the mind than to transform the lives of people struggling to get along.
The church in Rome was like the church in Salem, where I live, or here in Tacoma: it was made of people who needed not only brains full of truth but lives full of grace. They needed to show one another the good news that when Jesus is king, when the messiah has taken up his throne in our midst, we might ask the question, ‘am I enough’, but we always answer it quickly with ‘yes, because of God who loves me’.
And then the cultural question gets its answer not in ink but in flesh and blood. Church and society grow strong on that foundation.
A second reason to prioritize God’s love in Jesus this evening is that…
2) …it alone strengthens a man to be a pastor.
That’s not to say that you, the congregation, don’t have a role to play. There is so much that you can do to encourage Nathaniel—and Stephen too of course. But no matter your prayers or your gifts, or your faithfulness in the ways of Christ, only the love of God in Jesus enables a pastor to carry on.
Eugene Peterson was a pastor who knew this. He died last year at the age of 85. In his memoir he writes about the early years of ministry. He says that one year when he and his family were driving through South Dakota from Maryland, where they lived, to Montana, where they were from, he realized that his ministry was like the Badlands.
Some of you maybe have driven on that stretch of 1-90 in South Dakota. I haven’t, but I’ve seen enough pictures to know that it’s bleak, dry, empty, seemingly endless. That’s how Peterson felt about ministry in his early years.
And even as those years passed, and he found his footing more, he says,
As I look back on a lifetime in the pastoral vocation, what I remember most is a kind of messiness: a lot of stumbling around, fumbling the ball, losing my way, and then finding it again. It is amazing now that anything came of it…
He goes on.
One [of the unique things about being a minister] is that we make far more mistakes in our line of work than other so-called professionals. If physicians and engineers and lawyers and military officers made as many mistakes in their line of work as we do in ours, they would be out on the street in no time. It amazes me still how much of the time I simply don’t know what I am doing, don’t know what to say, don’t know what the next move is. The temptation in that state of being is to determine to be competent at something or other…there are many ‘ways of escape’ in which we can exercise and develop areas of administrative or therapeutic or scholarly or programmatic competences in the churches and in so doing avoid the ambiguity of being a pastor.
What is that ambiguity? Peterson doesn’t say it outright, but he alludes to it often. It’s what Paul addressed in Galatians: ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ To be a pastor is to say I am dead, and I am alive.
That’s also, more fundamentally, what is to be a Christian, but the role of the pastor is to lead his people in that work. Paul told Timothy, ‘set the believers an example’ (1 Tim 4:12). The pastor’s job consists in making his boast in the Lord a little bit louder. He says, in effect, I am deader than you, and I am more alive. At least, that’s the goal.
How many of us are truly able to do that is another story. We feel with Paul that we are the chiefs of sinners. If there is anything to celebrate in ministry, we strive to say with him, ‘I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my lord’ (Phil 3:8). And yet we say, also with Paul, even though maybe not with as much confidence, ‘Be imitators of me as I am of Christ’.
This is the ambiguity of being a pastor, and it leaves a man conscious that strength only comes through the love of God in Jesus the messiah. Peterson said that in spite of his stumbles and fumbles, he was at many times aware of just this which is why, he said, Psalm 40 was so poignant for him:
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord. Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust…
Paul’s words in Romans get at this too, ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ Nothing else in all creation, neither ‘things present nor things to come’, certainly not public mistakes or personal sadness or congregational disappointment or ministerial dryness or cultural decay or marital challenges or parenting griefs, not loneliness, or weariness, or sin, or temptation…
And so you, the congregation, do your part, but that includes waiting on God. No amount of encouragement—or critique—will support your pastors enough. But the love of God in Jesus the messiah will. That is your—and their—hope. The love of God is supreme.
And because it is, here is one more reason to focus on it this evening.
3) It teaches you to know God.
Presumably most of you want to know God more; in part, that’s why you’re here. But even if you’re a skeptic, there’s something in you that longs to connect with the transcendent. You can’t be human without some search for God, even if you don’t call it that.
So, here is the end of that search. Knowledge of God comes through his love in Jesus. See what God has done for you in Jesus, and you see the essence of who he is.
You see that he is merciful: he doesn’t condemn you. Jesus is the one who died, and no one shall bring a charge against God’s elect.
You also see that he is gracious: the Spirit of ‘him who raised Jesus from the dead…will also give life to your mortal bodies’. You will get not only a resting place in the presence of God at your death, but, at the right time, you will also get a new body for a new, physical creation in which all will be well forever, never boring, always satisfying; it will be complete peace and delight and beauty forever.
God’s love in Jesus also shows you that he is mighty. Nothing can separate you from his love. Death cannot; neither can grief. Rulers cannot; neither can disappointment in the political process.
Height and depth cannot; neither can viruses or bacteria or the pandemics they ignite. Nothing can separate you from the love of God that is in Jesus the messiah, and that tells you that God is mighty.
Knowledge of God comes through understanding his love in Jesus, which is why we need to speak of God’s love. But speaking of love is not enough. Not even for God himself. In Jeremiah the Lord says that to know him is to do ‘justice and righteousness…[for] the poor and needy’ (cf. Jer 22:16). John says, ‘The word became flesh’ (Jn 1:14). He also says, ‘In this the love of God was made manifest…that God sent his only Son into the world’ (1 Jn 4:9).
So if you would know God more, if your pastors would gain sufficient strength for ministry, if you together would be the church that engages the questions of our culture with grace and credibility, then don’t settle for simply knowing that love matters, and don’t stop with just speaking of love either. Live it.
Paul says in Ephesians, ‘Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you…be imitators of God…and walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us’ (Eph 4:32-5:2).
In other words, let love define your life. As Paul says later in Romans, ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom 13:14). Wear him like a garment. St. Patrick’s words are so descriptive:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ at my right, Christ at my left, Christ at home, Christ in the chariot seat—for you, the car, Christ at sea, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks to me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.
In all of life—Christ, love made flesh, God’s love made plain. Wear that. Let it banish your insecurities. Let it comfort your sorrows. Let it deflate your shame. Let it cover your guilt. Act out of that love. Listen through that. Speak not only of it but by it.
And then you will know God. In this way, your pastors will serve with strength for the long haul. Together you will be the church God made you to be, not just tonight but for generations to come until, at the right time, Love descends and the earth is full of his glory forever. Amen.