Love in All, Above All, and Through All

Chartres Cathedral Rose window. Image by David-Brossard (used by permission via Creative Commons)

 

Love in All, Above all, and Through All
Pentecost 14A
Rev. Doug Floyd
Romans 12:9-21

My college pastor asked me for my life verse. A few years prior, I have no idea what I might have said maybe, “the wages of sin is death.” The image of God’s judgment loomed strong over me, and I was deeply aware of my lack. But then midway through college, I encountered the love of God in such a deep and life shattering way that no words could express the reality of what I encountered. The Lord gripped me so profoundly that all I wanted to do was read the Scripture and drink in more of His love. I carried my Bible to college classes. I interpreted every class somehow in light of His love. Wherever I turned, it seemed as though the love of God was already there, meeting me, calling out to me, encircling me.

When asked for my life verse, I readily replied, “Whom have I in heaven but you O Lord and to be near you, I desire nothing on earth.” (Psalm 73:25). This delight, this fire, this passion would be tested thoroughly when I was immersed into darkness just two years later. And yet, that year’s long darkness ended in new encounter with God’s love: less emotional, less giddy, and yet more substantial. The darkness helped me to behold God’s absolute faithfulness even when I felt weak, powerless, and faithless.

These early encounters led me to lovers of God from across history. One of the first lovers I encounter, AW Tozer, taught me that God is always speaking, always drawing, and that I might even bring the news and the arts and culture into times of prayer. Over time, I encountered other lovers of God. Like Augustine, whose whole life was marked by love. After beholding the beauty of the Lord, he was lifted up into God’s unspeakable love and glory even as he also encountered his own sinfulness. He spends his whole life turned with longing toward the God who made Himself known.  Augustine would understand Scripture as the outworking of love for God and love for one another. In fact, he understood all of human history in light of love. “Lovers of self” built cities of self-idolatry and oppression and dehumanization while lovers of God were called to the city of God rooted in a society of friends, a communion of love that would only fully be realized in the return of Christ.

The love of God compelled Maximus the Confessor to spend his life helping fellow monks learn practical ways to live out this love in relationships with one another. He collected wisdom from the first four centuries of the church, and His four centuries on love continues to inspire disciples today. St Bernard of Clairvaux formed a monastic community centered on the Song of Solomon as a love song between God and the soul. He preached sermons on love from the book his whole life and never finished preaching on the beauties of God’s love revealed in the Song of Solomon. St. Bernard wrote a book on the love of God where he explained four degrees of love. He writes,

  1. First, a man loves himself for his own sake; for he is flesh and he can have no taste for anything except in relation to himself. God meets him in this most selfish place and begins to draw him to perfect love.
  2. Because of God’s encounter, man begins loves God for himself. When he realizes that he cannot subsist in himself alone, he turns to God as something to meet his need.
  3. Over time, a man loves God for God’s sake. Once he has tasted the love of God, man begins to change. The love of God is sweet to the soul and purifies his desire, so that eventually he loves God for nothing but because God is worthy to be loved.
  4. In the final state, a man loves himself for God’s sake. This stage may not be fully realized in this life. At this stage man is completely free from all desire except God. All that he desires for himself is only because the Father has prompted it. We taste glimpses of this now.

History is filled with female lovers of God. Julian of Norwich was born in the fourteenth century, in a time when the darkness of plague, famine, and war covered the Europe. At age 30, she fell sick and was at the point of death. The priest came to administer last rites and told her to try and look at the crucifix in his hand. As she gazed up to the cross, she encountered the Lord in a series of sixteen visions. She beheld Jesus in his sufferings and in his deep love. Those encounters convinced her that in spite of human sinfulness, God has not abandoned us but redeemed us. She spends the rest of her life writing and reflecting on these visions of God’s encircling love. These visions convince her of God’s faithful love and that he will make all things well.

We could remember St. Catherine of Genoa from the 15th century who at age 13 sought to enter a convent. Because of her young age, she was denied. At age 16, her family arranged a marriage for her to help settle a feud with a rival family. It was a disaster. The marriage was childless, loveless, and her husband was faithless and violent. Over the next ten years, she suffered in depression and submission to her miserable estate. At age 26, she went to a convent where one of her sisters resided to seek for help. Her sister advised her to go see the nun’s confessor and make confession. As soon as she knelt down in the confessional, she experienced the light of God’s love. At the same time, she beheld her own sinful condition. She beheld both images simultaneously: her sinfulness and God’s unspeakable love. The encounter was so overwhelming, she lost consciousness. Finally, she murmured to the confessor she must go and would continue her confession later.

Prayer became very center of her life, and she began to receive the Eucharist on a daily basis. This transformation in God’s love drove her to care for the sick. Her husband was also transformed in God’s love and both of them together spent their lives caring for the sick. They founded the first hospital in Genoa. The inward encounter of God’s love flowed outward into compassion for those in need.

If I jump ahead to the 20th century, I think of CS Lewis who was shy, pessimistic, and spent much of his early life in a state of gloom. The loss of his mother, rejection by his father, and the cruelty of the headmaster at his first boarding school all played a role in years of depression. Lewis speaks of his own conversion as a surprise of joy. This led him beyond his closed world of introversion. He writes, “To believe and to pray were the beginning of extroversion. I had been, as they say, ‘taken out of myself.’” Happiness became the very mark of his later life. Again, he writes, “My happiest hours,” Lewis wrote, “are spent with three or four old friends in old clothes tramping together and putting up in small pubs— or else sitting up till the small hours in someone’s college rooms, talking nonsense, poetry, theology, metaphysics over beer, tea, and pipes. There’s no sound I like better than . . . laughter.”[1]

Years ago, Armand Nicholi taught a class at Harvard on the life of Sigmund Freud. When students asked him to expand the course in a comparison with another thinker, he chose CS Lewis. In his book, “The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life,” he talks about the transformation in Lewis’s life. He writes,

Why the change? As a psychiatrist, I suggest three factors: First, as Lewis began to read the Old and New Testaments seriously, he noted a new method of establishing his identity, of coming to terms with his “real personality.” This process, Lewis writes, involves losing yourself in your relationship to the Creator. “Until you have given up yourself to Him,” Lewis writes, “you will not have a real self.” In particular, Lewis paid attention to the New Testament verse “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” He turned outward instead of inward to “find himself.” Second, his understanding of Agape— of loving one’s neighbor by wanting the best for him and exercising one’s will to act accordingly— also took Lewis outside of himself. He developed a capacity to step out of his own needs sufficiently to become aware of the needs of others and to exercise his will to meet those needs. Third, Lewis’s new worldview changed his valuation of people. Death no longer marked the end of life, but only the end of the first chapter in a book that went on without end. Every human being, he now believed, would live forever— outliving every organization, every state, every civilization on earth. “There are no ordinary people,” Lewis reminded his audience in an address given at Oxford. He encouraged them “to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.” No one ever talks to “a mere mortal . . . it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit— immortal horrors or everlasting splendors . . . your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”[2]

These lovers of God come from all walks of life: from teachers to wives, from cobblers to priests, from social activists to spiritual writers. They translate their encounter with God’s love in particular ways that change the world around, reveal God’s love in the world around them, minister grace and healing to the world around them.

When Paul writes about love in Romans 12, 13, 14, and 15, he is calling the people of God who have been taken up by God’s love to translate that very same into their daily lives, into the life of the church, and into the life of the community. He says that “Love must be genuine.” It is not something I do to make others think more highly of me. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul reminds us that acts of service are incomplete without love. If I serve another person but resent them while I do it, I am misunderstanding the call of God. I need to encounter the love of God and be changed by God’s love.

In his Pastoral Rule, Pope Gregory the Great tells us that “the good pastor must be rooted in contemplation. Only in this way will he be able to take upon himself the needs of others and make them his own.”[3] This is wise counsel for all of us. If we are to honor one another, serve one another, love our enemies, rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, we must know the love of God firsthand. If we are to respect our rulers and serve our society, we must be changed by God’s love. In the Spirit of his love, we fulfill his commands in this world. Augustine tells us that all the virtues are but expressions of love.

Pope Benedict asks, “Can we love God without seeing him? And can love be commanded?”[4] He answers, “True, no one has ever seen God as he is. And yet God is not totally invisible to us; he does not remain completely inaccessible.” We encounter in first of foremost in the life and story of Jesus Christ. For God has made himself visible in Jesus Christ who comes that we might be forgiven of sin, healed of brokenness, raised to new life, and led into communion with God. The Spirit of God bears witness in our own hearts to the love of God in Christ. He bears witness through all these saints whose lives were poured out in love. He bears witness in all of our five senses as we encounter the glory of this world. The Franciscan lover of God, Jacopone da Todi writes,

O Love, divine Love, why do You lay siege to me?
In a frenzy of love for me, You find no rest.
From five sides You move against me,
Hearing, sight, taste, touch, and scent.
To come out is to be caught; I cannot hide from You.

If I come out through sight I see Love
Painted in every form and color,
Inviting me to come to You, to dwell in You.

If I leave through the door of hearing,
What I hear points only to You, Lord;
I cannot escape Love through this gate.

If I come out through taste, every flavor proclaims:
“Love, divine Love, hungering Love!
You have caught me on Your hook, for You want to reign in me.”

If I leave through the door of scent
I sense You in all creation; You have caught me
And wounded me through that fragrance.

If I come out through the sense of touch
I find Your lineaments in every creature;
To try to flee from You is madness.[5]

So even as we hear the divine command to serve one another, love our enemy, care for those in need, we hear the call of divine love. And if we don’t sense the love of God, and if we sense His absence, we cry, “Lord have mercy.” “Make haste to save me.” He has not abandoned us even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Even when I don’t feel him, sense him, experience him, He is present.

So I come boldly to the throne of mercy and grace in time of need. I know that he hears me and in due season will make his love fully known within my life.

[1] Nicholi, Armand. The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life (p. 115). Free Press. Kindle Edition.
[2] ibid, pp. 115-116.
[3] Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005).
[4] Ibid.
[5] Jacopone da Todi, The Lauds, ed. Richard J. Payne, trans. Serge Hughes and Elizabeth Hughes, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York; Ramsey, NJ; Toronto: Paulist Press, 1982), 239–240.

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