God’s Gifts to Us
The Gift of Love
February 10, 2019
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing; but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
As these words roll over us we can see the bridesmaids and groomsman lined up in front of the church, the ring bearer and flower girls fidgeting. The bride and groom radiating in the glow of THE MOST IMPORTANT DAY OF THEIR LIVES. We hear these immortal words from the apostle Paul and hope, for them, they might be true. We hope they might have that type of love. We think of the various ways we’ve loved and been loved. We may remember those times when our love – or the love of our lovers – has met this ideal; we may remember times when love as Paul describes seemed millions of miles away.
As Paul wrote these words to the Corinthians, to a congregation whose betrayal had left him deeply wounded, he may have been considering another bible passage, one anchoring the whole of the ancient Jewish, one revealing the very nature of God’s divine self.
The passage sits toward the end of Exodus. The Israelites have escaped from the Egyptians, crossed the Red Sea and made their way to the holy mountain of Sinai. There, God had called Moses to the top of the mountain where he disappears for days, weeks, on end. In their fear, the Israelites turn from God, sculpt an idol of a golden bull calf, and worship. God responds with anger. Moses – who has rushed back down the mountain to restore order – pleads with God to relent. God then calls Moses back up the mountain, announcing the divine presence to Moses with these words:
The Lord, the Lord
a God merciful and gracious
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.
At the burning bush God introduces himself to Moses with the phrase “I am who I am.” Here, in the aftermath of an incident seemingly destined to cleave God from his people forever, God further defines his being. “Who I am,” God says to Moses, “is love – not love such as between parent and child, not love such as might be achieved in a moment of passion or across a lifetime of intimacy, not love as most people experience – a deeper love, a steadfast love, a faithful love stretching across generations into near infinity. This, this is who I am.
God is: merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in faithfulness, steadfast across the thousandth generation, forgiving.
Love is: patient, kind; not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; not insisting on its own way; not irritable or resentful; not rejoicing in wrongdoing; bearing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things. Never ending.
Paul uses different language but the ideas, the images remain the same. The love, the agape, to slip into Greek for a moment – he describes is the love lying at the very core of divine being. Substitute God for love in this passage, you wouldn’t have to change any other word. This is love, this is God, they are one and the same, entwined with each other, one impossible without the other.
Because God is love, without God we cannot love.
What, wait, you say. My sister and brother-in-law have been together for 40 years and never once set foot in a church, yet they truly love each other. How about two best friends in Japan who practice Shinto spirituality? Or friends in India who are Hindu? They would do anything for each other. They would die for each other. Do they not love?
We’ll save them for a different sermon and merely turn the mirror back on ourselves. How well do we do at loving? Is our love patient, kind, without envy, never ending? Do we love to the thousandth generation while only holding hurts for four? Are we merciful and gracious? To our spouses or lovers? To our best friends? To our children or parents? To our neighbors? To those different from us? To our enemies? Only on our best days? On our worst days too? When we have been forgotten, trod over, betrayed, hung on a cross?
We experience God’s steadfast love because, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Recognizing God’s steadfast love for us through Jesus Christ, we profess loyalty to Christ, dying with him, rising with him, allowing him to dwell in us, to live through us, to love through us. Without Christ we can be nice, we can be good people, we can be loyal to our friends, faithful to our partners, dutiful to our children, but we cannot love as God loves.
God’s steadfast love appears among us only when we allow God to love through us. Such love binds us together. It’s the sinews along which we form community. It’s the greatest of all gifts – the gift of being loved. The gift of being able to love in a deep, steadfast way. A love transcending family and clan, a love moving across boundaries of class and culture, a love connecting neighbor with neighbor, enemy with enemy, each of us with God.