Far back in the early 16th century, in the heart of Germany, a young monk named Martin Luther ignited a firestorm across Europe with his famous 95 theses. It was the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, one of the biggest events in the religious and social history of the Western world.
One of Luther’s claims that came to represent a lot of the movement had to do with the distinctions between law and gospel, or works and grace. Luther’s often credited with revitalizing the idea that we don’t actually earn our way into the saving love of God; rather, that love exists before all else and is given to us as an entirely free gift.
Of course Luther wasn’t the first one to say this. This is kind of a key notion of the Christian tradition that’s been present, to a greater or lesser extent all the way back to Jesus’ teachings and even before then. What Luther did though was create a way of thinking about the world where that principle, the free nature of God’s grace and God’s love was the centre of every claim that we make.
CHERISHED BY GOD
One of the proofs of how foundational this is to our theology is how natural it sounds. To say that God’s love is something that’s freely given isn’t a surprising claim. For those of you who have been around the church for any length of time it shouldn’t come as a surprise, not at this point. But I think we all know how easy it is to fall back into those old habitual beliefs that our place in God’s presence and our worth in God’s eyes are based on how well behaved we are. It’s like we still live in the clutches our childhood moralities where we’re taught to mind our manners, and we forget how radical the love of God actually is. We forget how extensive, how wide it all is.
This isn’t to say that living good, and moral lives isn’t important. Of course it’s important, but it isn’t what defines us at our core, at that basic level that goes down deep, that connects us to the very structures of the universe, to the creation of God. Good, moral action is important. How you interact with other parts of creation is important, but it isn’t the core of who you are, because (this is the countercultural claim of Christianity) who you are, doesn’t belong to you. You don’t define who you are at heart. You have been created, in the image and likeness of God, and you have been hidden with Christ in God. That is who you are. All those other identities that you wear upon yourself: your race, your language, your family, your achievements, your behaviours, they all say something about what you’re like, but they don’t touch on who you are.
What would it be like for you to close your eyes, and to go deep? To get in touch with what lies at your core, that spark of who you are. What would it mean to you to realize that that spark has been there since before you were even an idea in someone’s mind. What would it mean for you to realize that when God looks at you that’s the first thing God sees? Before all else. Before any other label gets stuck on to you, that’s who God sees. What would it be like for you to realize that because of that, you are cherished by God. God is excited to see you. God bursts with love and with pride to see your joy, and your excitement. And no matter where you go and no matter what you do, you can never change who you are at heart. You are a child of God and you are beloved by God and you were created for joy.
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” Jesus says to you. “Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments you will be abiding in my love.” “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
What would it mean if, when you opened your eyes, your whole perception of the world around were changed? What if, instead of love being the answer, it became the question? Am I doing this out of love? Is love my guiding principle?
What would it be like if our politics were guided, not by competition and avarice, but by love for people and for creation? What would it be like if our churches learned to gauge our success, not by the number of people in our pews or the money in our accounts, but by the amount of compassion we show to the world around us and the level of altruism we’re willing to live out? What would it be like for our communities if our first questions to newcomers weren’t ‘what do you do’ or ‘whose side are you on’ but our first questions were what are you passionate about? Who are the people who feed the fire that burns inside of you? What would it be like if, instead of competing for cheap plastic trophies and meaningless accolades our children were taught that the very places where they excel are precisely the places where they can lend a hand to their neighbour? What would it be like if, instead of loving others because of what they can do for us, we loved them the way Jesus has loved us?
BECOMING FRIENDS WITH CHRIST
We are the church. And the church is mighty. It’s time for us to reimagine who it is we’re called to be, and what it is we’re called to do. Privileging gospel over law doesn’t mean that we do away with our responsibilities, it means that we recognize that in all we do, God is the one who acts first. God is the one who calls us good and very good. God is the one who knows us to our very core because God created us. God is the one who speaks words of love and affirmation into our lives. And God is the one who calls us back out into the light of day in order to show that love to the rest of creation, other people and the earth that we call home.
The way we grow into our identities, the way we put on the clothing of the children of God is by loving other people. ‘If you keep my commandments you will be abiding in my love… This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ Jesus starts off loving us from above, as a mother loves her small child. But as we grow more mature in our faith and in our spiritual lives, we’re brought alongside of him and he calls us friends.
The glory of God is a place inside of you that wells up and spills over into the lives of the world around you, every stranger who walks through your door, every person you pass on the street. This week may God fill you deeply with an awareness of how incredibly special you are in God’s sight. May that knowledge lead you and guide you out into the world, a beacon of hope and a fire of love. May the joy of Christ be in you, and may your joy be complete.