The Love Suite
Once again I have been a bit tardy in posting the tapes of our “Help My UnBelief” webinar. Here is the one from May 23, in which we focus on a series of three sermons, all in one way or another on love. The question that Fleming groups these under is “Why all the theological apparatus? Isn’t it enough just to be loving?”
It’s a good question because it is one people ask. It is similar to another of the questions under which a previous series of sermons were grouped, “Isn’t Christianity about being good?” I suspect, no I know, that many people do think that 1) Christianity is about being good, and 2) that all the theology stuff isn’t really important; just to be kind and loving.
But Fleming, and we joining her, set out to disabuse ourselves and you of such comforting reductionism.
Isn’t it enough just to be loving? Quick answer. No, because none of us manages to be loving completely, constantly or consistently. If we could pull that off, I guess it might be enough. But as Fleming remarks in the first of these three sermons, “The Faces of Love,” “In and of ourselves we do not have the disposition to act lovingly in a constant way.” My paraphrase: we human beings don’t have the equipment to be totally, perfectly loving.
This humbling truth is something we get to learn in all sorts of ways — as the parents of small children (or not-so-small children) when we do and say things we said we would never do or never say. Or when we fail our partner marriage in a hundred little or maybe a couple big ways — as we also were quite sure we would never do. Or in church . . . just try to be constantly, perfectly loving with any of the congregations of ordinary mortals God has seen fit to call his church. Or how about when someone has truly done something harmful to you or someone you love?
By boiling Christianity down to “being loving” or “being good,” we set ourselves up for failure, frustration and self-condemnation — or, worse, self-deception. Good news, the gospel is not about us loving perfectly, but about God’s perfect love in Jesus Christ. Once again, the emphasis is not on what we are to do, but on what God is doing and has done on our behalf. Our love is a response to a love that has loved us first.
So the focus of these sermons on love isn’t simply telling us to be more loving. It is on God’s love, and in particular God’s love for us when we have failed in our efforts to be loving.
The first sermon is on the well-known text, I Corinthians 13. In a recent blog I recalled an experience at a church-camp. There was a staff pep rally before the campers arrived. We were enjoined to place our own name every time Paul wrote “love,” in I Corinthians 13.
So, “Tony (or your name) is patient and kind; Tony is not jealous . . . Tony (or your name) is not rude nor does he insist on his own way; he is not irritable or resentful,” etc. This maneuver is un-distilled moralism . . . law not gospel. It is what Augustine termed “cruel optimism” in his debate with Pelagius. If we were to put any name in where Paul writes love, the name to put in would be “Jesus.”
“There is therefore a secret at the heart of this passage. Agape (self-giving love) would be unattainable for the human being if it were not for God’s invincible activity on our behalf, through the power of his Son’s sacrifice of himself. Love does not lead to God; God in Jesus Christ leads us to love. Love does not arise out of the unaided human heart; God puts it there.”
Perhaps that seems extreme? Surely, we have the capacity, and obligation, to love in the sense of agape or self-giving love, love that puts another’s needs before our own. And we do. But in the end we do love imperfectly. Our love is marred by self-interest. A greater love and higher power are needed.
As it happens, I talk quite a lot in this session, including about some of the ways I, as a young minister, tried very hard to be a perfect pastor and super Christian, full of love. Talk about cruel optimism!
The next week, May 30, was cancelled. So the next tape coming your way will be from Monday, June 6, when we take up a series of sermons grouped under the heading, “What if I’m not very religious?” These focus in a very important distinction, namely between “religion” and (Christian) “faith.” They aren’t the same. I’ll include that tape here when I receive it.
Happy listening/ viewing.