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Rising in Love Part 6: Love never fails

Blog by Nikayla Reize

Love never fails. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now, we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:8-12

For six weeks we have gathered to ponder how deeply God loves us. God’s love is endlessly patient, keeps no record of wrong, endures, tolerates, hopes, and trusts through all of it. We dared to imagine that no part of God’s love hinges on us or our behaviour, because God’s love is God’s project – not ours. We reminded each other that we cannot coerce God or summon God or send God away. We proclaimed the sovereignty of God. God is a free and lively agent. We spoke over one another, again and again, that God has demonstrated his ultimate sovereignty in this: God has lavished an incarnate and unfailing love upon the world.

God loved us even before Jesus died (John 3:16). In fact, God’s love was the occasion for Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was not the ends that justified the brutal means. It wasn’t our sin that held Jesus to the cross and it wasn’t God’s wrath. It was God’s love that held God to the cross and God’s love that rose eternal and triumphant from the grave. God invited the whole world to rise to the same unfailing and unending love.

Some of our internet friends did not appreciate this sermon series. Some insisted that we failed to call people to repentance, and we failed to warn people about the fires of hell. Others showed a fear that we were essentially releasing people to pursue their own individual “truth” – do whatever feels good, act on every desire. Maybe, they fear, we are blessing people to their own hedonistic demise.

Would this be better? “God loves you, but God hates sin and you’re a sinner. God demands righteousness, so you must confess, repent, and obey. Be perfect as God is perfect…or else. God is only concerned about his own righteousness and glorifying his own name and so he saves you for his sake, not yours. The vast majority of humans who have ever and will ever inhabit this world have gone to or are going to hell. The few who make it to paradise are perfect in faith as demonstrated by the perfect workings of their faith because God is perfect, and perfection is the standard.  God tolerates nothing less, so shape up (by the grace of God) or ship out….to eternal conscious torment.”

Is that what we mean by “Gospel”? That sounds – to me – like love almost never wins, and sin and death almost always do.

I read the news and I look at the history of Christendom and I shake my head and weep. It hasn’t worked. Forced assimilation has no place in God’s dream for the world God loves.

What works better? For me to shame you for your self-destructive behaviour? Or to commend the biblical vision of a loving God until you see that a life shaped in response to the Love of God is the better option?  We could condemn you for yelling at your wife or we could support you through deep healing until you feel safe again, even when you’re not in full control, so that you don’t switch into fight-or-flight mode at the drop of a hat. We could say, “It’s a sin to get drunk and high!” Or we could lovingly ask, “What do you need to not feel desperate to numb yourself?” We could say, “Don’t ever eat junk food or you will get heart disease and cancer!” Or we could ask, “Have you ever eaten a homecooked meal made with locally grown veggies and ethically harvested meat at a big table surrounded by a loving community and have you felt the joy of having the energy, mental clarity, and emotional regulation skills that often come as a result of nourishing your beloved body?” We could go further and say, “Are you putting toxins in your body because you are making bad decisions or are you doing it because you have no good options?” Maybe sin is systemic more often than we think.

It’s easier to condemn individuals than to practice collective lament and cultivate a collective imagination for an alternative economy, alternative ecology, alternative community. Maybe that’s what “holy” means – “wholly alternative to the options being given by the dominant ideologies.”

This sermon series hasn’t been about denying problems and hoping that if we just put flowers in our hair and sing songs about love then everything will finally be okay. I’m not interested in living in denial. I see the problems. I see that things are not as they should be, and I confess my contribution to the wounds of the world. My eyes are open, and I do not want to be a part of a church that cultivates denial. You’ll never hear me tell you to just look on the bright side. It takes humility to confess that we are not alright, especially in a culture that rewards self-sufficiency, mastery, and control. Thank God for limitations and weakness, because humility (not shame) is the place where imagination comes from.

Martin Luther King Jr. brought his pain to speech by embodying a ministry of public lament over the injustices being enacted upon black people by white people in the 1960s. He named the pain and spoke with a humility that generated a revolution. “I have a dream”, he said, “that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

Reverend Dr. MLK spoke in the tradition of the prophets. Isaiah, like MLK, stood before the political and religious leaders of his day and said, “Imagine if we took all of our weapons of war and melted them down to make gardening tools.” He didn’t wait until he had a specific action plan– he just asked if we were capable of *imagining* a better way.

Have you lost your ability to imagine a better way?

This is the kind of pastor I aspire to be. I want to cast the vision of a community that actively loves one another because we know that God first actively and completely loved us. Imagine a community that aspired to patience and kindness. Imagine a community that loved each other with a love so faithful that it could literally endure all things. Imagine standing in bold solidarity with our marginalized neighbours because of our deeply held belief that God is love and love never fails. Justice would flow like a river.

At the end of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says that prophecies, eloquent arguments, and all knowledge will come to an end. He says we won’t usher in the new world by denying the present darkness, but nor will we argue, guilt, or fear-monger each other towards change. It turns out, much to my dismay, that my PhD isn’t going to convince the CBWC that you should be in community with marginalized sexual and gender minorities because of the biblical vision of human flourishing and not despite it. Apparently, not even prophetic gifts or self-flagellation will be the tools that bring us all into the circle of God’s love. It turns out our vision is blurry at best – we have a stunted imagination.

Paul says in verse 11, “When I was a child, I reasoned like a child but now that I’m an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” It’s downright childish to imagine we could argue and scare and condemn each other into the good life. It’s childish to think it needs to be more complicated than loving one another. It’s childish to think that love is soft and lily-livered. When we’re ready, and perhaps we are not yet there, we will see that there is nothing more courageous than love. Jesus showed us this.

Paul says that we see in a mirror dimly, but the day will come when we see face to face. What do you see when you look in a mirror? You see yourself. Right now, you can only see yourself when you look in the mirror. The day is coming, however, when love will triumph over hatred, sin, and death, and you will see face-to-face.

The first human was alone in the garden and God put the human to sleep and split the human into two: a male and a female. When the one half of the human woke up, he didn’t even notice the parts of the woman that were different from his own parts. His first and possibly only words to his other half were this: “At last! Bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). He was looking in a mirror and seeing face-to-face, all at the same time. “It’s me!” Says post-op Adam. He had eyes to see the truth: his neighbour as himself. One body, multiple parts. They were naked and unashamed because *of course* they trusted in the love that collapsed the walls between neighbour and self.  It wasn’t until after they did the forbidden thing that they noticed the differences and feared the differences and hid the differences and then raised up the next generation with an imagination for only the differences. The first-born son of creation murdered his younger brother because of the rage and shame he felt when he only noticed the differences, and forgot that a blessing for Abel is a blessing for himself.

The incarnate God sees with Eden eyes. God moved into the neighbourhood and loved his neighbour as himself. Naked and unashamed, noticing the sameness – the image of God – in all whom he encountered. He felt no shame and no fear of what makes us different, he extended forgiveness to a hiding world. I think that’s what forgiveness means – I see you and I see myself in you. On the cross Jesus cried out, “Forgive them, Father, they don’t understand what they’re doing.” He knew something : the people crucifying him and screaming insults at him could only see what made him different from them, but Jesus never lost sight of the part of himself in each of those people there that day. Image-bearers, all of ‘em.

Paul persecuted the early church with violent confrontation, because he only saw the differences between his tradition and the Jesus movement and that made it feel like a threat. But then Jesus found him and asked, “why are you persecuting me?” Wait, what? Paul wasn’t persecuting Jesus; he was persecuting the Christians! Oh right – but Jesus doesn’t know about those differences. He says, “Paul, brother, you think you’re protecting pure religion and defending God’s honour by squashing these humans? You’re hurting me. You’re hurting you.” And then Paul goes on to write stuff like this:

Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation and in him are all things, above and below, seen and unseen and all things have been made through him and for him and in him. In him, all things are held together.  The fullness of God was pleased to dwell in him, and God is pleased to reconcile all to himself by making peace through the cross. You were once estranged and hostile and cruel, but he has now reconciled you to his own body, blameless and perfect, so that you might be securely established and steadfast and hopeful for the promise of the gospel.  Colossians 1:15-23.

Love gives us a holy imagination for seeing in my neighbour what I can only dimly see in the mirror.

Perhaps Paul heard about the night Jesus was betrayed, that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, and said, “Do you know what I have done to you?  For I have set for you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you… I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:12-15, 34-35).

Love uncovers the parts of ourselves that we keep hidden. Love finds us.

I recently heard Wm Paul Young say, “You were found in Christ before you were ever lost in Adam.” That sounds like Good News. That sounds like love never fails, no matter what. Everything else will pass away, but not love. I want to rise to that vision until we all sit down together at the table of siblinghood, face-to-face.

“…Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Cor 13:12-13

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