I've had a sweet little break over Christmas. I've connected with my kids, actually watched movies with my family - instead of glancing up from my laptop every now and then, rested, hiked, yoga-d, and cleaned. I'm so aware that this kind of rest comes so rarely for me and that's my fault. I need to find more space to step back and breathe. I'm working on that.
I've been thinking a lot about the love of God during this break. I know it's something I talk about a lot and it seems cliché, but it just keeps tugging on me. I often have conversations with some of my girlfriends about whether or not the love of God is enough to create holy change. Do we need to take strong stances? Do we need to defend belief or rules? Do we need to define sin for the rest of the world? What is the appropriate line of grace and law?
The thought wouldn't let me go - because I'm of the strong belief that the love of God is powerful; more powerful than anything else we have ever encountered on planet earth. It was the love of God that filled Mary's womb with life. It was the love of God that kept Jesus confined to human flesh for 33 years. It was the love of God that sank into the dirt of humanity's brokenness and healed individual bodies and hearts and lives. It was the love of God that wept over Lazarus and called him back to life. It was the love of God that restored a naked, adulterous woman who was thrown into the dirt in front of her entire community. It was the love of God that gathered hurting people onto a mountain to listen to stories and words that would revive their tired hearts. It was the love of God that kept Jesus quiet while he was accused and beaten. It was the love of God that dragged that heavy tree up a hill and willingly surrendered itself to death. And it was the love of God that CAME BACK. It was always his love, wasn't it?
We know so little about Jesus' interactions with humanity. We have some stories and some memories, but we don't have a day-to-day account of his life. What we do know is that every author of the gospels found it pertinent to point out that Jesus had no tolerance for the people who were shaming and abusing other people. He called that one to light every time. He would not be trapped into condemning anyone according to their interpretation of the law. He was much more concerned with the hearts of the people who came to him. If they came broken, hungry, desperate and humble, Jesus was stirred by compassion. If they came to accuse or trap Jesus into shaming people, he was quick to shut them down. Jesus didn't need to reiterate laws or rules or the chasm that separated people from God. He didn't come to obliterate it either (maybe that's where we lose our way - assuming that love is an invitation to live selfishly?). Jesus showed up to bridge the chasm. He didn't come to push people farther away, burdened by the weight of their great shame. He came to lift that old, heavy yoke from their shoulders. He came to do just what he did.
We keep distorting the love of God because we don't understand it. Some people picket and demand and accuse because they are taught that the love of God must be balanced by "the law". Some people cower under the weight of fear - never speaking a word of truth because they are afraid of the consequences.
You know what is really, really hard for me? It's hard for me to love the people who aren't loving people. I see injustice - and injustice is always a hand that waves away the great love of God - and I flare. It's very hard for me to love the people who are shouting rules from the rooftops. Powerful love would require that I acknowledge that God produces mercy for them too. It's not easy for me, but I am so grateful that others loved me when I was that person. Remembering those experiences gives me freedom to love the unloveable.
I do believe in rules. Rules are important in so many ways. Rules keep people safe. They are meant to keep us from hurting each other, from taking advantage of one another, and from putting our own safety at risk. Rules shouldn't be thrown out the window. But we forget that the most important rule - the one that everything else should hang from - is that we love God and we love people.
We forget that love comes first, and in the midst, and last.
If love doesn't come first then we are paving a bleak road that we ourselves would never want to travel. That road will quickly take us away from Jesus and we will be left defending our "Biblical" stances against other people. If compassion doesn't stir our hearts we are in danger of painting a religion that has nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth. We don't need to defend, or concoct, anything that doesn't reflect the great love of God. If we're standing on any other platform, we have lost our way.
At the end of the book of John there is a recollection of Jesus having a very private conversation with Peter. Peter is broken, friends. He has given up his old life to follow Jesus, seen glorious and holy things, defended Jesus with a sword only to be reprimanded, denied ever knowing Jesus and then he watched his hope die a brutal and horrible death. He's also already found the empty tomb and talked with Jesus in the resurrected flesh. But here he is, fishing again. He's ashamed and sad and afraid. He doesn't know what to do with his humbled, uncertain self. But Jesus comes to him, walks on a beach with him and speaks right into Peter's broken heart.
"When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs." Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep." The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you." Jesus said,"Feed my sheep."
[John 21: 15-18]
Did you catch that, friends? Jesus says it three times." Do you love me? Then feed my sheep. Feed them, Peter." Not "Make sure you always point out their missteps. Make sure they don't ever do something the law condemns." He also doesn't make it a point to tell Peter to just let people do whatever they want. He doesn't take a stance. He doesn't create a platform for Peter to stand on - except for this, "Feed them."
Just feed them.
People are hungry. They are desperate for comfort, for nourishment, for mercy, for kindness, for restoration and life. We are born into judgement. We have enough shame pulling us in a million directions. What we REALLY need is for something to ground us to freedom. The only thing that can do that - the only thing that can shatter our darkness - is the great love of God. Have you ever heard of someone being set free by guilt? Have you ever heard of someone being delivered by fear and loathing? Never. Because those things can't revive us. They can only be handfuls of dirt thrown into our shallow pits. They can only cover over our sadness and suffocate us into silence.
I get it that this is a great big debate in the church. I get it that lots of people have lots of teachings with lots of Bible verses defending their rights to wound and break apart human hearts. The Pharisees had that too. And Jesus wouldn't have any of it.
If we love him, friends, we'll feed his sheep. We'll let that be our one platform and we'll do it well. We will feed every single human heart that comes to us with the great love of God, with his chain shattering truth, with barrelfuls of mercy and kindness. We will trust that God is big enough, strong enough and loving enough to draw us all to repentance in his way and in his time. We can trust that, friends.