Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Definition

The Definition
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 15, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 3: 11-16
Numbers 21: 1-9

Today's Anthem: "God So Loved the World" arr. David A. Zabriskie

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. [1]

When I was at Christchurch School, and in many ways it is similar at Blue Ridge, the culmination of the Chapel Life of the school was the Lessons and Carols service. Both schools unapologetically go all out to celebrate the beauty of the traditions surrounding Christmas, with candles and anthems and hymns and readings, but one thing that will always resonate in my mind and that I will remember was that, the last reading of the Lessons and Carols service is always John 1, "in the beginning was the word. . . " etc., and it was always marked in the bulletin as "The Meaning of Christmas" that "the word becoming flesh and dwelling among" us is what Christmas is all about. It was really cool at Christchurch because, like Blue Ridge, it was an international school, with many different nations and cultures represented. Each year, or at least one year that stands out in my memory, John 1, was read in all of the languages represented at the school. So it was like Korean, Chinese, German, Moldovan, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, and some more. You got to hear the words as they reach each corner of the globe, the beautiful truth resonating to every tongue. It had the feel of Pentecost where everyone got to hear in their own language. It was so meaningful to me, that DeAnna and I when putting together a similar service in Hampton decided to have John 1 read in English, Latin, German, and Greek. It was interesting to hear the sounds of the familiar cadences coming through in language so different from our own. Neither school had the same traditions surrounding Easter, maybe because many of the boys go home over that weekend, maybe because the Resurrection at Easter is much less Politically Correct than the more tame Christmas Secularization, but there was never a great service commemorating Easter, but if there was you can bet that this passage, John 3:16 would parallel that John 1, that for many John 3:16 is the "meaning of Easter," and mainly because of the second half of the phrase. . . so that we can have "eternal life." The stone rolls away and we get to have eternal life. In our heaven first, results based, us centered, religious tendency, we often skip the "God so loved," and focus right on the "eternal life." You can see it all over the place in Pop Christianity. . . the church signs, the T-Shirts, the bumper stickers, the News Debate, and the  God loving part falls to the wayside. . . so I want to take a break from that, not because I want to downplay it, or act like it doesn't exist,  or challenge it in any way, but because the foundation, the chief cornerstone, is on the otherside, the God side, the Christ side, the Loving side. . .
Because Love is such an important part of what is going on here. The word  love is found in some form in the Bible over four hundred times, including often the attribute referring to God constantly in the Old Testament as steadfast love, the what Jesus calls Greatest Commandment, of Loving God and Loving our neighbor, even going so far as in one of John's epistles, 1 John, that God, in fact, is Love. . . so love has much importance in the Biblical Story and in our faith as it is derived from that Biblical Story, but often we have difficulty in describing exactly what love is. I think most of you know, by now, from my mentioning a few times in my sermons and in my graduation speech at Blue Ridge a few years ago, that I begin my classes each year with a lesson on trying to define love. And that process is challenging because their definitions always begin with the idea of feeling and emotion, which certainly no one can deny is part of it, but leaves us lacking, because attached to that feeling is action, there needs to be action in love.
Sometimes we can look at opposites to give us a clue about what a word or an idea means. Like if you want to know what up is you can compare it to down,  or as Grover so indelibly taught my generation in our younger days, that if you want to know about far, just think about near. . .Near. . . . . . and far.  But looking at the opposites of love like hate, falls short because hate as an opposite for love is so short sighted. There is so much more to love than just the mirror image of hate, because hate is just a feeling of antipathy, where as love is so much more than just sympathy. It includes it, but like all infinite things, the things that come from God, it just cannot be encased in so narrow an idea. In my lesson I get my students thinking poetically about metaphor and figurative language because I want them to see that poetry is the only thing that can work to define the infinite without confining it too much, because metaphor allows for interpretation and shared experience. And experience is important to the equation because experience plays such an important role in our own process of discernment with regards to truth, and one of the many things that make us completely unique and different from one another is our experience, no two lives are completely alike. But infinite definition is not the same thing as relative truth. . . though we cannot limit wholesale, there is a definite truth we can point to and learn from. And these are what we really talk about when we say we are defining words like love. Because though all of our experiences are different, we do share certain experience in common, and one of those happens to be how we relate to God in our own lives and how the characters of the Biblical story interact with God in the Biblical narrative, for all are one. We can share those experiences and learn from each other and from what others have shared in the past and grow closer to God.
So experience and metaphor all play into it. . . A metaphor that the Bible gives us is "God is Love", (actually from one of the epistles attributed to John our Gospel writer) and the experience we can look at is the Biblical manifestations of God acting. . . and then we can think about how this fits within a Biblical idea of love, and then by comparing it with our own experience we can get a really good concept of what love is. First you have God with his steadfast love, not abandoning his people Israel, setting them free from bondage, teaching them about righteous and sustaining laws for living in community together. You have that God coming into the world proclaiming and teaching more about what righteousness and living in community are about, holding up as the most important part of it, this idea of loving God and Loving neighbor. . . so the relational idea grows and includes both ways, with each other and with God. But if we are really thinking about love we would have to look at everything that God does.
And then it would stand to reason foundationally speaking that love is about making life, redeeming life, an sustaining life. And life is made when love sets free, because God sets us free. . . free to be, free to will, free from slavery in Egypt, free to even enslave ourselves through our own freedom. Free to choose chains again and again. . . but then God remains. . . and will set us free again. . . so this steadfast conception of God and love is important as well. There is the sense of the unconditional side of love. It doesn't necessarily mean that there isn't right and wrong, or preference, but that those do not work to limit love ever. You could say that love gives second chances, (we think of characters like Jacob, and David and others), that love desires for justice (we think of the prophets being sent by God to speak the truth to power), but love also knows mercy (we see Jonah's interaction with Nineveh), that Love seeks us out where we are, following always right behind us (and hence we see God's interaction with Jonah). We could see love offering protection, (like he does for  Daniel in the Lion's den), or strength to stand and risk (like he does for Esther). We can see love leading (like God does the people through wilderness). We can see all of these things. . . we can seek to emulate all of these things. We can love by protecting, and leading, and seeking people where they are, being there when they turn around to us. We can love by risking, and desiring for justice, and giving mercy. We can love by setting people free having the hope and faith that they will do what is beneficial to themselves and to others, even if they may not. We can do all of those things by loving, and I would guess that many of us do on a regular basis, we try to, we try to be that good life giving type of person, but there is more to the metaphor, there is more to the experience, and therefore there is more to the definition of love because God takes further.
And that is where John 3:16 really comes in. . . because it seems to say that Love also includes sacrifice, giving up a piece of you, something completely unique to you, as intimate and close as a child, a son, and as a child, a likeness, in God's case the totality of self. . . for our doctrine states, like God, same as God, even in John's Gospel, the Word was God and the Word was with God. . . and now this son, this only son, the text goes out of the way, is being sent to the world to save it, giving all who come to believe, eternal life. It is the mark of a sacrifice, a total sacrifice, to pain, to gruesome persecution, to beatings, to crucifixion, and to becoming a symbol of human sin and cruelty, hanging on that cross for the world to look at and take notice, that they may come to believe. He connects it to the snake being raised up in the desert, which we heard about in the story that Erick read. . . the people looked at the snake, they saw the snake, the snake that had been poisonous, that had wrecked so many, that had caused such devastation, the people looked at it risen up on high, and they would then live. . . . just by looking at the snake, risen high, high above them on a post and they would live. What an interesting thing to see and compare Jesus' sacrifice to. . . that by merely looking the people could see and live. . . how interesting that it is in just beholding, believing, believing what though, a complete sacrifice in love, we see that, we believe in that. . . and then in that we are given eternal life. . . just seeing love gives life, but what are we looking at, a symbol of perfect love, a definition that encaptures what love is completely, the complete sacrifice of self for the other, and the intense feeling that would make that sacrifice possible.
Why do we not go to that definition of love first? Because it's so hard. It is so hard to think about love as a perfect sacrifice, because we are always looking out for ourselves and our interests. And love has many imposters. . . one of them is manipulation, where you go through all of the appearance of love, but in the end it is about  you, and in that case it sucks life rather than giving life. I'm sure you have seen it, felt it, and done it. Another of love's imposters is loving the whole world just to feel good for yourself. Fighting for nameless justice. . . fighting for impersonal ideals. . . fighting for vague seemingly selfless impulses that underneath are all about us. Man is it hard. . . but this sacrificing element is what separates love. . . it dies to the self. . . but one of the most important aspects then is valuing  yourself enough to give it. You have to know how valuable you are, how worth while you are, how great you are, how much of a child of God you are, how held up in faith you are. . . because through faith we know that love is worth it. We know that giving up yourself completely is such a powerful idea, such a noble thing, and upon seeing Christ's perfect example. . . we know that life abounds in such thoughts of love.
We can know this, but it is still hard to sacrifice, to love completely, to give up of self without holding back, without fearing. . .  how are we to live up to such a commandment as to love God and neighbor, when the definition is complete sacrifice? I'm not sure, but now we can flip the metaphor around. Rather than looking at love, let's look at God for a moment. One of the things that John has been teaching us so far in his gospel is that we shouldn't put God in a box, but rather understand God's completely free and infinite aspects. . . but that we always have that tendency to limit God, knowing that tendency we can still experience God where ever we are because God limited  himself in the human form of Jesus, so that we could come to know more clearly about that limitless aspect. . . . we can know love in the same way, through loving in any way, with a mind to the complete sacrifice, knowing that is what love really is, we can learn love through the little, just thinking of others is a step. . . and a seed, just like a notion, consciousness, a mustard seed of faith is enough to move a mountain. . . a little shred of love points us in the right direction. This I believe is why we confess week to week. We know that we do not love completely, or have not found the situation right for that complete sacrifice. . . we openly confess that, just as Jesus does in the Garden of Gethsemene. . . we resist because we are coming to know the value of that sacrifice. . . and the act of confession reminds us that Love requires more than we have so far given, but we also acknowledge that through practicing love we grow closer. Remember it is not the temple that is the problem but how we see the temple. It needs to point us to God, rather than encapsulate God. Our small acts of love, show love to the world, make a witness of love to the world, but there is always more we can do and be and give. . . we haven't loved completely yet, we still have more to give, we are never and can never be done until there is no more left of us to give. . . therefore may God in his love for us keep us humble, remembering that we have not yet begun to love entirely, for there is more of ourselves that we have yet to give . . but in that humility we are fee to love where ever on the spectrum of love we are. . . and in doing so, even in the small we spread life.  Amen.

So often I write my sermons on Saturday nights, but this one I wrote Friday afternoon, and one of the reasons I wait until Saturday night is that I will rethink and rework again and again anything that I wrote earlier anyway. This sermon was no exception. I continued to tinker with the ending of this because what I was saying was that the standard for loving is complete sacrifice. . .how can you say that without devaluing the process of getting to that point? How do you remain focused on the size, the end, the amazing scope of love, without ignoring the fact that it is hard to get there. . . I think a good metaphor for it is writing. As a teacher of writing I am always fighting against what my students have been taught before about writing and how binding those definitions usually are. Things like, paragraphs have to have 5-7 sentences, or a thesis should be always the last sentence of an introduction. These artificial requirements don't produce quality writing, and as training wheels they have to at some point come off. . . but I run into the issue all the time that these artificial requirements are important to the development of the writer, and that not everyone can just write with out any step by step progression. So there needs to be instruction, you need to have the "training wheels" but there needs to be a point where those come off, that the training is pointing beyond itself to real ownership and freedom. It is helpful to think about love, and our relationship to God in the same way. . . and Jesus coming to us in our own form is a great manifestation of this truth, humbling himself, limiting himself, to take on a human form to teach us beyond himself, through himself to understand the infinite nature of love and God. . . . so take that as another metaphor, use love's training wheels, but do not lose sight of what Love truly is. . . and go from this place loving. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 3:11-16). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.