For the Love of God
For those in the search of love, to read John 15 is to strike gold. John Calvin, the 16th century French-Swiss thinker that Presbyterians claim as their mentor, loved this chapter and I can see why. Unlike the John I listened to in the 1960s who sang, “All you need is love,” this John does not leave us longing for love; he points us to love that is staring us right in the face.
For John, Jesus is God’s love in flesh and bone, God’s love gone from abstract theory to feet-on-the-floor reality. To love, for John, is to hang close to Jesus, not the Mr. Magic Jesus of pop theology who came to dish out divine favors, but the crazy-in-love for us Jesus who keeps walking toward Jerusalem even though he knows what awaits him there. Jesus knows there is a price on his head and yet he walks into Jerusalem and invites us to follow him on the walk of love.
John’s favorite word to tell this love story is “abide” or “set your heart on” or “trust completely in.” For John, that is how you and I know love, by abiding in Jesus, setting our hearts on him, trusting completely in him, walking his way. Jesus says it this way: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” What an odd saying. How can love be commanded? And, if it can, who of us is longing for that kind of love?
I am, for one. I am a Christian for many reasons, but none of them greater than I am loved into life by a God who expects nothing greater than I love in return. The novelist and poet, Wendell Berry once wrote on a dark, dismal December night, “It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born” (Anne Lamott, Plan B, p. 39). Jesus does not leave us longing for love, but born into, abiding in a love that finds us, God’s love, a love that was at the beginning and will be at the end, a love that shadows us step for step all our days.
On its really best days, the church is a community of Christ’s love, friends gathered together not simply because of common interests or political affinity or for social show or personal piety. On its best days, the church is where friends gather together because that is what Christ’s friends do, they hang together as together they hang close to Jesus, who always leads us in the way of love.
As I look back on sermons I have preached over the years, I am often guilty of preaching about only those well-known paragons of Christian love. I preach about Archbishop Desmund Tutu who practiced God’s forgiveness and reconciling love even to the worst offenders of apartheid or to Mother Teresa who did not just send a check to help the poor but made her home among them or to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who practiced not just the rhetoric of social justice but also the street smarts of social justice.
A few years ago, a good friend, Tom Long, reminded me of two friends of Jesus, two practitioners of the love of God, neither of whom I had ever heard of before. Paul and Alice Gruninger were two Swiss teachers who married after World War I, attended church on Sundays, and lived an altogether unspectacular life. To earn a better living, Paul gave up his teaching job and went to work for the police department.
“In April 1939, Gruninger found his way to work blocked by a uniformed officer who told him: ‘Sir, you no longer have the right to enter these premises’.” Tom goes on to write, “An investigation had revealed that Gruninger was secretly altering the documents of Jews fleeing Austria for the safety of Switzerland. ‘Non-Aryan’ refugees were not allowed to cross the border after August 19, 1938, but all it took was a few strokes of Gruninger’s pen to predate a visa and perhaps save a life, a small action, but one of great personal risk.”
Tom concludes: “Paul Gruninger was not Braveheart. He was an unassuming man whose family and faith formed him in a world – a kingdom, if you will – in which anyone who saw what he saw, ‘the heartbreaking scenes . . . the screaming and the crying of mothers and children . . . could not bear it anymore . . . could do nothing else’ . . . [Years later] At his funeral, a choir sang ‘Nearer My God to Thee’, and a rabbi read from the Talmud, ‘He who saves a single life, saves the entire world’.” (Christian Century, pp. 47)
It is amazing what God’s love accomplishes in us even when you and I think we are not all that accomplished. Reading this passage from John, I found myself thinking about Street Grace, a ministry out of the North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. A few years ago, the mayor and police chief met with this church’s Session to inform them that the top site of sex trafficking of young girls on the East Coast is on the same street corner where the church is located.
To their credit, this church Session did not tighten security for their own members and basically say, “Not our problem.” The love of God and the friendship of Christ would not let them turn away from such love gone awry and in less than three years, before I left Atlanta to come to Covesville, these followers of the love of Christ had created Street Grace, a ministry of not just North Avenue Presbyterian Church but one with 78 church partners, 50 community partners, and over 2,000 volunteers, dedicated to love God and follow Christ by saving the lives of innocent young girls every day. All you and I need is that kind of love.
But, I hardly need to look to the war years in Europe or even down Peachtree Street in Atlanta to see what the love of God can accomplish, is accomplishing. I look at the people who fill these pews Sunday after Sunday not because you come here with all the right religious answers, ready to recite just how Christians should behave and what they should believe, but because you know that the love of God and the friendship of Christ makes this a safe place where you can bring all your questions and wander around in all your doubts and disbelief, makes this a loving community where you can share your greatest joys and speak aloud your deepest concerns.
If someone asks you why you carve out time to worship on Sunday or march for women’s rights in D.C. or speak out whenever racism would shut down the voice of a friend of color or take time to study Scripture or spend Saturdays hammering nails at Habitat or mentoring a young reader who is trying to catch up with her classmates, the easy answer is the one found in the Gospel of John – for the love of God. For the love of God – that is the only reason that I stand before you this morning. It is the only reason worth claiming for why any of us got out of bed, dressed, and came here today. For much to my continued amazement, it is the love of God that chooses me and chooses you, that forgives me and forgives you, and as hard as we try, it is the only love that simply will never let us go.
For the love of God.
For the breathtaking, life-changing, love of God.