Part One of a Two-Part Series
Sometimes I think of just the perfect comeback, about an hour after it’s too late. That’s what happened once while Joy and I were still newlyweds, only the time delay has been closer to thirty years.
Joy and I spent our first year of marriage in Germany. As a DAAD Scholar (a sort of German Fulbright Fellow), I wrote my dissertation at the Ruhr University while Joy studied German in another department of the same school.
Among the many people we met was a large group of Chinese exchange students, some of whom found our Christian faith something of a curiosity. On a university-sponsored trip through Belgium and Holland, one of our Chinese friends asked us how on earth we Christians could claim to love everybody.
She understood loving your parents and your siblings, your spouse and your grandparents and your nieces and nephews and even your cousins. But you can’t love a perfect stranger. Can you? It’s just ridiculous.
I rambled on to her about the various sorts of love, but it was obvious that I was getting nowhere. It’s thirty years late, but now I know what I would say if I got another chance. And that’s just what I’m going to say to all of you today.
Following Jesus is a matter of the heart. God designed our hearts to pulse with constant, persistent love for him and for our neighbor. But we have a heart problem, and until Jesus heals our hearts, our love will be halting and distorted.
So you see, following Jesus is first about what Jesus does to our heart, not what we do with it. We love in response to Jesus’ love for us. And that is a work still in progress. Let me explain what I mean by exploring three questions with you:
The first question is: What is our heart problem?
Next, we’ll ask: How does Jesus transform our heart?
The final question we will answer more fully tomorrow in my convention address: What does Jesus teach us to do with our transformed hearts?
Before diagnosing our heart problem, let’s be clear about what the Bible means by the word “heart.” We routinely use the word to symbolize our emotions. When we say that we are heartbroken, we mean that we feel intense sorrow. If we’re heartsick, we feel dejected.
The Bible uses the word more broadly. In Scripture, the word “heart” refers to the spiritual center of the whole person. It is where our emotions, our passions, our will, our soul, and our mind intersect.
Remnants of this usage still echo in words like “wholehearted” and “halfhearted.” Being wholehearted means to throw ourselves completely into something or to commit ourselves completely to another person. By contrast, holding part of ourselves in reserve or keeping a safe distance makes us halfhearted.
The heart is the whole self. And God wants our heart. Jesus puts it this way when he summarizes the Law. “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39)
God designed us to love. We are our truest selves when we surrender ourselves wholeheartedly to God and devote ourselves without hesitation to the well-being of other people.
Some followers of Jesus hear the Summary of the Law as a moral formula, a rule that God requires us to follow. However, Jesus is not burdening us with one more law to follow. He is telling us about the point of all moral law. Moral law teaches us what it looks like to love God and to love neighbor.
Jesus is setting a very high bar for us here, but not a new moral law. Instead, he is saying that you can follow every single rule in Scripture and still completely miss the point.
If you begrudgingly follow God’s commandments or simply obey his commands to get a reward for good behavior, you may be relating to God as your Celestial Drill Instructor or your Heavenly Supervisor or even your Omnipresent Butler.
When you feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, it counts for nothing if you see them as your spiritual or moral inferior.
God will settle for nothing less than being the love of our life. And because each of us is the apple of his eye, he takes it very personally when we treat one of his other children with contempt or condescension. God insists that we see the face of Jesus in everyone we meet.
This is an impossibly high standard. And God knows it. We are half-hearted and we cannot fix that problem ourselves. As the prophet Ezekiel puts it, we have hearts of stone and yearn to have hearts of flesh. Just as the ancient alchemists tried in vain to turn lead into gold, we will fail to transform our hearts through merely human means. Such transformation exceeds our finite abilities.
But as John Claypool once put it, God is the divine alchemist. Or as God says through the prophet Ezekiel, “I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
From Stone To Flesh
Jesus transforms our hearts. But he doesn’t do it with the flip of a switch or with a wave of his super special messianic magic wand. He does it step by step. That’s why he told his first disciples, “Follow me,” in the Synoptic Gospels.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Abide in me,” and “Abide in my love.” In other words, Jesus calls us into an intimate, ongoing relationship with him.
It is not enough to say who he is in Creedal Statements, to know him through Bible stories, or even to call him Lord. He calls us first and foremost to cling to him as our personal savior. Then, and only then, will doctrinal thinking, biblical knowledge, moral conduct, and works of mercy become expressions of the relationship that gives birth to the love that characterizes Christian living.
Turning hearts of stone into hearts of flesh is what a Savior does. And the first step to having a savior is acknowledging that we actually need one. If Jesus is only your Lord, then he can tell you what to do. Maybe he can even show you how to do it like a good coach or mentor would.
But treating Jesus only as Lord still leaves salvation up to us. We are left to follow Jesus’ orders and to win his approval through our own achievements. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that only his achievement matters: his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and eventual return in glory.
Abiding in Jesus begins when we admit that we have hearts of stone. Our loves are disordered and truncated and, more often than we like to admit, self-serving. We have a very different vision.
We can dream of a heart that gives itself away with abandon to the God who loves us beyond reason, that beats with unflagging courage to offer grace and compassion to the fragile and vulnerable people we encounter every day, that races with an unflagging hope that what we do in this life matters because God is by our side and on our side.
Abiding in Jesus continues when we hand our heart of stone to him. It’s all we’ve got. Strictly speaking, we would not list it on any earthly resume or college application.
We shutter at the thought of glimpsing examples of our hardheartedness on YouTube or discovering that our halfheartedness has become a trending topic on Twitter. So we are very likely to keep this central truth about ourselves hidden away deep in the most private corners of our soul. And that is just where to begin if we are to give ourselves completely to Jesus.
Everything we are intersects in that stony place. And when we hand our stoniness to Jesus, the most amazing thing happens. He rejoices. We discover that he loves us. Not because of what we have done or will do, but because of who he is. And his love for us is the transforming power we’ve been yearning for. Jesus does not do touchups and minor tuneups. Jesus’ love for us turns stone into flesh.
But remember, the operative word here is “abide.” To stick with Jesus the way we stay with the one we love when we’re pushing through a crowd. You keep up and keep together as best you can. Keep him in view. He knows when you’re struggling and won’t leave you behind. We have to resist pushing ahead on our own only to get separated.
The point here is less the destination than the effect that abiding with Jesus will have on us. We become the beloved. Jesus’ love flows into us. And because we are beloved, we can love others.
Some people say that you can’t love others until you love yourself. Well, that’s not all together wrong, but it’s not fundamental or complete. In fact, it can be misleading. Loving yourself can be precisely your stumbling block to loving others unconditionally. The Good News is that we can love others only once we’ve discovered that we are the beloved. And in Jesus Christ, that is just what we discover.
In contemporary America, we tend to think of this as a kind of solo journey. But that’s not what Jesus thought at all. He knew that abiding in him is a group activity. Abiding in Jesus happens best in community.
The Beloved Community
And this brings us to our third and final question, the question that I will take up tomorrow. What does Jesus teach us to do with our transformed hearts?
Jesus shapes us into the beloved community, and he teaches us how to act like it. Jesus wants us to be, to really be, the beloved community.
Tomorrow we’re going to explore just what that means in general and in very specific terms for the Diocese of Western Louisiana.
For now, I’ll close by giving us a thought experiment that I got from “It’s a Wonderful Life” Remember, George Bailey wished he had never existed, and then he got to see what the world would have been like without him.
Well, imagine that your congregation had never existed. What would you be like, what would the surrounding community be like, without it?
This sermon was preached at St. James, Alexandria, during the opening Eucharist for the 33rd Convention of the Diocese of Western Louisiana.