Before the Owensby family departed for seminary at Sewanee, our parish priest Richard Turk offered my wife Joy some advice for our marriage.
“Take up golf,” he said.
Seminary would demand much of my time. Richard wanted to help us maintain our close relationship. And so he gave Joy a well-intended suggestion.
Richard loved playing golf, and I’m sure that he would have loved to have had his wife Davette by his side on the links. Since Richard and I were alike in many ways, he assumed that Joy and I would enjoy our time at the local golf course in Sewanee.
Joy and I loved Richard. So she just didn’t have the heart to tell him that she has no interest in playing golf and that I have even less. Our interests lie elsewhere entirely. Just for the record, among other things Joy and I spend lots of time walking together.
Despite Richard’s misfire about golf, he was spot-on about one thing. Loving someone involves learning to love who and what they love.
Now this is true in a restricted way for our love for other human beings. As Augustine said, our loves can be disordered. We can love the wrong things or love things in the wrong way.
But when it comes to our love for God, there are no holds barred. God loves perfectly. To love God is to learn to love what God loves. And to love God begins with Christ’s love for us.
On his last night with his friends, Jesus identifies himself as the True Vine and his friends as the branches who derive their very life from that vine. “Abide in me as I abide in you,” he told them. (John 15:4)
Elsewhere Jesus uses the word “believe.” But our contemporary usage of “believe” is impoverished in comparison to what Jesus is getting at. As Marcus Borg suggests, a brief look at the history of the word “believe” shows us that when Jesus said it, he meant something like “belove.”
Today when we talk about belief we frequently mean assenting to the truth of doctrinal statements or certain formulas about Jesus. In contemporary usage “belief” refers to a cognitive or intellectual activity.
I give my intellectual assent to the Nicene Creed and to the Apostles’ Creed. But that cognitive act is the result of something deeper, something more life-changing. The risen Christ’s love for me keeps insinuating itself into my life.
Christ’s love bubbles up from the depths of my soul or reveals itself in the kindness of others or announces itself in the beauty of nature. That love is not a reward for my moral rectitude or my spiritual rigor or my theological clarity. It is the starting point for all that follows. And what follows is that I love the risen Christ.
As the writer of 1 John says, “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
Believing the Creeds did not lead me to this love. The Creeds have helped me to articulate this love with my mind.
Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t possible to assert vigorously the truth of the Creeds without loving the risen Christ. The writer of 1 John seems to suggest precisely this when he says, “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.” (1 John 4:20a)
Many who do not believe and those who have burned out on church-going frequently charge the church with hypocrisy. While some of these charges are unfair, we have done much to deserve them. We quarrel viciously with each other. Sometimes we condescend to those we seek to help. And there is a solid record of the harsh judgement that some of us heap upon those who are different from us.
Abiding in Christ changes who we are. We change because to abide means to make our relationship with Christ the definitive center of our lives. We seek to grow so close to Christ that he is within us, not just next to us. We are in him, not merely shuffling along in his footsteps.
For instance, even when I am in a distant city, my wife Joy is with me. She is closer to me than the other people who occupy space next to me and even closer than the glasses resting on my nose. We are joined at the spiritual hip. Even though I am in Kansas City or Atlanta doing bishopy things, in a real way I am living out my life with Joy.
So too with Christ. He abides in us, and so we can abide in him. And when we do, we will begin to love who and what he loves. As the writer of 1 John puts it, “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (1 John 4:21)
Let me be clear. God does not reward us with his love when we finally get around to loving our brothers and sisters. On the contrary, when we respond to God’s love—when we love God in response to his freely given love for us—loving others follows as a result. When we love God his love for others infects us.
God loves everybody. No exceptions. And that is precisely where God in Christ is leading all of us. Admittedly, God has not yet brought us to our holy destination. And there are times that we drag our feet, dig in our heels, and even run the other way. But God’s love for us is frightfully persistent.
The prophet Micah famously described the way of love paved by Christ. Do justice. Show compassion. Walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6:8)
God’s love creates, sustains, restores, and reconciles. Divine love is no mere affection. It is the power to set all things right, to heal all wounds, to mend all hearts, and to raise up what has been cast down. And that same love reverberates through us.
The violence and destruction in Baltimore
shocks all of us, but it also awakens in us a righteous indignation at school systems there and here in Louisiana that fail their students, at inept economic policies that rob hard working people of opportunity there and here, at a justice system that deals more favorably with some than with others there and here.
God’s love for us changes who we are, and who we are in Christ will change this world. God loves justice and compassion among his children. All his children. And loving the risen Christ means that we are learning to love who and what he loves.