Someone recently asked me about the quality and reality of God’s love and our capacity as human beings to love one another and God without reservation. It is a big question. We read 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 which provides an answer, and it seems to me, the story we also read in Luke’s Gospel 4.21-30 at the start of Jesus’ ministry, is absolutely a story about God’s love and our capacity to trust God. Paul wrote:
Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’ 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, 13
Then in Luke’s Gospel, 4:21-30, Luke describes Jesus sitting in the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath as he begins his ministry. His preaching and speech were praised, until he began to question the fundamental beliefs and worldview of his listeners.
From Abraham to Jesus, the Israelites had been taught the God they believed in was their God of the Israelites, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and no-one else. While there were other gods, over time, the God of Abraham steadily came to be identified as the ordering and generative power of the entire universe. As we track stories in the Hebrew Bible, we see the shift in how the Israelites understood their relationship as a people with a covenant with the one true God. The stories of Elijah and Elisha tell of this shift.
In the synagogue, on that Sabbath, Jesus profoundly challenged his people’s understanding of their God. The God Jesus knew and was describing and now sharing with everyone, was not only the God of the Hebrews but also God of all people, including those who did not and still do not acknowledge God. An extraordinary claim and required a shift in acceptance by a man they knew well, Joseph’s son. How dare he sit there and teach such a fearful, terrible, blasphemous idea? Their response is very familiar for us in our churches today.
The human drive to exclude is strong, and particularly in religion, where people define themselves by who is not a member, as much as they do by who is included. We say, ‘we are not them’, or ‘they are not us’, as we look at those around and find the measures we need to exclude. We exclude from our church and more generally, from our society for a wide range of reasons, none of which are God’s, and we do God an injustice by attributing our prejudices to God’s judgement.
What are those prejudices and dividing lines nowadays: people whose skin colour does not conform to whiteness, those whose sexuality and gender does not fit a binary model, our acceptance of gender roles to exclude individuals from specific work and jobs, and refugees and asylum seekers who ‘dare to invade our land without an invitation’. It used to be also those who were communists, or slaves, or prostitutes, or adulterous women. We have many dividing lines.
As I read the news, there is a constant pressure on every one of us to prove we and our families fit in, belong, are in the right category in our world and our local community.
We all do it, either carelessly or deliberately. I saw a story in the paper this week, an Italian company asked applicants for a receptionist’s job, to send in their resume, together with a photograph of them in a swimming costume and their birth certificates as the individual needed to be attractive, female and under 30 years of age. I read about schools sacking teachers because they are gay. Residential aged care facilities and people living with disabilities not receiving covid management supplies and support. I realise our priorities can be fatal for others as we strive to please those with power around us.
We become so focused on fitting in, proving we belong to this world and its standards, we stop questioning and instead, participate in exclusion, division, hatred and contempt and we stop seeing God, God’s love and inclusiveness. It breaks my heart.
In the synagogue on that Sabbath, those present were clear who was a member and who wasn’t. Jesus asked his listeners: ‘Who are we in relation to God and one another?’ Their answer was, ‘We are not them. We are us!’ They were comfortable with their privileged status, and they did not respond well to Jesus’ questioning this entitlement.
The notion of Christian chosen-ness is also just as stubborn in our own hearts and minds as it was with those Synagogue members. Once the ‘Israel-ness and covenantal relationship with God’ became, to Christian ways of thinking, a spiritual community rather than an ethnic one, Christians were happily willing and able to adopt the whole of body of its exclusivity as their inheritance. Christians embarked on ensuring they had developed their own exclusive membership criteria and cultural, economic and political expectations.
So we continue the well-worn tradition of emphasising who is in and who is out of our club. We claim, ‘salvation is only possible through our community’. We have domesticated God out of all recognition and the radical freedom and message of Jesus’ preaching and ministry has once again been reduced to who’s in and who’s out and who controls the membership rules.
The enraged crowd in Luke’s story 4:29-30 were observant, faithful Jews who could not stomach the idea of their God extending God’s relationship to someone outside their circle, the same favour they themselves enjoyed.
We repeat the story in our own church and beliefs and our understanding of God.
Priests and preachers are still threatened and murdered, either metaphorically or practically if they dare to challenge their community’s worldview about God’s love and inclusiveness for the whole of God’s people. If we believe God is love, why then do we have arguments and conflict in the church, why then do we still continue to exclude certain people and hate them, why then do we demand an accounting of what we believe and how we believe before you can come in. Why do we not love or trust God’s love?
When I did my theology degree, women were not allowed to be priests. There are still Christian churches where this is not allowed. There are still people who refuse to take communion when a woman priest offers the sacrament. Our boundaries have sort of stretched to include women, but no further. We now have the same struggle for civil weddings which are legal for same sex couples, but not church weddings. And so the lists continue.
Hannah Arendt wrote a book in 1963 called: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Her proposition was we become so accustomed to what we see around us we no longer ask questions and accept what we are told. So when God asks us questions, we become angry because we want to let matters lie, through shame, guilt or fear.
Jesus spoke truthfully to his listeners in the synagogue, and they became angry. Yet the character of Jesus’ ministry, its focus on showing God’s love with good news for the poor, release to captives, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed and the Lord’s favour as he offered the message of God’s love and inclusiveness for everyone, has meant you and I are here today.
We are diminished when we respond to life out of fear and hatred rather than living, sharing, listening and acting in love, trusting absolutely in God’s love. God weeps for love.
Jesus will not always be what we need. He will not always be what we want. He will rarely be what we expect. However, he will always be God and God is free, loving, inclusive and for everyone. Not just a chosen few. The question I started with in this reflection, when asked about God’s love and our capacity to love one another, has a real and life-giving answer from Jesus. Do not doubt God’s love. It is absolutely worth taking the risk and living in love.
Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)
The Lord be with you.
Reference: Arendt, H. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin Books New York, USA.