Monday, July 31, 2017

What God’s Love Is and Is Not

The Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Christian Formation, St. Paul’s, Bellingham, WA

Recently I heard a well-meaning youth minister encapsulate the Christian faith for a group of high schoolers in this way: “If you get baptized and believe in God, then you’ll go to heaven.”

If you ever wanted a quick and simple formula for Christian faith, this one fits the bill, because it tells us exactly what to do in order to get something we want. To be sure, the key pieces of it—baptism, belief in God, and heaven—are all cornerstones of our faith. The problem is that it’s wrong. This well-meaning statement, all too common among Christians, falls short of the essence of the gospel in three key ways.

God’s Love Is Not Conditional

First of all, it falls short because it is an “if … then” statement. God’s love is not conditional. Now, I do believe in baptism as a sign and sacrament of God’s saving action. But I don’t believe that God invented baptism, nor do I believe that it is a prerequisite for salvation. Baptism has its origins in Judaism as a ritual of cleansing from sin. John was baptizing people in the River Jordan as a sign of lives changed, of repentant people vowing a new beginning. Jesus also came to be baptized, though there was no need for it. Jesus said to John, “Baptize me anyway. This is right and proper.” So while humans invented baptism, God adopted it, making sacred something as basic and universal as getting wet. We are swimming in an ocean of God’s love all the time, every day. We use water to show this love to everyone around.

God has made baptism sacred, yes. Baptism and Holy Eucharist are by far the most common ways that Christians have seen God at work in people’s lives. But God does not then turn around and use sacred things to exclude people. Humans are the ones who do that—we exclude others, or we exclude ourselves, from joy by trying to place conditions on the freely accessible love of God. We try to make it a transaction.

God’s Love Is Not Transactional

Such a transaction runs contrary to 500 years of Protestant theology that has also worked its way back into other Christian branches as well, reminding them of what our faith has always been. We assert that we saved not by works, but by faith; we cannot earn our way to heaven. And while Paul writes that we are made right with God “by faith in Christ,” you could also translate that phrase as “by Christ’s faithfulness.” I believe that Paul’s phrasing is intentionally ambiguous. When we keep faith in Christ, we can see more clearly that Christ keeps faith with us. In short, it’s not a transaction; it’s a relationship.

Since God has adopted baptism on our behalf, God also calls us to it. To all appearances it may seem that we’re the ones who decide, “Let’s have the baby baptized.” We may seem to be the agents who seek baptism, and clergy may seem to be the agents who perform it. But God is somewhere behind our decisions. And if the impetus to baptize comes from God, and if a flowering of faith in one’s post-baptismal life comes from God, then we’re not the primary movers here. Neither seeking baptism nor a mustering of belief will secure salvation for us. Salvation is already ours, given freely by the unconditional lover.

Now, at the end of the day, I don’t know why some people get baptized and others don’t, or why some people understand their baptism merely as a box to be checked off, a one-time public service offered by the ordained. This might be a good place to reference the parable of the sower who sowed a lot of seeds in places where they were never going to sprout. All I do know is that, on those occasions when people embrace their baptism as the door to a joyful, lifelong project of growing in love and understanding of the One who created them and loves them eternally … well, I call that salvation.

God’s Love Is Not Self-Serving

And this leads us to the third way in which the statement falls short: the goal of “heaven” as commonly understood is self-serving and limited. I believe in heaven, and I believe that it is a gift to those creatures whom God loves. But I don’t consider heaven merely to be a place to which our individual souls are teleported at the time of our deaths.

For a time in high school I attended a conservative evangelical teen Bible study. It was led by a pastor’s wife who loved us dearly and had only good intentions. I remember her referring to a popular song of the day and finding great fault with its title, “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” She seemed to feel that it was theologically dangerous to think this way, though I was just amused that she’d missed the implied sexual metaphor.

To say that “heaven is a place on earth” is not to write off the afterlife as mere fantasy. Rather, what Jesus referred to as “the kingdom of heaven” is not limited to the other side of death. It is love, and love cannot be contained, so it tears through that veil and lives among us right now, if only we have eyes to see it and ears to hear the good news of it. We can decide to live in the kingdom of heaven today. And we do that by loving God and by loving our neighbors as Jesus has loved us. Only when we love can we truly experience love from others. This might seem like a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, like trying to get job experience without a job. How does one begin?

And here is where God’s grace comes in. Grace refers to the receiving of gifts that we didn’t expect and that we didn’t earn. God’s love somehow bridges the gap so that we can experience love even when we clearly don’t deserve it yet. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ stand as the ultimate symbol of God’s grace in action. We don’t have to know anything at all about love in order to receive it unconditionally. We don’t have to have any faith at all—certainly nothing larger than a mustard seed—for God to be able to kickstart growth in us.

Baptism is a sign of this unconditional love. Holy Eucharist is a sign of this ongoing growth and renewal. Together, these two sacraments form the beginning and the middle of our lives in Christ, the end of which is heaven. To whatever degree we choose to live in heaven on earth, the transition of death will become less frightening and, I believe, far less jarring. Only those who are increasingly accustomed to self-giving will find that they are able to stand in God’s nearer presence.

God’s Love Is Unconditional, Relational, and All About Others

One we are rooted in Christ and growing, we find that we are able to spread God’s love to others. We plant, we water, and God continues to give growth. God is love, love so relational that God can somehow be both One and Three at the same time. God’s love is so uncontainable that God felt the urge to create the cosmos, in order to have a canvas on which to paint that love. Love, by nature, spreads, and so God created billions of awarenesses in God’s own image who also help to paint the canvas, each in our own way, each doing the very best we know how. We work together, but because we have free will, we also make a mess. The pain of our messes is horrific and cannot be erased. But God knows that pain and has lived that pain among us, so in a great mystery, God’s grace can and does redeem it.

And that, my friends, is the Christian story in a nutshell. So perhaps I might amend my youth minister friend's phrase in this way: “God calls us to baptism and belief so that we can experience heaven now and always.” The invitation to love stands open. Now: how do you want to live?

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