From today’s gospel we have one of the best known verses in all of Scripture: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” But… I’ve wondered whether, if people thought about what this verse says for just a little longer than it takes to read a bumper sticker, it might just prove to be far less comforting and far more troubling.
Love is the language and logic of the kingdom of God. It is by the calculus of the Kingdom that God is “all in” sending his only Son. God comes in love to redeem loss, turn tragedy into victory, and demonstrate true power through sheer vulnerability and absolute sacrifice. What is troubling about that? Let me offer two reasons.
First, it is the sheer vulnerability and sacrifice part that gives us pause. We want secure lives. Think how much of our energies directly and indirectly are spent on building up reserves, strengthening foundations, adding on extras, or storing up for an unknown future. Really, who volunteers for vulnerability and sacrifice?
It’s not that we do not know vulnerability. We or our loved ones have been brought low by illness, or loss, or a broken relationship, or disappointed hopes or some other way. But we don’t seek it out. Can we sacrifice? Sure… often only when we can afford to. Love our enemies? Maybe if everything else is taken care of first. But we don’t volunteer for such things. The kind of self-sacrificing love Jesus offers is frightening to us; it – seems impossible and a bridge too far.
Here is a second reason this may not be our favorite verse. It is because such love makes a claim on us. We want love to have mutuality, some degree of equality, right? But God did not consult us, ask permission, or seek our advice. Nonetheless, having saved our lives by giving up his life, there is a claim Love makes upon us….like it or not.
Think of a young child being put to bed earlier than the child wanted after an interlude of bargaining and pleading. Upset, the child said, “Daddy, I hate you.” The father replied, “Son, I’m sorry you feel that way, but I love you.” The child’s response to such gracious words surprised his dad: “Don’t say that!” “I’m sorry son, but it’s true. I love you.” “Don’t,” his son protested, “Don’t say that again!” At which point the father said, “Son, I love you…like it or not!”
Why was the child protesting his father’s love? Because he realized he could not control his father’s love; he could not maneuver it to his advantage despite the promises of vegetables that would be eaten, extra chores done, or going to bed earlier tomorrow night. Indeed, in the face of such love there is no bargaining and, ultimately, no control whatsoever. In the face of unconditional love we are powerless. We can choose to accept it or not, perhaps we can run away from it, but we cannot influence it, manipulate it, or control it. In the face of this kind of love, we are powerless. We don’t like being powerless, not in control, or not having some say in the matter.
God’s love is unrelenting and tenacious. And that might just be terrifying. And it doesn’t stop; can’t stop. God’s love will continue to chase us after us, seeking to hold onto us and redeem us all the days of our lives, whether “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” whether we like it or not.