Beloved, Let Us Love One Another

A prayer for St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, on St. Patrick’s Day, 2013.
Text for the Day: 1 John 4:7-12, 17-21

God of love, we thank you for these words of challenge and encouragement from 1 John today, and for all that you have been teaching us through this epistle over the past few weeks.  We thank you for the fortuitous timing of these messages as we prepare to celebrate the death and resurrection of your Son.  We have been exhorted over and over to “love one another” and, if we might be tempted to let familiarity breed contempt, to let the exhortation flatten into a platitude, we come, at the end of this series to Good Friday and Easter, when the true nature of love is on display: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  Lord, give us love such as this!  Or perhaps, Lord, some of us may have been tempted to be overwhelmed by John’s uncompromising exhortations to love our brothers and sisters, realizing how poorly we love.  As we look toward Good Friday and Easter, then, give us the peace and confidence that we are able to love, because he has loved us first.

Father, for the love you show to us in the beautiful gifts of creation, we give you thanks.  For the love you show us in the material blessings that sustain and enrich our lives, we give you thanks.  For the love you show us in the gifts of friends and family, a church to call home, we give you thanks.  But above all, for the love you showed us in the gift of your Son, for the love that is stronger than death and sin, we thank you with overflowing hearts.  Lord, send your Spirit and your Word throughout this world that people of every tribe and nation may hear and experience this love.

Lord, help us to love, as you have loved us first.  Strengthen our ministers with the self-giving love to teach and lead and pray and work on behalf of the community here at Ps and Gs, and give to each of those who serves here on the staff, or in volunteer leadership, the love to serve faithfully and patiently in their calling, not out of mere duty but care for one another.  Give those leading the Alpha Courses love for those they are teaching, a passionate desire to bring new hearts to Christ, and as the church considers new ways to minister to the homeless here in Edinburgh, give us prudence, but let it always be formed and directed by love.  Give to our missionaries, who have in love followed the call to serve you to the ends of the earth, fresh strength of love to sustain them in their demanding tasks; enable them to show the love of Christ to the lost, that your kingdom may be filled to overflowing.

Give parents among us love for their children, a love that expresses itself in dedicated concern and discipline, and patience amidst every provocation.  Give children among us love for their parents, a willingness to serve and obey, to honour and respect.  Give to husbands the faithfulness to love their wives as Christ loved the church, giving themselves sacrificially, caring for their every need, and to wives the faithfulness to love their husbands in turn, supporting, encouraging, enriching.   Help us to love all of the saints within our congregation at Ps and Gs; may our fellowship be constituted by sacrificial self-giving rather than the selfishness and competition that lies at the root of so many social relationships.  To the sick, the elderly, and the lonely in our congregation, help us to particularly show love, and may you pour out your own love upon them in their hour of need and despair.  Help us to love our neighbors, whom we may rarely meet or speak to, finding ways of shedding Christ’s light in our communities.  Help us to love our co-workers and employers, putting them before our own pride and our own interests, displaying the heart of Christ in settings where few may have seen what that looks like.  Help us to love the poor and needy whom we see and whom we do not see; do not let us deceive ourselves into thinking that love is something we need show only within our narrow circle of relationships, only to those with whom we feel comfortable, but even as you, O God, so loved the world, and Christ gave himself for all, give us the strength, in our own poor way, to love all whose needs you put before our path.

Knit your church together, so divided now in every place, in love for one another, and love for your truth.

Lord, we are oppressed on every side with fears—fears of violence, of material want, of insecurity and loneliness, of rejection and betrayal, of pain and loss, fears of inadequacy, and of being unloved.  Give us, O Lord, the perfect love which drives out all fear: fill us with the confidence of your love towards us, and in experiencing your love, may that love overflow within us so we have no room anymore to be preoccupied with ourselves.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is Love Incarnate, we pray.  Amen.


Nothing But the Cross

After a two-year sabbatical to share two other wonderful homilies (here and here), I return to my tradition of re-posting Peter Leithart’s 2006 Good Friday Homily:

Paul determined to know nothing but Jesus and the cross. Was that enough? To answer that question, we need to answer another: What is the cross? The cross is the work of the Father, who gave His Son in love for the world; the cross is the work of the Son, who did not cling to equality with God but gave Himself to shameful death; the cross is the work of the Spirit, through whom the Son offers Himself to the Father and who is poured out by the glorified Son. The cross displays the height and the depth and the breadth of eternal Triune love.

The cross is the light of the world; on the cross Jesus is the firmament, mediating between heaven and earth; the cross is the first of the fruit-bearing trees, and on the cross Jesus shines as the bright morning star; on the cross Jesus is sweet incense arising to heaven, and He dies on the cross as True Man to bring the Sabbath rest of God.

Adam fell at a tree, and by a tree he was saved. At a tree Eve was seduced, and through a tree the bride was restored to her husband. At a tree, Satan defeated Adam; on a tree Jesus destroyed the works of the devil. At a tree man died, but by Jesus’ death we live. At a tree God cursed, and through a tree that curse gave way to blessing. God exiled Adam from the tree of life; on a tree the Last Adam endured exile so that we might inherit the earth.

The cross is the tree of knowledge, the tree of judgment, the site of the judgment of this world. The cross is the tree of life, whose cuttings planted along the river of the new Jerusalem produce monthly fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations.

The cross is the tree in the middle of history. It reverses what occurred in the beginning at the tree of Eden, and because of the cross, we are confident the tree of life will flourish through unending ages after the end of the age.

The cross is the wooden ark of Noah, the refuge for all the creatures of the earth, the guarantee of a new covenant of peace and the restoration of Adam. The cross is the ark that carries Jesus, the greater Noah, with all His house, through the deluge and baptism of death to the safety of a new creation.

The cross is the olive tree of Israel on which the true Israel died for the sake of Israel. For generations, Israel worshiped idols under every green tree. Israel cut trees, burned wood for fuel, and shaped the rest into an idol to worship. Now in the last days, idolatrous Israel cut trees, burned wood for fuel, and shaped the rest into a cross. The cross is the climax of the history of Israel, as the leaders of Israel gather to jeer, as their fathers had done, at their long-suffering King.

The cross is the imperial tree, where Jesus is executed as a rebel against empire. It is the tree of Babylon and of Rome and of all principalities and powers that will have no king but Caesar. It is the tree of power that has spawned countless crosses for executing innumerable martyrs. But the cross is also the imperial tree of the Fifth Monarchy, the kingdom of God, which grows to become the chief of all the trees of the forest, a haven for birds of the air and beasts of the field.

The cross is the staff of Moses, which divides the sea and leads Israel dry through it. The cross is the wood thrown into the waters of Marah to turn the bitter waters sweet. The cross is the pole on which Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, as Jesus is lifted up to draw all men to Himself.

The cross is the tree of cursing, for cursed is every man who hangs on a tree. On the tree of cursing hung the chief baker of Egypt; but now bread of life. On the tree of cursing hung the king of Ai and the five kings of the South; but now the king of glory, David’s greater Son. On the tree of cursing hung Haman the enemy who sought to destroy Israel; but now the savior of Israel, One greater than Mordecai. Jesus bears the curse and burden of the covenant to bear the curse away.

The cross is the wooden ark of the new covenant, the throne of the exalted savior, the sealed treasure chest now opened wide to display the gifts of God – Jesus the manna from heaven, Jesus the Eternal Word, Jesus the budding staff. The cross is the ark in exile among Philistines, riding in triumph even in the land of enemies.

Jesus had spoken against the temple, with its panels and pillars made from cedars of Lebanon. He predicted the temple would be chopped and burned, until there was not one stone left on another. The Jews had made the temple into another wood-and-stone idol, and Israel must have her temple, even at the cost of destroying the Lord of the temple. Yet, the cross becomes the new temple, and at Calvary the temple is destroyed to be rebuilt in three days. The cross is the temple of the prophet Ezekiel, from which living water flows out to renew the wilderness and to turn the salt sea fresh.

The cross is the wood on the altar of the world on which is laid the sacrifice to end all sacrifice. The cross is the wood on which Jesus burns in His love for His Father and for His people, the fuel of His ascent in smoke as a sweet-smelling savor. The cross is the wood on the back of Isaac, climbing Moriah with his father Abraham, who believes that the Lord will provide. The cross is the cedar wood burned with scarlet string and hyssop for the water of purification that cleanses from the defilement of death.

The cross is planted on a mountain, and Golgotha is the new Eden, the new Ararat, the new Moriah; it is greater than Sinai, where Yahweh displays His glory and speaks His final word, a better word than the word of Moses; it is greater than Zion, the mountain of the Great King; it is the climactic mount of transfiguration where the Father glorifies His Son. Calvary is the new Carmel, where the fire of God falls from heaven to consume a living twelve-stone altar to deliver twelve tribes, and turn them into living stones. Planted at the top of the world, the cross is a ladder to heaven, angels ascending and descending on the Son of man.

The cross tears Jesus and the veil so that through His separation He might break down the dividing wall that separated Yahweh from his people and Jew from Gentile. The cross stretches embrace the world, reaching to the four corners, the four winds of heaven, the points of the compass, from the sea to the River and from Hamath to the brook of Egypt. It is the cross of reality, the symbol of man, stretching out, as man does, between heaven and earth, distended between past and future, between inside and outside.

The cross is the crux, the crossroads, the twisted knot at the center of reality, to which all previous history led and from which all subsequent history flows. By it we know all reality is cruciform – the love of God, the shape of creation, the labyrinth of human history. Paul determined to know nothing but Christ crucified, but that was enough. The cross was all he knew on earth; but knowing the cross he, and we, know all we need to know.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

My Song is Love Unknown

For the past several years on Good Friday, I have posted the text of Peter Leithart’s incredible Good Friday homily of 2006–“Christ and Him Crucified.”  There may finally be a homily to surpass it, however, Toby Sumpter’s Good Friday homily of last year, “My Song is Love Unknown.”  And as Leithart’s homily has now found a home at a rather bigger and better blog, I thought I would share Toby’s this year (or you can hear him preach it here).

God is love. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are eternally Love. This God of love, this God who is love has overflowed. This Triune God does not cease to love but eternally overflows. He is the surplus of love, the excess of love, the triumph of love.

God is the Lover par excellence. And His love is fierce, undaunted, jealous, comprehensive, and unabashed.

We say, “I love you.” And we don’t understand what we are saying. I say, I love you, honey. I love you, son. I love you, dear. And I am quite literally out of my mind. What am I am saying? What do I mean?

How does our God love? How does the Father love the Son, love the Spirit; Son love the Father, love the Spirit; Spirit love the Father, love the Son.  How? And how do we take that glory upon our lips? How do we sing that? How do we imitate that? How have we been embraced by that?

Let there be light. Let there be heaven. Let there be earth. Let there be stars. Let there be fish and birds. Let there be beasts. And then God said something more. And then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image.’ It’s all plural and wonderful, all love. Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. Let us love, and let us overflow in love, and let us make man to love and to overflow in love.

And let us make them male and female. Let us give them noses and fingers. Let us give her breasts and let us give him a beard. Let their love join our love. Let the world be our marriage feast, our wedding night. Let man eat and love, rule and love, name and love.

And when we sinned, when we had defiled the marriage bed, God made us clothes. He intended glorious robes of nobility, but when we rejected those, He made us skins to show some honor, to cover us with His love. Remember that I love you, He seemed to say, handing us those clothes he fashioned for us, as we left home on our own, looking for pigs to farm.

But He followed us; His loved followed us. His love carved a boat to save us and many animals from the furious flood. He sent us a dove with an olive branch in its mouth, and then in a glorious understatement, He painted the sky with a rainbow to remind us of His love, all purple and orange and lovely. It’s for you, He said, so I’ll never forget, so I will always remember you.

And His love followed us away from Babel into Ur and called our father Abraham to walk before Him. He visited Abraham at night in those days, pointing out stars, passing through pieces of butchered animals. See how I love you, He said, and sometimes we caught glimpses of what that might mean. See how I love you, He said, and provided a ram for Isaac, a substitute for the sacrifice. The Lord will provide. See how I love you?

But we quarreled and fought and turned the world ugly. With bent hearts, we sold brothers and killed brothers until we were starving for food in the famine, our garden obliterated, our feast turned to fast. But God in His love, God full of love raised up a little brother to deliver us from ourselves. The love of God prepared the best land, and a little brother as elder brother, a little brother with bread for the world, from God with love.

His love burst into flames on a bush a few years later. He couldn’t help himself when our groans and cries came up to heaven. We had deserted His love, and despised His bread. But His love burned for us, and He came for us. He came with magic to woo us. He came with snakes and frogs and flies and hail. He came like a Tom Sawyer, giving the bully a black eye and hoping we’d notice. He loaded us with gifts and treasures and showed us a secret way out of the cave, through the sea, and remember how He turned around when Pharaoh and his legions were coming? Remember how He flicked His wrist and pushed the sea back together?

And He sang to us at the Mountain, but we didn’t like His voice. It was terrible we said. He had written poetry for us on the top of the Mountain. But when Moses brought it down, we had gotten bored waiting and we were kissing a golden calf. And He sent us bread again, every day, but we got tired of that. And when we asked for meat, he gave that too, but we got tired of that as well. We forgot about the magic; we didn’t care about the gifts. And when He offered to marry us, we shrugged our shoulders and agreed. He built a house and showed us how we could meet, how we could come close, how we could draw near.

He invited us into His presence. Our priest wore beautiful clothes, and God put stones on his shoulders and wrote our names six on one and six on the other. He wrote our names in the order of our birth. And he put precious stones on his chest, a stone for every tribe, precious stones for his precious bride. And He wrote our names on the stones on the high priests shoulders, so he could see our names in His presence when He called us into His presence in glory and beauty. So He would always remember us.

And He arranged our tents all around His tent. He gathered us all around him and held us close to Him, three in the north, three in the south, three to the east, and three to the west. And when He offered to give us a land flowing with milk and honey, we said He couldn’t give it to us. His love was not big enough for the giants in the land, and then we changed our minds. But he thought it would better to wait, wait until we knew His love. But we didn’t listen, and we died trying to take the land without His love.

But He said He would make us young again, and when we had become like children then we would know His love, and when we were children, His love would give us the land. And sure enough, we were born again in the wilderness. And we watched Him walk out into the Jordan River. He rolled up the water into a heap on one side and reminded us of our escape by night from Egypt. The priests stood there in the middle while we crossed, and He piled up twelve stones in the Jordan and twelve precious stones on the shore. He said He didn’t want to ever forget that moment. He would always remember how He carried us over the threshold into our new home together.

He tried to sing for us again, and this time we hummed along a little. We were still reluctant, but He gave us our first city that way. Our first city fell down when we sang with Him and blew our trumpets. The walls came tumbling down. It was nice how He did that for us, how He danced with us and shook the earth and gave us that city. He said that He loved us then. But we saw the gold and the earrings and the other plunder and got distracted. We hid some in our tent, and didn’t listen as He talked to us. He was saying something about love, I think, but we weren’t listening.

God tried to teach us His song, how to sing and dance like Him, how the rest of the cities would fall down too if we sang His song and danced with Him. And we shrugged and took a turn or two. But we were so easily distracted. There were many golden calves, many beds, many others. Remember how he would come for us again and again? Remember how he picked us up when we were strung out, when we were hung over, when we had traded all His gifts for slavery? Seems like it was all the time in those days. And He came for us in His love. He came for us like a knight, like a hero. Always with His eyes fixed on us, always like a faithful bridegroom.

He told us that He would always come for us, always defend us, always protect us. And then we asked if He would mind if we married another husband. Would it be OK with you, if we had another King besides you, we asked, one day while looking out the window. You know, like the other nations? You aren’t like the other lords, the other kings, the other husbands in the world. We can’t see you, and the other nations, they can’t see you either.

He said that would be OK. He said He would teach us about His love through this other man, this other lord. I’ll choose a man to teach you how I love you, He said. He’ll build a house for you, a house for my name, and I’ll still meet you there. We’ll still make love beneath the cedars of Lebanon. And we shrugged our shoulders, but God wouldn’t let this occasion pass without gifts. He walked with our new king, and called him a man after His own heart. He taught him His dance and His song, and He filled our land with gold and treasures, because I love you, He said.

Fairly quickly we moved out on our own. We invited other men into the house and paid them to sleep with us with the dowry our God had given us. We paid our lovers with the tokens of His love. We spent our inheritance on riotous living. God began sending us letters around then, since we weren’t around much. And when we didn’t respond, He eventually sued for divorce. He was mad of course, but He was mad with love. He called us a whore and a prostitute. He said we were unfaithful, but kept on staring at us, staring with those same eyes of angry love.

We walked out with curses on our lips, screaming obscenities at Him. We hated Him. He did this to us, we told ourselves, we lied to ourselves. He said He would never leave us, we cried, with mascara running down our cheeks by the rivers of Babylon. And when our captors saw us, they asked us to sing one of the songs of Zion. Sing us the song He taught you, they mocked. But how could we sing His song? How could we sing His song after all of that?

He didn’t let us go alone of course. He came with us; He followed us. His love came with us, like always. He said He would come for us again. He said He would make us young again. He said that when we became children again He would show us His love. Then we would know how He loved us. Somehow we were born again in the wilderness of exile. Somehow, we woke up one morning and He was carrying us home. He sang us His song again. And He repaired the walls of our city and sent gifts from the nations to begin repairing the house.

We didn’t hear much from Him in those days, and others came around. And the others had money and power. They promised to protect us, keep us safe. But they never really turned out like they said. They used our house, the house God had rebuilt for us, for their own things, their own parties.

And then one day a man showed up at our door. He was a wild, mangy man with a leather belt and clothes made of camel’s hair. His name was John, and he told us that our Husband was coming and to prepare for Him. We were confused, we were excited, we were angry. Where had He been? The house was crowded with our other friends and lovers then, but maybe we could try again. Maybe we could start over.

When the knock came, we were nervous. But when we opened the door, we were surprised. We had never seen Him before, but He wasn’t how we had expected Him, how we imagined Him. He looked too young for starters, barely grown. He wasn’t handsome like we thought. And when we asked Him who He was, He ran out into the Jordan River and stood in the middle of the stream and smiled. John piled the water up over him, and a dove came down and for a moment we heard His song, like a low rumble. Remember? He called to us. The other men inside laughed at Him, but then He went on. Watch, He said, as He made His magic. He played with a brood of vipers, and He turned water into blood-red wine. Remember? He asked. And He went walking across the sea like it was nothing, like it was dry ground, and later, with a flick of His wrist, He pushed a legion of demons into the sea. He sang us His song on a mountain, and gave us bread in the wilderness, bread for thousands. Remember? He asked. Remember, how I love you?

But we didn’t remember. He wasn’t what we hoped for. He wanted to throw all the others out of the house. He said they weren’t good for us. They were thieves, He said. They were snakes and wolves. But we didn’t believe Him. We told Him that we didn’t love Him. We did not receive Him. He said that He still loved us, and there were tears in His eyes as He looked at our home. He said He wished He could gather us up into His arms. And we spit in His face and told Him to go to hell. And when the men got angry with the commotion, we offered them thirty pieces of silver. And they said that would be enough.

And do you remember that day when our God stood in our place? Do you remember that day when our husband received their taunts and blows? Do you remember when He stood there for us? Do you remember when they lifted Him up, when they drove stakes into His hands and feet, when then crowned our King with thorns? When He hung there looking at us like a knight, like a hero, like a bridegroom watching His bride come down the aisle?

And we beheld Him, despised and rejected, and we hid our faces, hating Him. Surely He carried our sorrows. He was wounded for us. He was afflicted for us. And He did not open His mouth. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.

This is God our Lover: the God who is Love, the God who ever loves: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. He is the overflow of love, the excess of love, the triumph of love. How do we say that? How do we say that love? How do we sing it? How does His song go?

It’s something like this:

My song is love unknown
My Savior’s love to me
Love to the loveless shown
That we might lovely be.