What does it mean to say that “God is love”?

It’s one of the foundational beliefs of Christianity: “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). But what does it mean to say this? Here are a few thoughts.

“God is love” means that God always loves. God cannot not love. Everything God does is motivated by love and enacted in love. This means that anything we experience that is not of love is not of God. God is not the author of evil or suffering or harm.

“God is love” means that love is at the heart of who God is. The Bible says that “God is holy,” but it never says that “God is holiness.” Love is the essence of God in a way that God’s other attributes are not. God’s holiness is a holy love. God’s justice is a just love. God’s wisdom is a wise love. God’s power is a powerful love.

“God is love” means that all has been created in love. As all things exist out of the overflow of God’s being, so all things exist out of the overflow of God’s love.

“God is love” means that all is being moved by love towards God’s good purposes. Love is stronger than injustice or violence. Love is stronger than every other power. Love is stronger than death. In the end, love will win, and all will be well.

“God is love” means that all that is not-love is not-God; it is anti-God. This, then, is “sin”: thinking and acting and speaking out of apathy or antipathy, causing harm to others, ourselves, or other creatures, and thus grieving the God who is love. And this is “death”: dying, or even living, in the consequences of this non-love.

“God is love” means that you are beloved by God. This is your most basic identity: God’s Beloved. And this is true of each and every person, every creature, all of creation.

“God is love” means that when you are at your lowest, or your loneliest, you are never alone. There is a Presence always with you, embracing you in their love.

“God is love” means that when you are at your worst, and you know it, or when you have done your worst, and you know it, there is One who is already moving toward you, to forgive you and restore you, to make you whole.

“God is love” means that God is calling us into a Beloved Community, a society of friends where peace with justice prevails over violence and injustice, where love and trust triumphs over fear and hatred. It means that, ultimately, God is moving all things toward a Peaceable Kingdom, God’s vision of true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life for all creation.

Then God, who is love, will be all in all.

Things Are Not as They Appear

As I read the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday, one theme strikes me as tying all four texts together: things are not as they appear. Reality is often much different than it seems at face value. The truth often requires a deep dive beneath the surface.

There’s 1 Samuel 16, where the prophet Samuel is persuaded that Jesse’s son Eliab is God’s choice for Israel’s next king. After all, not only is Eliab the eldest son, worthy of double blessing, but he is strong and tall just like a king should be (like the first king, Saul, was, in fact—see 15:35 for how well that went). But God says no to Eliab, for “God does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.”

Then there’s Psalm 20, where we hear these words of David: “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God. They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright.” Military might and strength seems like it should be the way forward for an up-and-coming nation. Yet David insists that’s the wrong way to look on things. (Too bad he and later kings and queens forgot this.)

There’s also 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul comes straight out and says, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a ‘fleshly’ point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a ‘fleshly’ point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” No one, not even Jesus, can be taken at face value. It requires a “new creation” heart-change to see people for who they really are.

“The Parable of the Mustard Seed” by James Paterson

Finally, there’s Mark 4 with two of my favourite parables of Jesus, the Growing Seed and the Mustard Seed. These parables highlight the unexpected insignificance and inherent mystery of God’s reign, both in how it begins and how it grows. God’s dominion does not begin or grow like other royal reigns; it comes not through conquest or coercion, but through small acts of love in solidarity with the least in the world’s eyes.

These texts invite us to look beyond the surface of things, to dig a little deeper. They encourage us to see people for who they really are, not merely who they appear to be. They call us to look for the reign of God not in the powerful and mighty, not in the big and flashy, but in the small and insignificant things of life.

The Glory of God: Walking with the Lowly

“All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O God.
    for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of God’s ways,
    for great is the glory of God.
For though God is high, God regards the lowly;
    but the haughty God perceives from far away.” (Ps 138:4-6)

In this psalm of David, what is it that especially makes the kings of the earth praise the God of Israel, the one true and living God? They “hear the words of God’s mouth,” yes, God’s Torah words of justice and equity. But ultimately it is that, “though God is high, God regards the lowly.”

What makes the powers-that-be in this world really sit up and take notice of God is not that God is more exalted than they are (which is true), it is that even in God’s exalted state God pays special attention to the lowly: the weak, the suffering, the vulnerable, the oppressed, the dispossessed. This is “the glory of God.”

I’m not sure how often this is true, that the powerful of this world—presidents and prime ministers, the super-wealthy and those celebrity influencers—admire God because God loves the lowly. Maybe, as David says, this will happen some day yet future.

Nevertheless, this is what we should sit up and take notice about God. As God’s people, we praise God for God’s words to us—as Christians especially God’s living Word, Jesus—but even more we praise God because God pays special attention to the lowly. This is “the glory of God” revealed to us in Jesus, and this is the divine glory which we are called to reflect as image-bearers of God.

When we are among the lowly, may we be encouraged to know that God’s eye is upon us, God’s ear is attuned to our cries, and we are held in God’s loving hands. And when we are not among the lowly, may we reflect this glory of God by walking in these ways of God with the lowly among us and around us.

The Trinitarian Gospel of Paul

“When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15-17).

I love Paul’s angle on the gospel here. This is good news for a prodigal child, as we all are in some way. It’s good news for one who returns thinking they’ll live as a slave, only to have their Abba run out to meet them with a full embrace and insist that, not only are they a beloved child, they are a full heir. Bring on the music and dancing! Let the angels rejoice!

You might think the whole “suffering” theme puts a bit of a damper on this party. But when we read on we find that this suffering is the suffering of Christ as he joins in solidarity with the suffering of the world, even all creation. Jesus in his life and death walked in solidarity with the most wounded of sufferers and outcast of sinners. We are invited to join in this suffering in solidarity with the world, so that all people might one day recognize the truth of their belovedness as God’s children. Cue the music once again! Look at those angels dance!

This, then, is the Trinitarian gospel of Paul in Romans 8: we who walk in suffering and sin are beloved children of God the Father, joint heirs with Christ the Son, birthed of the Holy Spirit. May this good news prompt us to praise and stir us to step out in faith and hope and love this week.

Life Finds a Way

In this second week of Easter, this verse from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings has lodged itself in my brain: “You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15). It’s in Peter’s address to those “men of Israel” (not all Jews!) who colluded with their rulers and Rome to execute Jesus.

There are three astounding claims in this verse.

First astounding claim: Jesus is “the Author of life.” Jesus is the origin of life, the ruler of life (archēgos). Everything Jesus did, he did to bring about life. Everything Jesus continues to do by the Spirit, he does to bring about life. This, then is who God is: the Author of life, the one who writes our stories toward a full and thriving life. That which brings about death is not-God; this is the Satan, the anti-God, the thief who comes “to steal and kill and destroy.” Jesus has come to bring life, a life that is abundant (John 10:10).

Second astounding claim: Jesus, the Author of life, was killed. Humans killed the origin of life. Powerful humans, coalescing in the powers-that-be—human structures and systems of injustice and oppression—killed the ruler of life. The Author of life was written out of his own story. While God always moves creation toward life, we can do things that bring about death—even the death of God.

Third astounding claim: God raised the Author of life from the dead. God overturned the verdict of the human powers-that-be; God undid the death and destruction of the Satan, the anti-God, the thief. To quote that well-known theologian, Dr. Ian Malcolm, in Jurassic Park: “Life, uh, finds a way.” The God who always and only moves creation toward life, finds a way to bring life even out of death.

May we be chastened by the reality that we as humans can do things that bring death, even writing the Author of life out of their own story. But may we be encouraged that the Author of life still lives, and God is writing our story toward a full and thriving life, an abundant life for all persons and all creation.

The Good News of “Holy Terror”

As we begin our Holy Week journey toward the cross, we know already that the story ends with the good news of resurrection. But Mark gives us a different take on Jesus’ resurrection than we typically think of.

Here are the (most likely*) final words of Mark’s Gospel: “So [Mary, Mary, and Salome] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Fear, even terror? How is this good news?

There’s a long history in the Bible of “holy fear,” even “holy terror,” in the presence of God. This isn’t (normally) because God is angry or abusive, but because God is so…absolutely other. “Holy,” to use the biblical language. When we humans find ourselves in the absolute presence of the transcendent God, we realize that God is not like we had imagined: God is so much greater than we had ever imagined.

This biblical thread finds its way into Mark’s Gospel story of Jesus. When Jesus teaches, people are “astounded.” When Jesus casts out demons, they are “in awe.” When Jesus heals, they are “stunned.” When Jesus walks on the water, his disciples are “terrified.” When Jesus calms the storm, they literally “fear with a great fear.” “Who is this,” they ask, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

So we really shouldn’t be surprised when Mark ends his Gospel with these same words, following this long biblical tradition. In Jesus’ resurrection, God has revealed God’s self in all God’s fullness: in life rising out of death, in peace growing out of violence, in liberation bursting out of oppression, in love blooming in the midst of hate. In Jesus’ resurrection, God has blown the doors off all our expectations of who God is and what God does.

This Easter may we, like the two Marys and Salome, come face to face with God in the resurrected Jesus, so that the walls we build around God might be shattered in the revelation of God’s life and peace and liberation and love. This is a good “holy terror.” This is good news.

* Mark’s Gospel has several different endings in ancient manuscripts of Mark. Most textual critics think Mark’s Gospel originally ended here, at Mark 16:8. Later scribes weren’t satisfied with this ending so they added their own or borrowed from the other Gospels.

The Gathered Redeemed

I’ve always loved Psalm 107 for the ways it describes the diversity of our encounters with God. No two people come to God in the same way. No two people experience God in the same way.

There’s the intro in verses 1-3: “Give thanks to God, for God is good! God’s steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed say so, all those God redeemed and gathered in from all different directions.” Then the Psalmist gives four different examples of how “the redeemed” have come to God.

There are those who have experienced hunger and barrenness (vv. 4-9): they have “wandered in desert wastes” until “their soul fainted within them.” Then they “cried out to God in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress” by “satisfying the thirsty and filling the hungry with good things.”

There are those who have experienced oppression and imprisonment (vv. 10-16): they “sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons,” and “their hearts were bowed down with hard labour.” Then they “cried out to God in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress” by “shattering the doors of bronze, and cutting in two the bars of iron.”

There are those who have experienced sickness and affliction (vv. 17-22): they “loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.” Then they “cried out to God in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress” by “sending out God’s word and healing them, delivering them from destruction.”

Then there are those who have experienced success and power, until disaster strikes (vv. 23-32): they went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters,” until “they went down to the depths” and “their courage melted away in their calamity.” Then they “cried out to God in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress” by “making the storm be still” and “bringing them to their desired haven.”

The Psalm closes with a beautiful depiction of God’s faithfulness and love toward those who are lowly or oppressed, humble and repentant. “When they are diminished and brought low through oppression, trouble, and sorrow, God pours contempt on princes and makes them wander in trackless wastes; but God raises up the needy out of distress, and makes their families like flocks.”

The whole Psalm is a wonderful reminder of the many ways God meets us in our need, meeting each of us exactly where we are at, meeting us exactly as we are. Do any of these poetic depictions above describe your story of encountering God? If not, what metaphor might you use for that?

“Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.”

God’s Rainbow Promise

In looking ahead to the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, these words from Genesis 9:12-13 stand out to me: “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”

What I love about God’s rainbow promise is the expansiveness of it: all earthly creatures, even the very earth itself, from that point into eternity. The whole rainbow of created things, in all their vast diversity, is included in God’s always-life-affirming, never-again-destroying covenant.

Yet in this expansiveness of God’s promise there is still a very personal dimension. “I make this covenant,” God says to Noah, “between you and me”—Noah individually, personally, in the midst of his family, in the midst of all God’s good creation. And so God repeats this always-life-affirming, never-again-destroying covenant with each one of us, individually, personally, in the midst of all God’s good creation. This is good news; this is gospel.

The rainbow has become a symbol of the beautiful spectrum of human sexuality—all sexes, all orientations, all genders. That’s appropriate, given the expansiveness of God’s rainbow promise here, encompassing the full diversity of creation. It’s appropriate, too, given the fully affirming nature of God’s promise to each human person.

As we walk in our work this week, may we be mindful of God’s immense love for us, for all people, and for all creation, from the most unloved of individuals to the very earth itself.

Love Builds Up

Looking ahead to this coming Sunday’s lectionary texts, I’m struck by the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 8.

It’s a fairly well known text, but a strange one. Paul is dealing with the issue of meat that has been sacrificed to a god or goddess in one of Corinth’s many temples. Corinthian Christians could get this meat at a discount in the local market. Should they buy it? Should they eat it? Should they eat it if someone offers it to them in their home? Should they attend a feast in one of these temples, and eat this meat there? (Should I eat it in a house? Should I eat it with a mouse?)

We all know what it’s like to live and worship together with others who have different religious sensibilities than ours. The thing that really matters to that person might not matter at all to me. But then there’s that thing which I think is really important—why can’t this person see how important it is? So much of church life is navigating these diverse sensibilities, around liturgy, mission, theology, and whether Henry should really be the one leading the singing over Zoom since God knows he can never hit those high E-flats.

The words that struck me this time are the words Paul opens with: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by God.”

How often does my knowledge, my certainty that I am right, puff me up in arrogant condescension of others? How often, then, do I miss the knowledge which is really most necessary—the knowledge of God through love? When we act in love for God—devotion to God through compassion for others—then we find we not only know God truly, we are truly and fully known by God.

God’s Reign Come Near

The Gospel text for this coming Sunday is Mark 1:14-20. It’s the well-known description of the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, including the call of the first disciples of Jesus. Jesus comes into Galilee “proclaiming the good news of God.” And what is this good news? That “the time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come near.”

The Greek word for “come near” (engizō) is an interesting one. It can mean “near” either in terms of space or in terms of time—or possibly both. Does Jesus mean that it is almost time for God’s reign of true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life to be revealed on earth? (“The end is near!”) Or does he mean that this reign of God is already now but it’s just beyond our reach?

I tend to think Jesus meant both of these. Like God’s very self, the kingdom of God is both imminent—near in time—and immanent—near in space. If we have eyes to see it, we can see this reign of God already among us—heaven invading earth in acts of justice and peace and life-giving love. However, this reign of God is not fully here—and so we wait for its fullness to come, always tantalizingly just around the corner.

This week, as we do the necessary tasks before us, both the mundane and the sublime, may we glimpse the reign of God breaking into our world and among us as God’s people. And may we be filled with the ever-fresh hope that the fullness of God’s reign is just around the next bend.