What does theology have to do with love?

A Reflection from March 8, 2020 on John 3:1-17 | Jesus tells a religious leader about love

This week’s reflection begins with a short diatribe, but stick with me because it’s all a roundabout way of telling you what theology has to do with love.

Now, I have heard several pastors/priests/ministers give the advice about preaching, that nobody who goes to church on Sunday wants to hear about theology in the sermon.

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via GIPHY

Perhaps I’m just stubborn (no, you are!) but I refuse to accept this advice. First of all, it’s the job of church leaders not just to educate people about religious things, but to help shape people’s desires so that we love what is good and right and true (i.e. God and God’s goodness manifest in creation). So if Christians don’t love theology, whose fault is that? Secondly, if people don’t think they like theology, it’s probably because their church leaders didn’t ever say what’s so amazing about it!

So what’s so amazing about theology? Well, inasmuch as theology is the study of GOD, theology is really all about LOVE! Let me explain.

One of the reasons that the Bible is so important for Christians is that it is the basis for all the claims made about who God is. In particular, the Gospel books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, make claims about who Jesus is as God incarnate. What this means is that the human God (that’s Jesus) makes known to other humans (that’s us) what is most important about God.

With that in mind, we should listen closely when Jesus says things like, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” In this powerful statement, often quoted only in part, Jesus reveals how he is part of God’s plan of salvation for us, but even more importantly, why God would want to save us in the first place–namely, because of God’s unconditional love for the whole world. The theological principle that describes this unconditional love is ‘grace.’

This verse has become a popular slogan at football games and other sporting events.

The message of grace says that our God is a God of love. Moreover, everything Jesus does to reveal God to humans, by becoming human himself, indicates that God wants us to know that love in our own lives.

As I talked about in last week’s reflection, sin is the greatest threat to love. But it’s really important to note that sin is what prevents us from loving God and God’s creation (including each other and the created world); sin is not what prevents God from loving us. I’ll say it again: sin is not what prevents God from loving us. And we know this because Jesus said in John 3:16-17 that he came because God loves us and intends, not to condemn us, but to save us.

I’ll give a new copy of “On the Incarnation,” by Athanasius of Alexandria to the first person who can count all of the theological claims I just made. Here’s a hint: I claimed that God is a God of love, that Jesus is the full revelation of God’s love, that Jesus came to restore us to relationship with God because God loves us unconditionally, and that this is the message of grace. What’s amazing about theology is that it tells us all this! Theology is all about love (whether you love theology or not!) because God is all about love.

What do you think? Share your thoughts about theology, love, and grace in the comments.

Athanasius of Alexandria – 296-373

John 3:1-17

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Reading the Bible in Context and Community

Charlton Heston as Moses in the 1956 “The 10 Commandments.”

The Bible is a beautiful and mysterious gift to the Church but an admittedly hard book to read. In it are stories dating back as many as 3400 years about people and customs we don’t understand, and that we question the relevance of for our lives today. Moreover, carry a lot of baggage into our reading of the Bible. We should want to read the Bible, we tell ourselves. We should know why this is important for us, we say. If we were more faithful, reading the Bible would be easier, we think. Underneath all of this, I suspect, is a lot of confusion and maybe a little bit of guilt.

 

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you read the Bible:

Ned Flanders, beloved Fundamentalist of Simpsons fame.

The Bible was written by believers for believers. It’s a resource of faith for faithful people, not a blunt object to tell people what to do or to help us judge who’s good and who’s bad (in fact, the Bible tells us, specifically, not to do that in John 8:1-11). The original authors wrote their texts for communities who already believed, or at least wanted to believe, but who needed encouragement, understanding, and sometimes correction. The Bible makes more sense when we hear it with the ears of “faith seeking understanding,” (in Latin, fides quaerens intellectum, as the theologian and philosopher, St. Anselm, wrote). Thus, our reading should begin, first and foremost, with love for God. Sometimes this looks like the bereaved man who said to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

Reading the Bible is a spiritual practice for Christians, and one that is best accompanied by other spiritual practices rather than done in isolation. All spiritual practices are meant to direct us to God and help us grow in our love for God (see #1). Thus, reading the Bible helps us see a pattern of God’s love and mercy in people’s lives, which helps us to better see it in our own life. In this regard, faith seeking understanding means “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God” and is best situated with other practices such as prayer, worship, and service to others.

The Bible was written for communities to be read within communities. We know that our Hebrew ancestors only heard the Torah read in the Temple or Synagogue as only the priests and scribes had access to the scrolls it was written on. In the Christian tradition, people didn’t have copies of the Bible for private use until after the Reformation (16th century), but most only heard scripture read aloud in church even well after that. Moreover, holy scripture was traditionally accompanied by a teaching about it by a rabbi/priest or minister. We should keep in mind both the context in which it was written (what was going on in the community it was written for that necessitated this particular message) and the context in which we hear it now (not just my individual life, but the common life of all faithful people, ie. ‘the church’) as we try to understand it.

In the Book of Nehemiah, the Jewish priest, Ezra, finds the Torah scroll and reads it for all the Israelites to hear.

The Bible is the inspired word of God, which contains “all things necessary for salvation,” but it is not the literal word of God. In the Episcopal Church we believe the Bible is one of three elements of faith that provides authority for the Church, the other two being reason and tradition. It is neither traditional nor reasonable to believe the Bible is the literal word of God, but it is also not necessary for it to nevertheless be sacred and true. Episcopalians believe the Bible is the source of God’s revelation, as it is inspired by God, and is therefore the source of all Christian teaching. So what is the truth of the Bible?

The Bible is fundamentally a story about God’s love. This is the truth of the Bible. Throughout both the Old and New Testament, God reaches out in love to care for and guide humanity. God made the world perfectly good but humans distorted that goodness by turning away from God, preferring our own perceptions of what’s good. But again and again God sent prophets to call us to repent of our sin and return to God’s goodness. Eventually God sent Jesus Christ to live among us, to proclaim God’s love, and to show us how to love one another. There are plenty of passages in the Bible that don’t sound very loving but we shouldn’t read those passages as though they were isolated from the many contexts in which they were written, intended, and heard by the first recipients.

All of the principles that I’ve articulated here have pointed to the fact that the Bible must always be situated–whether in the context of faith or in the midst of other spiritual practices, or within community or among other sources of authority. But the most important context in which to read the Bible is that of God’s love. Incarnation exists to be a community that reads the Bible together and that tried to live according to God’s love. We do this every Sunday at House Church where I am continually amazed at the depth and sincerity of both questioning and striving that everyone brings to our conversations. It’s a real joy to be a part of it.

What do you think is important to keep in mind as you read the Bible? In what communities and contexts do you read the Bible? Share your comments here. If you’re looking for a community to read the Bible with, give us a shout.