Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B
Sorry about the delay posting this week -- I had more technological misadventures, but the VERY, very good news of the day is that my beloved PowerBook is at long last back in my hands! I'm no longer reliant on borrowed computers, which should make many things go MUCH more smoothly in the weeks to come.
Remember the "Friends & Family" plan for long-distance telephone service? It was a pretty smart marketing idea -- so smart, in fact, that it's now standard in a variety of other kinds of services, like my cell phone's "In-Network" plan. When I use my cell phone, minutes get counted with most calls; I've bought a certain number of minutes, and that's what I get. But if someone is calling me or I'm calling someone "in-network" -- someone whose service comes from the same company as mine -- the minutes don't get counted, and I don't have to pay for them.
Our readings for this Sunday just might be the earliest recorded "Friends & Family" plan, though it covers far more than cell phone minutes. Some of the most shallow Christian theology makes God sound like the ultimate bean-counter. In this view, God sits in heaven tallying accounts obsessively to make sure that every petty offense is bought and paid for, and when the bill is due, he (God the Heavenly Bean-Counter is invariably presented as male by adherents) will collect the last penny -- even if he has to take it from his own son, and even if doing that will cost his son's life in the worst of ways to lose it. The important thing -- the only thing, really -- in Heavenly Bean-Counter theology is that those books kept with perfect meticulousness balance in the end.
At best, Bean-Counter theology can have an almost paradoxical effect: by dwelling on just how much we'd be shown to owe God if it were measured, we might gain an appreciation of how beyond measure is the grace we experience in Christ, and that in turn might inspire us to cut our neighbors some slack when we're tempted to tally their balance of sins and righteous acts.
Sadly, though, Bean-Counter theology almost never seems to have this effect on its adherents -- in more cases than not, people I've met who most strongly emphasize that each of us have done things that, were there no such thing as redemption, would bring death upon us have not been inspired to say "... and if God can give me the gifts of God's love, of the Spirit, of eternal and joyous life that I don't deserve, surely God's grace will extend to whatever my neighbor does or fails to do," or even "God's the one keeping accounts here, and doesn't need or want me to presume to keep them"; they have rather been inspired to keep more careful accounts than ever of what they perceive as their neighbors' transgressions.
I'll never forget a conversation I had in the office elevator with a co-worker at a tech company. He was a devout Christian who was outraged that Disney would offer health insurance to same-sex domestic partners of employees, and he'd been boycotting Disney because of it. I didn't try to argue with him about the morality of same-sex unions, but I did want to challenge him regarding his assumption that he was doing God's will by trying to force companies to allocate benefits at least in part according to perceived righteousness. "I wish that everyone had health care," I said, "and I don't see how anything Jesus said or did could suggest that we ought to take health care away from someone because we think they're sinning. If anything, it sounds to me like Disney is, however inadvertently or incompletely, serving Jesus, who said that those who care for the sick are caring for him."
I think also of a conversation I imagined the evening of September 11, 2001. I imagined President Bush stepping to the podium to make a statement to the press: "During my campaign for this office, a lot of people chuckled when I said that my favorite political philosopher was Jesus Christ. I was serious about that, though. As an evangelical Christian, I believe that Jesus' death paid the price for all sin -- for all people, and for all time. And so I believe that Jesus' blood paid the price for the blood shed today, and for that reason I cannot say that today's attacks, as terrible and evil as they were, call for more bloodshed. God bless our enemies as well as our friends, and God bless America."
The conversation with my co-worker happened and changed his mind about punishing Disney; that imaginary press conference didn't happen, and would have provoked outrage if it had. But I still think about it -- how can someone hold that Jesus loves us so much as to pay the price for our sin, and yet still say that evildoers must pay -- especially with blood -- for what they've done?
It happens a lot, though. I know that orthodox Christian belief would see Jesus as sharing the character of God the Father, and I know that there are views of 'substitutionary atonement' that aren't shallow as this 'Bean-Counter' version, but we're talking about a particular and particularly shallow branch of popular theology here that presents God the Father as literally out for blood, while God the Son is happy to give blood but doesn't need it himself. And when we see God the Father as being driven mostly or entirely by the need to "balance the books," it seems almost psychologically inevitable that we would try to imitate our bean-counting deity on that point. I suspect that's one reason we have televangelists on the airwaves after every natural disaster trying to pinpoint just whose and which sins made God decide to play Godzilla (a metaphor I find particularly apt in light of the ways in which Godzilla often appears in films as the way that nuclear weapons or messing up the environment come back to bite us in the proverbial butt).
But that's not the kind of God Jesus proclaims. "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love," Jesus says. Jesus' relationship with God the Creator was not one that included score-keeping. There are no tit-for-tat deals between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity, no bills sent or payments made. One of my favorite theological words is perichoresis -- a word describing relationships of Persons of the Trinity that means 'enveloping,' a whole, completely free and completely full interchange. When Jesus says "as the Father has loved me," that's the kind of relationship he's talking about.
The rest of the sentence -- "I have loved you; abide in my love" -- is an invitation to us to share that very quality of relationship in our relationship with him. And that's on reason that Jesus command to "love one another as I have loved you" is so astonishing. We are called and empowered to share with one another the very kind of love that envelops the life of the Trinity.
"Love" is a word that's so often overused and misused in our culture. "I love a good margarita" is, for example, a perfectly fine thing to say. And then there are the ways the word "love" is misused with reference to God. "God loves you" is said all too often in conjunction with the image of the Heavenly Bean-Counter to say that God's "love" looks something like a stalker's -- God really loathes us enough to want to kill us, but has deluded himself into seeing only his son when he looks at us, and therefore has decided to watch us constantly and nag us frequently so we do what he wants. Those who believe that God is like this just might resort to the same mixture of nagging and force on their neighbors that they think God uses on them.
But God's love isn't like that at all. God's love is free, full, powerful, and gentle. Jesus invites us to experience that kind of love through him -- and then we are invited to see all of our relationships transformed in the image of that love -- a love in which no one is anonymous or dispensable, no one is cast aside as irredeemable, and everyone exercises the kind of relaxed and joyful generosity that happens when nobody is keeping score in any arena. That's why the believers in Acts share with fellow Christians on the other side of the world as freely as they'd share with their own mother or daughter. Knowledge of that love demonstrated in caring for one another in this way is the test proposed in 1 John for whether we know God. And Jesus' lengthy "farewell discourse" in the Gospel According to John urges Jesus' followers to abide in that love repeatedly.
It's a love that changed Jesus' followers forever. It's a love that changes us day by day. And it's a love that could change the world, making real Isaiah's vision of peace and plenty. That's Jesus' gift -- and like all true gifts, it's given freely.
Thanks be to God!
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I heard a pastor recently desribe a verse about lvoe that has changed my very life.
He demonstrated how when Jesus said
"If you love me, you will keep my commandments".
This pastor showed that Jesus wasn't saying you will prove you love me by keeping my commandments.
He was saying
If you love me you will be able to keep my commandments, I will give you ower to keep my commandmetns. My love will infill you and you will only desire to keep my commandments.
He went on to describe taking our focus off of what we want and what we think we HAVE TO DO...
And putting it on His will..His Love...His desire for us...
When we love him..make a choice to love him..by only being concerned with what His will and desires for us are...we will become like him..ad easily..keep His commandments....
Posted by: Randy Furco | May 20, 2006 1:22:45 AM
Your post illustrates my take on the New Testament (and Bible as whole): Everybody reads it selectively, focusing on the passages that resonate with them - and sometimes coming out against passages that very much don't.
I share your rejection of the bean counting God, but that God's scripture-based too. There are plenty of verses focusing on sin with Jesus being portrayed as the Son of Bean-Counter: keeping a sharp eye out for unbelief, in particular. Unbelief is shown as counting for a heck of a lot with Jesus, since he's shown repeatedly telling people they're going to hell for that one...
Posted by: Darius | May 26, 2006 12:21:35 PM