Sunday, August 04, 2013

Ruthless Love

Colossians 3:1-11
Living as Those Made Alive in Christ
3 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

Luke 12:13-21

The Parable of the Rich Fool

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ 18 Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ b But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

Walk with me through the verses we heard read.
Col 3: 1-4: We have died [that is, the kind of life we lived before we met Christ has come to an end], and now we live with the life of Christ within us. We are on our way to Heaven, becoming like Christ as we go and made perfect in him when he returns and takes us to himself forever.
Col 3: 5-11: Although we have “died to self”, our old ways of living are persistent. They keep coming back, and we have to “put them to death” repeatedly. These old ways include “whatever belongs to your earthly nature”: sexual immorality, greed, anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language from your lips, and lying. This is not an exhaustive list, but gives a clear picture of what we are to set aside.
In their place we put on the new self, which is the perfect image of our Creator. This image is most notable for living completely in Christ, so that all human distinctions (all class and social standings) are done away with. We stand united with each other when we are united in Christ.

Luke 12: 13-15: Someone asked Jesus to arbitrate a dispute over inheritance. Jesus replied that they did not need an arbitrator; rather they need to be set free from their reliance on material possessions. The parable that follows indicates that God calls every person to judgment at the end of life; in response we rest on our life in Christ, not in material possessions. The problem, of course, is not that the rich man planned for the future, but that he left God out of his plans.

I bring these two passages together through the lens of standing before God in the judgment. We are on our way to Heaven, God’s realm, where God calls us to judgment. Life in that realm, eternal life, depends on dying to “earthly things”, dying to self, and becoming alive in Christ with the life of Christ. This new life includes the continuing process of “putting to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature” (illustrated by the list that follows).

We can describe the earthly life as “life centred on things and self”. Earthly life asks, “What do I want?” It is selfish and self-centred. Life in Christ asks, “What does God want?” It is Christ-centred and other-centred. Notably, when Paul describes this life in the passage we read, he uses language that emphasizes our essential equality and unity. It is the language of love.

This makes sense. When Jesus summarizes his own teaching (Jn 13), he says, “I give you a new command: That you love each other as I have loved you.” In Galatians Paul talks about the way that we support each other: “Carry each other’s burdens (spiritual and physical), and so fulfill the law of Christ.” This law is the law of love. Paul feel so strongly about the importance of loving each other that he places it at the centre of the Philippian church’s life (Phil 2), and he places it at the centre of the gifts that the Corinthian church seeks (1 Cor 13).

John describes the ministry of Jesus with the words: “God loved the world so much that he sent his only-begotten Son ….” In 1 John the writer places love for God and love for each other at the centre of Christian living, and bases this centrality on the truth that “God is love”. Over and over in the NT we see that the new life of Christ is the life of love—God’s love for us and our answering love for God and for each other.

What does this have to do with the warnings of judgment in the passages we read?

A Ruthless Love
Here’s where I’m going with my thoughts: God’s Judgment (or God’s Wrath) is an expression of God’s Love. First, we take a detour through the study of culture. Paul contrasts two different centres for living: Either we live with self at the centre—an individualistic and self-centred life, or we live with God at the centre—a life focussed on God and on others. The former is the old way, the earthly way; the latter is the new way, growing in the image of our Creator.

As I study various cultures, I find it interesting that cultures in general are not self-centred. Modern Western cultures do centre on the individual. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes it clear that the rights and freedoms of the individual stand at the heart of our society. The Declaration of Independence in the USA similarly places the equality of the individual at the heart of American society.

For centuries one society after another has placed the larger community at the centre. The Southern African proverb says, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu—A person becomes fully human only in and with community.” In place of the Western, “I think, therefore I am”, other cultures say something like, “I come from this village and family, therefore I am” (Palestinians), or “I belong to this clan and family, therefore I am” (Zulu). The essential point is that the community matters more than the individual.

Sherwood Lingenfelter has a book titled Transforming Culture, in which he describes four different types of culture: Collectivist, Corporate, Individualistic, and Bureaucratic. Curiously, our own culture is more bureaucratic than individualistic. Lingenfelter illustrates each type with a society from some part of the world—individualistic is the hardest to illustrate, because it is the rarest. He cites an Amerindian group from the Amazon jungle who are remarkably individualistic in their lifestyle. One can illustrate with the way that they handle conflict. When a husband and wife have a conflict, the wife may go across the road from their house in the village, where her friends come and stand beside her. There she begins to shout her case against her husband for all to hear. His friends join him on his porch, and he shouts his case back at her. As their friends cheer them on, they argue loudly, and in extreme cases start wrestling in the middle, with their friends making sure they don’t actually hurt each other.

Lingenfelter describes how he and a missionary friend, Dan Koop (Canadian of course), spent the day clearing a landing strip for the planes that brought them and their supplies into the village. At the end of the day they were hot and sweaty and went down to the river to bathe. There they found women and children occupying their usual bathing spot, so they went to another part of the river. It was also in use, so Dan went back to his house. Lingenfelter, however, decided to try to use what he had observed of their ways for resolving conflict. He went to a spot near both bathing areas and started shouting at the top of his voice how he and Dan had worked all day, but when they wanted to bathe, the women and children were using all the space. Although they could not understand his English, they knew what he was doing, and he soon had the river to himself! That night the villagers told Dan how they enjoyed this stranger who understood their ways.

The point is not that we should try their methods of conflict resolution—that would be a good way to get arrested in Winnipeg! The point is rather that this is a most unusual culture, because most societies around the world have placed the value of the community above the value of the individual. We in the West are plotting a different course, in which we use laws and bureaucracy to enshrine the value of the individual, so successfully that we have made selfishness a positive value. Not even these people in the Amazon basin saw selfishness as good.

The truth is, of course, that God wants us to be centred on Christ and on others: “Love God with all your being; and love your neighbour as yourself”: this is the whole of the Law. Whether we are Amazon villagers, or Chinese peasants, or Zulu city-dwellers, or First Nations in Manitoba, or Anglo Canadians—whatever our background, whatever our social location, whatever our culture, God wants us to become like Christ. God wants us to put on Christ.

This brings us back to God’s ruthless love. God loves us so much that he took our death into himself on the cross, in order to give us life. That feels good! God loves us so much that he will not allow us to continue in anything that draws us away from himself. That can hurt! As C.S. Lewis puts it, it is the action of a surgeon who stops at nothing to cut out the cancer within us.

I just re-read Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy. I enter into this thought coming from his book with real hesitation, aware that I can easily become trite. But I think that the relationship between judgment and love within God’s great purpose takes us here. Vanauken describes his relationship with Davy, his wife, leading up to her death, and then the time afterwards.

Sheldon and Davy fell in love and got married. They were remarkably in tune with each other, appearing almost to read each other’s minds. One friend having supper with them noted Davy glance at the unlit candles on the mantel, without any further look at Sheldon. A moment later he got up and lit the candles. Their friend said the unspoken communication was almost creepy.

They were not Christians, believing that Christian faith was for people who really did not have a vital intellectual life. Then they went from their home in Virginia to Oxford University for further studies. There they found one friend after another who was intellectually alive, who shared their interests and values, and who were thoroughly Christian. Under their influence they began to examine Christian faith, reading especially the works of people like C.S. Lewis. Vanauken describes their conversions—first Davy’s then his own (Vanauken: 95ff).

They became friends with Lewis and others within the Oxford setting. Then their studies came to an end, and they returned to Virginia, where Sheldon found a job teaching college English. Although they found the return to the USA difficult, life was good. They were in their 30s, doing work they enjoyed, part of a vital Christian community, and in love with each other and with life. Then Davy developed an unspecified virus that took her life in a matter of about six months.

As Vanauken processed her death, he went through the various stages we all experience when tragedy strikes. One thing stood out, as he reflected on their lives together. Davy had developed an intense close relationship with Jesus. At one point she had made the commitment that if it took her own life in order for Sheldon to know Christ as closely as she did, she was willing to give her life (Vanauken: 145f). Vanauken himself realized that he had actually become jealous of Davy’s relationship with Jesus. Although we cannot say God took Davy so that Sheldon could know God better, he himself does conclude that losing Davy was a basic step in his own pilgrimage to a closer life with Christ.

That is the meaning of the title: “A Severe Mercy”—that God used the death of the one Sheldon Vanauken loved best to bring him closer to God. That is also what I mean by the phrase “ruthless love”. God uses everything that happens to us to draw us to himself. He pursues us to the ends of the earth. He will not rest until we are fully “in Christ”. Nothing can turn God aside from the pursuit of our very souls.

This idea is expressed clearly in the hymn: “How Firm a Foundation”. Hear verse 3: “When through fiery trials they pathway shall lie,/ My grace all sufficient shall be they supply./ The flames shall not hurt thee, I only design/ Thy dross to consume and the gold to refine.”

Please understand, I am not drawing a line from any tragedy we have experienced to anything else. My mother did not die because my Dad was not fully committed to God. My sister did not die as an infant because my parents needed to cling more closely to God. We dare not explain God’s ways so lightly.

But I can say that God uses everything in our lives to make us more like Christ. I told you some time ago of a personal crisis I experienced almost five years ago. Resolution to that crisis came in a series of three dreams. In the third dream, I was floating in the sea (a difficult image for me, since I do not swim and fear the water), and I realized that the sea was the sea of God’s love. No matter how stormy it became, I knew I was safe, because it was the sea of God’s love. Ruthless? So it sometimes seems. Love? Absolutely and forever.

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