“There is a room in the Department of Mysteries, that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there….”[i] Those words, spoken by Professor Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, describe the force which saves Harry from his enemy Voldermort, the same force 1 John describes in today’s scripture: Love.
Love: We rarely think about love as a “force” in our culture, where we throw the word around with abandon. We say we “love” almost anything and everything for which we have generally affirmative feelings.
And Christians do love to say “God is love.” But do we know what we are saying? Do we say it too easily, with glib sentimentality, from our relative places of privilege? Step back and think how shocking and foolish this idea, so familiar to us, actually sounds from the context of the common experience of the vast majority of human beings.[ii] Earthquake victims in Nepal and Baltimore rioters might justifiably question this claim. In light of the suffering so many people face, is it an “escapist fantasy”[iii] to claim “God is love”?
But 1 John is not describing a generally warm feeling. He’s making a radical, counter-cultural confession[iv] with major implications for how we live our lives; he’s bearing witness to the powerful force revealed and experienced in Jesus Christ. It is not the force of a shooting gun or a striking fist, but the force in the children’s song: “Deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.”
Jesus was sent to unite humanity with a loving God, so that we can see and know in him that God is with us and for us. God desires to embrace and include us in the refreshing reality of peace, joy, hope and love which is God’s very being, an abundant flow of grace not even death can hold back.
God’s love is a force which can and does change the world. We see it in the encounter of Philip and the Ethiopian man on the wilderness road. The story in Acts begins with Philip, who was chosen one of the seven deacons who oversaw equitable food distribution between Hebrew and Greek-speaking widows. After the Jerusalem Christians are scattered by persecution, Philip shows up preaching and baptizing in Samaria. Here is a man who is willing and able to relate to others with hospitality and respect across cultural and language differences.
The man he meets on the wilderness road represents another realm of otherness—it’s not his race, religion or language. This Ethiopian, returning from his Jerusalem pilgrimage, is either Jewish—there were Ethiopian Jews—or a God-fearer, a Gentile who worshiped the Jewish God and followed Jewish teaching. He is wealthy, educated, able to read the Greek scriptures, and riding in a chariot. He is a powerful insider in places such things matter. But another aspect of his identity overrides them all with respect to his faith: he is a eunuch, a castrated male, a sexual minority excluded and barred from entering the temple.
We can learn a lot from these two men, whose actions reveal attitudes, habits, and practices sourced in the love 1 John describes. Philip’s humility and obedience, his responsiveness to the Spirit, is revealed in his willingness to run up alongside this stranger’s chariot, and to listen before he speaks. These are loving patterns of behavior.
The text from Isaiah refers to “one who is shorn;”[v] an experience with which the eunuch can identify. We don’t know what Philip says, but having spent time in the scriptures, he likely knows that Isaiah later prophesies hope which meets this man’s pain, that when the Messiah comes, eunuchs “who hold fast my covenant,” will have full inclusion among God’s people.[vi]
Philip shares the good news, that in Jesus the Messiah, Isaiah’s prophecy has come to pass. Those who have been shorn have in Jesus Christ a God who knows their suffering, and they are now fully welcomed as children of God’s house. Philip speaks and embodies Christ’s compassionate welcome to this man.
The Ethiopian also eunuch reveals patterns of God’s love in his actions. In devoted love for God, he’s journeyed to Jerusalem, even knowing he is barred from the Temple; and he continues to study the scriptures, even though some sacred texts name people like him aberrant and unworthy of inclusion. He receives Philip with hospitality and humility, acknowledging his own need for guidance. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “For a modern parallel, imagine a diplomat in Washington, D.C., inviting a street preacher to join him in his late model Lexus for a little Bible study. The inclusion in this story runs both ways.”[vii]
The eunuch is receptive to the surprising Spirit, and when water appears near that desert road, he eagerly receives baptism. Can you imagine the tears of joy on his face, when this long-excluded man finally receives God’s affirmation of his identity as God’s child, wholly welcome and wholly loved?
He went on his way rejoicing; and the history of the ancient Ethiopian church perhaps evidences that he, who loved God, not only received God’s love but shared it boldly back home.
Friends, we are called—commanded!—to love one another as we have been loved. Indeed, 1 John says that we lie if we say “I love God” but act in hateful ways. God’s love is witnessed and perfected in our love for others. To proclaim “God is love” is a commitment to be formed in attitudes, habits, and practices which show forth God’s love to others.
This is a radical claim on us, because these attitudes, habits, and practices do not come naturally. We are conditioned to fear those who are different from us, which, truly, is every other human being. Every single person is ultimately a unique, fathomless mystery, a bearer of the image of our fathomless God.
And we are conditioned to see the raised fist as so much more powerful than the overflowing fountain. Violent force seems to promise immediate means to control our destiny.
But in drought-stricken times, the life-giving power provided by an overflowing fountain cannot be underestimated. That is the force of God’s love in Jesus Christ, the life-source in which we plant our roots, which brings forth life-giving fruit.
Which brings up an important point: you do not gain loving patterns, habits, and actions by forcing them upon yourselves or others. You become loving, first, by receiving. Some of us try to skip over that part, compelled by the go-go/do-do drive of our culture, which values productivity over receptivity.
To receive love, you must stop and take time to be with God and others, which can feel incredibly vulnerable. You will adapt to dwelling in vulnerability, deciding to arise with trust in a good God and to drop the fearful defenses which numb and block you from receiving the source of love and life. Trusting in God for your strength, you will learn that “Perfect love casts out fear.”
Friends, polarization, marginalization, and discrimination are all-too-common statements on our collective reality. We can change that.
We will not do it perfectly. We will make mistakes. Loving is awkward and messy at times. But sourced in God’s perfect love, we can boldly let it flow through us, accepting and welcoming others with Christ’s hospitality, so that the powerful force of God’s love overflows in us, deep and wide, replenishing the world. Alleluia! Amen.
[i] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
[ii] Stephen Carlsen, http://day1.org/3817-a_message_so_good_as_to_border_on_folly
[iii] Carlsen, as above.
[iv] Carlsen, as above.
[v] Karen Baker-Fletcher in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008, 456.
[vi] Isaiah 56:4-5
[vii] Barbara Brown Taylor, in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008, 457.