The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them. – Thomas Merton, 20th century
This quote from Thomas Merton explains so much about why it is so difficult for us to love one another. It also goes to the heart of our struggle to truly accept God’s love for us and for all people. The message from Jesus was radical in its proclamation that God truly loved every human being.
This Sunday we hear this message proclaimed at the end of our gospel reading. That most famous of Bible verses, John 3:16 proclaims the love of God for all the world. But the true power of the verse is explained in John 3:17. In The Message translation of these verses we read: This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; be believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.
This is what Merton is expressing and this is the true power of God’s unconditional love. Jesus came to show us the depth and breadth and complete unconditional nature of God’s love. God truly loves us; loves all people; unconditionally. That means God loves us all as we are, as we are created to be.
Jesus did not come to point fingers at us; to pronounce how bad we are and how much we have messed everything up. Jesus came to remind us how much God loves us and wants us back. We became separated, our faith weak, our hope diminished, our love tepid because life wore us down. The disappointments that leave us hurt and angry; the losses that leave us bewildered and aching; these chip away at our ability to trust and to love. And there are times we have been the one to betray another and when we have said and done things we regret. All of it leads us to question God’s love for us. How could God still love me?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer answered the question in his essay on Christian community, Life Together:
It is the grace of the gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; he does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; he wants you alone.
God wants you back. Just as you are. God loves you. When we fully embrace and accept this truth and begin to internalize God’s love and acceptance, then we can begin to truly love one another. Without expectations; without making each other over; without looking for our own image in our neighbor.
What a world that will be! Take time this Lent to spend time with God. Allow the love of God to wash over you and immerse you. Then come share that love with us.
R. Steven Hudder
Pastor, Christ Congregational United Church of Christ
Palmetto Bay, Florida