Worthy of Love
WORTHY OF LOVE
ROMANS 5 :1-11
“We accept the love we think we deserve.” That is the only line I remember from, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” an Indie movie that I watched several years ago. It doesn’t really matter what the movie was about. All that matters for the purposes of this sermon is this statement, and how I have found it to be true in my life and the lives of those I love. I think most of the problems we face in relationships, the insecurities we face, the poor decisions that we make, boil down to the fact that we question deep within ourselves;
“Are we worthy of love?”
“Am I worthy of love?”
I think our parents have a lot to do with our view of love, and thereby our view of God. When I was little our family was on a rather stressful vacation to Disney World, which I think is just a regular trip to Disney World. I don’t remember much about the trip. Just at some point I remember my Dad, in a fit of frustration, calling me “stupid.” I think I was eight years old at the time. But I held onto that word. Through elementary, middle, and high school, devoting myself to my studies, not really hanging out with friends, not trying out for sports, all in an effort to become the best student in school, to prove that I was not stupid, hoping that I could earn acceptance from my father. And at the end of high school when I told my dad that I had done this, he said that he had never thought I was stupid, that he just wanted me to be happy. I had built much of my academic effort on something my Dad had said in a fit of frustration, something that if I had been older, I would have known he did not mean, because even then I knew he loved me. But I held it inside and it didn’t do me any good. I have feared rejection all my life. I have always questioned if I am good enough. I have always sought that one thing I was better at than everyone else to define me to make me worthy.
Don’t get me wrong I love my father and my mother. I would not be where I am today without them. My Dad is only human, as am I. And if I become a Father I suspect I will make similar mistakes that my father did. As I have grown older I have seen that we accept the good we can receive from our parents and leave behind the bad. Because every earthly parent will fail us. They will be unable to provide something we need. They will be unable to love us in the way we desire to be loved some of the time.
But our heavenly Father is not like our Earthly Parents. Our heavenly Father knows our needs before we do, and will not give us scorpions if we ask for bread. 1 John 4:8 says God is Love and we see that displayed in today’s passages from Matthew and Romans. The Baptism of Jesus is one of the most interesting stories in scriptures. It raises many questions. But the questions I want to ask today are, “what did Jesus know about himself?” What did the Father mean when he said “This is my Beloved Son with whom I am well pleased? And what does the Father have to say to us?
We must first ask the question why is the Father speaking at all? If Jesus is God and knows everything why does he need the Father to tell him that he is the beloved Son? Doesn’t he know that already? Is God speaking to God-self by speaking to Jesus? Is the Holy Spirit falling on himself? What is the point of all this?
Central to the understanding of this passage are the doctrine of the Trinity and the Doctrine the Incarnation, that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. As many have pointed out the word “Trinity” is never found in the Bible. Yet, Christians developed the word as a shorthand for the way the New Testament talks about God, that being as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the text seems to talk about them as separate persons as well, thus Jesus can pray to the Father and the Father can speak to Jesus. So it is correct to say that Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit, the Father is not the Holy Spirit or the Son, and the Holy Spirit is not the Son or the Father, but that they are all one God. Traditionally we say that God is three persons and one essence. We get a sense of this contradiction with the Hebrew word for God Elohim in the Old Testament. Elohim is plural but is always translated as singular. Some scholars have suggested “the one who is many” might be a good translation of Elohim. No analogy is perfect to describe the Trinity, and each analogy has an element of heresy to it. But imagine that the Trinity is identical triplets who are able to read each others minds. Each triplet expresses a different function of God but they are all working together.
A second important doctrine to know when understanding this passage is the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Bible does not use “Son of God” like Greek mythology does, which is confusing since many of us are taught more about Greek and Egyptian mythology in school than we are about the Bible’s theology. In Greek and Roman mythology Zeus would sometimes have sexual relations with human women and thus produce a son, like Hercules, who is half God and half man. But if we read the infancy narratives of Jesus we see no suggestion of sexual intercourse, no suggestion that Jesus is a hybrid. Instead John tells us that the “Word” became “Flesh”. That God, in some mysterious way, became fully human, not half human and half God, while also remaining God. Unlike us, Jesus was the perfect human being. Where we fail, Jesus did not. Where Adam, the first human being was tricked by the devil, Jesus was not. However, as we read in the Genesis, doubt existed before the Fall of Humanity. Even though God walked in the Garden with Adam and Eve, even though humanity had intimacy with God that is hard for us to imagine today, that doesn’t mean they didn’t have doubt. So even though Jesus had a perfect relationship to his Heavenly Father, that doesn’t mean he had absolute certainty. If Jesus is to be our example for our humanity he had to have faith, he had to restrain his divine knowledge and trust his Father just like we have to. So perhaps Jesus, though he knew why the Father had sent him, needed a level of affirmation, to face the trial ahead of him, the testing of the Devil ,which we will talk about next week.
To affirm his Son, God speaks from heaven. “This is my beloved Son. With whom I am well pleased.” This is an amazing event, and while the scriptures are unclear whether it was witnessed just by Jesus, or whether the crowd witnessed it as well, the theological significance is clear. You see many Rabbi’s, or Jewish teachers taught, that after the last prophets like Zechariah wrote down their prophecies, that God had stopped speaking to Israel. The best God’s people could expect was an “echo” of the voice what the Rabbi’s called “the daughter of the voice”. But Matthew is clearly saying hundreds of years of silence has ended. God has a message and that message is clear.
“This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”
Scholars think that this verse is a fulfillment of Psalm 2 where God calls the King his Son and Isaiah 42, where the Lord chooses his “suffering servant” in whom God delights, whom God anoints with his Spirit. God is saying to the world though Kings have failed you in the past, there is truly one worthy of David’s throne. But this King will not conquer with the Sword of war but the Sword of the Spirit, the power and authority of God.
We see that God is “well pleased” with his Son. The Greek word here means to prefer, to choose, to delight in. The Word “beloved” is the Greek Word “agapetos” which can be variously translated as cherished or beloved, and is often used to describe a parent’s love for a child.
Love, who gets to love who, what love is, has been in the news lately, it has been a discussion in our denomination. We who speak the English language are rather deficient in our understanding of love, partially because we are rather obsessed about romantic love, and partly because we have only one word for love. You see in Greek ,the language in which the New Testament was written, there are at least four words for love. What the church is often arguing about with itself and with the world are the boundaries and limits of Eros, that being erotic love or attraction. Some may say that God is Love and therefore God approves of whatever erotic attractions we have, as long as we don’t hurt people. But the scriptures do not say that God is Eros they say that God is Agape. Agape is often considered to be divine love, and is a sacrificial love that seeks only the good of the beloved and not its own fulfillment. It is a gift that requires nothing in return. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 13, “Agape is patient and kind, agape does not envy or boast, it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Agape bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Often this scripture is used in weddings, but of course Paul is describing God’s love not a wedding in this passage. Yes agape love can be displayed in a romantic relationship, but it can also be displayed in platonic relationships. And just because we display agape or gift love in a romantic relationship doesn’t mean we are in line with what God has to say about our erotic attractions whatever our sexual orientation may be.
In fact, as C.S Lewis suggests, Agape love may cost us something, it cost God his Son. As C.S Lewis put it in “The Four Loves”, “Agape” ,gift love, or charity can cause us to do strange things in the eyes of the world. In Lewis’ words, “Thus God, admitted to the human heart, transforms not only Gift-Love but Need-love of one another. This is of course is not the only thing that can happen. He may come on what seems to us a more dreadful mission and demand that a natural love be totally renounced. A high and terrible vocation, like Abraham’s, may constrain a man to turn his back on his own people and his father’s house. Eros, directed to a forbidden object, may have to be sacrificed. In such instances, the process, though hard to endure, is easy to understand. What we are more likely to overlook is the necessity for a transformation even when the natural love is allowed to continue. In such a case the Divine Love does not substitute itself for the natural-as if we had to throw away our silver to make room for the gold. The natural loves are summoned to become modes of Charity while also remaining the natural love they were.” ( pg 133).
To put another way we are often given two different messages one from the world and one from the church. The world says, “Be who you are,” “haters are going to hate,” “follow your heart”, “seek your dreams”, “do what makes you happy”. The church, especially the Reformed tradition, which this church is a part of has said, “you are a sinner, you are broken, you cannot save yourself, sometimes your heart lies, and you are in need of a savior, you need to follow God’s Will not yours.” And in a way both these statements are true. We were all made in the image of God, we all have inherent dignity and worth, no matter where we come from and what we look like. But it is also true that somewhere along the way that image got broken, the mirror got shattered, and we can’t put the shards back together without cutting ourselves. The Bible says if we do not know God’s Law than we will be judged by our own moral standards. But even with that we know we fall short. We know we don’t do the good we should do and do the evil we should not do. We know that we are not perfect just the way we are. We know we need to be better with money, or follow our doctor’s advice and change our diet, or be more respectful to our parents, or call that friend we haven’t called in ages. We know that, though the world’s standards may be arbitrary, that some people are considered to be more beautiful than others, that some people receive more attention than others, and it is hard to be on the loosing end of that. It is hard to go through this life and not to wonder if we will ever be truly loved by another human being for who we are and not who they want us to be.
I think the closets thing that people can get to the Divine Love of God in this life is adoption. With a natural child you see a resemblance of yourself and your spouse. You see a continuation of your future so you have something at stake. But if you adopt a child what do you have to gain as far as biology or continuing the family line? My mentor and first Spiritual Father, Robert Johnson and his wife adopted a child from China. And as I got to know Peter I was often confused because it was hard to tell that he was not Robert and Marianne’s biological child because he had taken on the character of his parents. I have promised myself if I ever meet Mrs. Roberts that we will adopt a child, even if we can have children naturally.
I have a friend named Percy back in Richmond who adopted two children. He was the founder of a nonprofit youth mentoring organization called CHAT that I worked with for a long time. Percy is white and from Spivey’s Corner North Carolina. Percy and his wife have four natural children along with two adopted children. He adopted his two African American children as teenagers. His adopted daughter now has a successful career. His adopted son got in with the wrong crowd and got convicted and sentenced for armed robbery. But Percy and his wife Angie still visit their son in prison. And when he gets out their home and family are still open to him. Because making mistakes doesn’t change the fact that he is their son, even though he isn’t biologically related to them.
And that is what God does for us. Though we be broken and estranged. Though we have wandered our own way and denied the evidence of his love in creation and the image of his love on our lives, he sees the good in us and says I am going to adopt you, I am going to fight for you. As Romans Chapter five says, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person- though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die-but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. “ If we wish to be sons and daughters of God we must be willing to be born, as Jesus was born, of the Spirit and not of the flesh. As Paul says in Romans chapter 8, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear but have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba Father!”
There was a time not long ago that I doubted whether I was worthy of love. I was in a bad place occupationally and vocationally. I had gotten turned down by so many churches that I had almost given up. I was working at a nonprofit at the time but I knew in my heart it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing and it was killing me. I was getting kicked out of my house because my landlord Sam, who we affectionately called Sam Lord, because he was getting married, and all us roommates were being exiled. And I was tired of rejoicing in others people’s happiness, of going to other’s people’s weddings. I had applied to live in the retreat center and intentional community that I have often mentioned, but I hadn’t gotten in yet, and I was afraid they would turn me down. I didn’t know what I would do if they did. My finances were not great, and though I wanted to be married, I wondered if any woman would marry a man who’s career had gone of the rails. In desperation I remember calling my mother and just spitting vile and despair at her. She took it, and in agape love she said to me, “Will, my beloved Son, you are worthy of love.” That kept me from a dark place and I wrote this poem that I share with you now;
You know I feel unworthy.
I feel so undeserving.
Thinking of all the things I cannot be.
Thinking of all the limits there are to me.
Take a man’s talent away
and you send him adrift without an anchor.
In this poverty of spirit and dollars
who will turn to notice me?
But I am worthy of love.
Because Christ died for me
before I knew what love could be.
I am worthy of love.
Because my Father calls me
and gives me a new name.
I am worthy of love
because His Spirit dwells within me
and I will never be the same.
I am worthy of love. And that love gave me a new name and that love has a name. His name is Jesus. If you haven’t already would you receive that love today? Because whether you think are worthy or unworthy of love doesn’t matter. Because he died for us, he makes us worthy.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.