Nothing Says Love Like…

 “Nothing says love like a sizzling steak!”

Over the years I have heard many words and phrases associated with love, particularly in the context of our nation’s fascination with the annual celebration of love known as Valentine’s Day.  So when I recently opened an email from a restaurant my wife and I frequent with the above quote as the tease, it got me thinking; what does truly communicate love?  While I do enjoy a good steak, and on occasion have probably remarked with affectionate language my appreciation for it, I believe that something more than a piece of beef expresses love.

Jesus spoke of love in terms of sacrifice and service.  “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”   (John 15:13 NRSV)  What does that really mean for the routines of daily living?  We often hear these words in the context of some heroic act when someone has given his or her life to save others.  Most of us will not find ourselves in that setting too often, if ever.  So hearing those words, we more often than not think in terms of our willingness to offer ourselves as a possibility and not a certainty.  It is much easier to love in that manner when it is simple hypothesis.   Perhaps we need to hear Jesus’ words in tandem with other words he offered in the fifteenth chapter of John’s gospel.  “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:9-10 NRSV)

Right about now I’m thinking that embracing a sizzling steak as evidence of love sounds pretty good.  Nourishment, the engaging of all the senses in the act of consumption, the socialization that often is found around the dinner table…I love it!  As the consumer of the steak, little is required of me and love is a momentary reaction to a visceral craving.  Jesus speaks, however, of something more…obedience born not of slavish duty, but rather because of relationship that is established with the One he called “Father.”  Embracing God by embracing Jesus is a way of living that turns from the simple satisfaction of getting what I want, to the eternal truth of seeking what God desires.  “We love,” John wrote in I John 4:19, “because he (God) first loved us.”  The focus shifts from my ability to love, to God’s ability to love.  As in all great love stories, it is not then about me, but about the One who loves me.

Jesus lived this love before his disciples again and again in the gospels.  He spoke of the significance of intentionally placing one’s self last instead of first.  He took a towel and knelt to wash the dirty feet of his disciples and then told them they were to do the same.  And yes, he told them that the greatest manifestation of love was to give one’s life for another.  When God’s love is at work in our lives, we value others and ourselves differently.  We begin to see that love marks us in terms of obedience, sacrifice, and selfless giving.  No wonder we would rather consider a sizzling steak, or a dozen roses, or a box of chocolates as evidence of love; much less commitment…much less investment.

In the immediate aftermath of Valentine’s Day, 2014, whether you expressed your love through a box of chocolates, a beautiful bouquet of flowers, a piece of jewelry or even a nice dinner with a sizzling steak, don’t be too hard on yourself.  These are perfectly acceptable expressions.  However, recognizing that love isn’t an annual expression, perhaps you and I might consider anew the words and actions of Jesus who calls us to follow his example of love through sacrifice, service, and obedience.   I am giving you these commands,” Jesus said, “so that you may love one another.”  That is the greatest gift of all!

Jim Abernathy

What Words Cannot Express

The Christian Century, one of the few worth-reading Christian magazines of our time, has proposed an interesting exercise in theology.  They have given some authors the challenge to express the gospel into seven words or fewer.  “It’s instructive to see what Christian proclamation boils down to when someone is put on the spot and has only a few words.  What is the essence of the essence of Christianity?” (Christian Century, September 5, 2012, p. 20.  To read all the efforts to put the gospel into seven words or fewer, go to http://www.christiancentury.org/7words).

An interesting exercise, indeed.  It is quite illuminating, for instance, to read how Carol Zaleski defines the gospel as “He led captivity captive,” M. Craig Barnes as “We live by grace,” and Ellen T. Charry as “The wall of hostility has come down,” just to mention the first three theologians that offer their distillation of distillations in the magazine article.

There is something disconcerting in the reading of the answers, though, beginning with the natural instinct of the reader to say: “Yes, that’s true, but the gospel is also…”  Of course, after reviewing the 15 “essences” of the gospel that are portrayed in pages 20-25 of the magazine –and the many others in the web page–, one gets a “broader” picture.  Then, the question comes to mind about the purpose of the compilation of these 7-worded manifestos of “the essence of the essence,” as the editors call these declarations.  What is the function of reducing the gospel to seven words if in order to understand it fully you need a compilation of declarations?

I have to agree that in the age of Tweeter, the Christian Century’s challenge is a commendable one.  Commendable, yet futile.

If the gospel is about words, it is about just one word, one strong four-lettered word: LOVE.

Anything of the gospel that is worth mentioning can be related in one way or another to love.  But gospel-love itself cannot be reduced to a word.  The theological issue of the centuries has been how to subsume Christian love into words.

Whatever we have learned of the gospel, it is that the gospel is not about words.  “The kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power,” wrote Paul to the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:20 NAS) .

The gospel is not about words, but about the incarnate Word.

The “essence” of the Word is about incarnation.  The gospel is about the imitation of that incarnation.  The gospel is not about what we say, it is about what we do.  There are no words that can replace incarnation.  It’s like a kiss: If you have to explain it, it loses its meaning.

The Jesus Christ event was not important for what Jesus said, but for what Jesus did.  “Though he was rich,” writes Paul, “…for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9 NRSV).  “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many,” he said of himself (Mat 20:28 NRSV).

Jesus was a great teacher, indeed, and a captivating speaker.  His most important teachings, however, were not conveyed in words, but in action.  In the evening of the Last Supper, he taught a last enduring lesson to his maverick disciples by wrapping a towel around his waist.  None of the great apostles he had gathered had been ready to be the feet washer of the others that evening; then Jesus taught them the unforgettable lesson of the humility and service that is required to be worthy of the gospel by washing one-by-one their dirty feet.

Jesus did not need words.  He taught in deed something completely unexplainable: The essence of the gospel is being the loving servant of the others (Eureka: it’s seven words!).

Perhaps the time has come for us theologians to learn how to express our theology without words.  Traduttore, traditore.  When we “translate” the non-verbal essence of the gospel into words we betray the most sacred essence of the gospel, we betray love.  Perhaps it is time for us to learn that theology is not something that we declare, but something that we do.

The gospel is a work of love.  Entering the kingdom of love is entering the kingdom of something that words cannot express.  Not even our most distilled theology.

%d bloggers like this: