"It's like this," the pastor says on a Sunday morning a few weeks ago, and I've heard it a thousand times, explained it this way myself in the days before I grasped how wide and deep and long is the love of Jesus.
"God loves you. But--"
The deconstruction of the mystery always begins with a "but." Can we pause for a moment to recognize the way this "but" frames God's love as conditional? The way this "but" establishes fear? The way this "but" suggests God's Love is not sufficient?
"But...we are separated from God by our sin." Here, an explanation ensues in an attempt to convince people they are imperfect.
Side note: Does anyone really need to be convinced of their own imperfection? It seems to me that most people are generally hyper-aware of their shortcomings and are too busy trying to fix and hide their failures to argue about their existence. I don't know any other mature adult who would claim perfection, or sinlessness, and we patronize the people around us to think otherwise.
The only time I ever needed convincing of my sinfulness was when I was a teenager saturated in Christian culture, ticking all the boxes of good, clean Christian living. Ironically, I am most ashamed of that season of life due to the hurt I inflicted on others out of pride, insecurity, and judgement.
Back to the sermon: "Because we are separated from God by our sin, we must suffer the consequence of sin, which is death (or hell, eternal separation from God)." Here, we are given a metaphor of the Grand Canyon, where we are on one side of the chasm and God is on the other, and no amount of jumping, leaping, or wishful thinking will get us across to God's side. Some may jump farther than others, but all fall short.
If only there were a bridge! Enter Jesus. "But God loved us so much, he sent his son as a perfect sacrifice for our sin so that we could be made right with God. The cross is like a bridge over the Grand Canyon, allowing us to be reconciled with God."A discussion of how Jesus is the only bridge follows: "All roads don't lead to heaven!"
If a pen and paper were handy, one could draw a cliff on the left with a stick figure standing on it, and a cliff on the right with GOD written on it, and a cross would sit right in the middle, it's horizontal beam bridging the gap: The Bridge Illustration.
And the closing: "Every person must decide for himself whether he will cross the bridge God has provided. Would you like to make that decision right here, right now? To accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior so you are no longer separated from God?" And so we pray. Sometimes, people are asked to pray along silently in their heart if they want. Other times, there is an invitation to come to the front as a public declaration of faith. In this church on this Sunday, the prayer was silent, and no public declaration was required.
After hearing this life-altering good news, we sang a song and went to lunch.
Is this the message Jesus came to deliver? Is this the message that will lead terrorists to lay down their weapons, that will set the addict free from her tyrant, that will reconcile family and friends estranged by deep wounds? Is this the good news? I mean, it's nice that there's a way to escape hell, but beyond that, what can be called good?
Paraphrase of supposed good news: Hey, World, we had a good thing going in the garden until Eve screwed it up and caused every human ever born to be afflicted with sin. Sorry I have to not only banish but torture you forever now (even though I really love you) unless you demonstrate faith in Jesus alone as eternal fire retardant. (I'll know you really have faith in Jesus by the rules you follow and the time you spend reading your Bible and praying and the doctrine you subscribe to regarding evolution, abortion, homosexuality, gender roles, and the nation of Israel.) Hopefully the years of sexual abuse and famine and war and corruption and abandonment and slavery and terrorism and racism and nightly news you've witnessed or survived or perpetrated won't make it too hard for you to find and trust me.
This version of the gospel falls flat to me. Rings hollow. Smacks of something other than Love.
Since gaining some distance from this perspective, I've discovered that most of the folks around me are profoundly discouraged by their own sin and deeply wounded by others' sin. Most of the folks I know desperately want to be good parents, friends, neighbors, citizens, but they recognize their love is not perfect, that often they act from fear or insecurity. They find themselves in the paradox of existence that Paul articulates so clearly in Romans: "Sometimes, I don't do the things I know I should. Other times, I do things I know I shouldn't. Why? Help!"
Here's what I've come to believe is the truly good, subversive, counter-cultural gospel of Jesus: mercy.
A quick search for a definition of mercy brought this: "compassion or forgiveness shown to someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm."
So consider: "God consigned all men to disobedience that he might have mercy on all."
I know this doesn't sound good, but stay with me.
We could not know mercy if we did not sin. Perhaps we cannot understand God's love completely if we do not experience his mercy. What if sin did not wreck his plan? What if sin and the mess it makes in this world are the vehicle God uses to reveal his love for us? What if, somehow, the riches of mercy are worth the despair of sin?
It bends my brain, but I can kind of understand when I think of my kids.
I relish (!) seeing them enjoy each other's company and play together happily as brother and sister. There is love and joy there, certainly, and I rejoice.
But there is something far more powerful, far more profound when one is distraught or hurt or heartbroken and the other has compassion, hurts alongside, and patiently endures and forgives the anger or crankiness of their aching sibling. That is a Love that reaches deep down in this Mama soul and whispers, "This. This is it."
Mercy reveals the real love.
Being loved in perfection is not as meaningful as being loved in our imperfection. This is the reason marriage is such a powerful crucible, why parenting breaks our heart and challenges our spirit. We receive mercy over and over and over, are asked to have mercy over and over and over, and in this act, we learn and reveal the heart of God.
What if the gospel were this: God loves us. And he loves us so much he doesn't want us to believe for a second that we can do anything to earn it or deserve it. So he made imperfection a condition of humanity and then sent Jesus to model how to love each other in the midst of our imperfections.
The challenge is that we generally feel deep shame about our imperfection, so we try to hide ourselves in accomplishments or good works or power or numbing activities (fig leaves). We generally run away from anyone who wants to shine a spotlight on our drinking problem, commitment issues, facebook addiction, workaholism, over-committedness, crankiness, or judgmental nature. But this hiding and running away slowly ruins us, leaves us suffering alone.
Fortunately, Jesus was never really interested in spotlights (anachronysm aside).
Instead, Jesus drank wine with folks. He hung out with them in their jobs, in their chores, around their tables. He went to their hiding places. And to parties. He enjoyed people. He told stories and asked questions and reserved the preaching for the religious folks who thought they had it all figured out. He was a truth-teller, not because he wanted to make people feel bad about themselves so they would repent but so people could stop hiding their mess and find real life. The truth sets people free.
God loves us with the kind of Love that suffers hell for those who crucify him. And then he takes care of our sin and shame by hiding us in Jesus, allowing us to be identified by Jesus's perfection rather than our imperfection. So now we're at peace with God. Already. Without doing anything. Thanks to the cross.
Doesn't that bring relief from the merry-go-round striving we typically subject ourselves to?
Please look elsewhere for self-help strategies, tidy boxes, and easy answers.
But please feel free to pick up a cross and follow Jesus away from the folks who know a lot about what's right and wrong in search of the outcasts, the lost sheep, the last and the least.
Brace yourself for suffering. Because shame leads people to hurt each other in unspeakably cruel and violent ways. And hurting alongside those who are the victims of injustice is part of your work as a member of Christ's body.
You might want to grab your yoga mat, too, because you'll need to do a lot of deep breathing as you learn to suspend judgement. If you follow Jesus, you'll find yourself at the dinner tables of pedophiles, terrorists, Wall Street tycoons, dictators, racist cops, pimps, producers of cable news, abusive parents, human traffickers, and those who disagree with you about evolution, abortion, homosexuality, gender roles, and the nation of Israel. Because they need him.
And because this will be impossible for you at times, Jesus will also come to your table for dinner.
This unreserved mercy is the scandal of the gospel. All roads don't lead to heaven, but all roads may lead to Jesus. Or perhaps more accurately, Jesus may find all roads and take care of the mapping system himself.
"When the [religious leaders] saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why is your Teacher eating with tax collectors and sinners?" But when Jesus heard this, He said, "It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick. Go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners." Matthew 9:11-13