Rev. Yme Woensdregt
One of my favourite quotations from Marcus Borg (who died January 15, 2015) is this: “Imagine that Christianity is about loving God. Imagine that it’s not about the self and its concerns, about ‘what’s in it for me,’ whether that be a blessed afterlife or prosperity in this life. Imagine that loving God is about being attentive to the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Imagine that it is about becoming more and more deeply centered in God. Imagine that it is about loving what God loves. How would that change your life?”
That final question haunts me.
As I wrote last week, many of us grew up thinking that Christian faith is about getting what we want after this life is over. Honour God in this life, and you’ll get heaven as your eternal reward.
That kind of thinking turns Christian faith into a bargain with God. If I do what you want in this life, then you’ll give me what I want in the next life. If I behave well today, I’ll receive my reward tomorrow.
And so we turn Christian faith into a set of do’s and don’ts, shoulds and should nots. Faith becomes a matter of keeping the rules in this life so that we get our eternal reward in the next life.
I remember when I was a young child that my grandmother came to visit us from Holland. She was a very devout woman, and very strict. Every Sunday, for the three weeks she was with us, we had to keep the rules to keep her (and my father) happy. One of those rules was “to honour the Sabbath,” and so there we kids sat on Sunday afternoons, very unhappy, dressed in our “Sunday best” wanting nothing more than to be able to go out and play with our friends. We wanted to do what we usually did on a Sunday, but we could not. It was against the rules.
I also remember a conversation about 25 years later with a man who told me that being a Christian was about keeping the commandments. Life consisted of knowing what the rules were and obeying them. Faith wasn’t about enjoying the presence of God or that sense of deep trust that no matter who we are or what we do, God loves us. Keep the commandments, and you’re okay. Break them and watch out.
It seems to me to be a bleak way of living — always having to be careful that you didn’t screw up in some way, always having to toe the line, always having to worry about whether you are enough.
Loving God as the essence of Christian faith is so much more freeing and so much more positive. We are set free from our self–concern. We are set free from making sure we get what we want. We are set free to give ourselves away in love and joy for the healing of others and making the world more whole. We are set free to celebrate the wild, amazing, joy–filled presence of the one who fills our lives with goodness and hope.
One of my teachers was a man named Jim Cruickshank. Jim became the bishop of the Anglican Diocese of the Cariboo during a very difficult time; he helped the Diocese weather the storms around settling court claims related to St. George’s Residential School in Lytton, B.C.
Jim had a very simple but profound understanding of the gospel, which can be summed up in a single sentence: “I am your God; you are my people; I will never stop loving you; I will never let you go.”
Like Marcus Borg, life was centred around the loving presence and promises of God for Jim. The theological word for that is grace, and Jim’s world and gospel were charged through with that sense of grace. God loves us. God accepts us unconditionally. God invites us to live within that embrace. As Jim used to love to say, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less. God doesn’t know what it means not to forgive.”
Like Jim, like Marcus, I find the story of Jesus to be deeply compelling. It tells me that I am loved, that I am cherished, that I am treasured. The story of Jesus tells me that all people are loved and cherished and treasured. It tells me that I am not alone in the universe, but that I live here in both a physical and spiritual reality.
For Jesus, the whole gospel can be summed up this way: “Love God with all that you are; love your neighbours as you love yourself.”
I think that if all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus could actually live this way, the world would be a better place. What if Christians actually said that this is all that counts? “Imagine that Christianity is about loving God … about loving what God loves … about becoming more and more deeply centered in God.”
It’s not about believing the right things, or doing the right things, or keeping a certain set of rules. It’s simply this: loving God; loving each other.