As I grow older and (hopefully!) a little wiser, I become more and more convinced that the gospel can be summarized in a single phrase: God is love.
Full stop. Nothing else. No ifs, ands, or buts. No conditions.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the US Episcopal Church puts it this way, “If it doesn’t look like love, if it doesn’t look like Jesus of Nazareth, it cannot be claimed to be Christian. Then it’s a fundamental distortion of Christian teaching of what it means to follow Jesus.”
Love is the heart of our Christian faith. Faith doesn’t begin with a set of commandments to follow or a set of expectations to meet or even finding a certain way to live. Those are all secondary. The primary thing in Christian faith is God’s love for creation. All we need to do is learn to bask in God’s love, to revel in it, to play in the confidence of that love, and to know that God’s love is big enough and broad enough and wide enough and spacious enough to include all other people and all other creatures.
But so what? You might think that this way of viewing the gospel is not particularly thought–worthy or radical.
You wouldn’t be alone. Many people would say this is not enough. It’s too simplistic, too “easy”. It lets people off the hook. They would say that the gospel expects us to be faithful and obedient, and that God requires us to live a certain way. I hear a lot of people say, “God is love, but …”
God is love, but you have to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour or you will go to hell.
God is love, but God demands obedience, or else.
God is love, but you can’t be gay or lesbian or transgender or queer.
God is love, but you can’t be Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or follow indigenous spirituality.
God is love, but it’s okay to call out your enemies because they are also God’s enemies.
I disagree with all those statements.
Far too many Christians think that it’s their responsibility somehow to protect God’s holiness, or to project their understanding of God’s justice, or to be instruments of God’s wrath. They ask, “What about God’s demand to be righteous and holy? What about God’s demand for purity? Doesn’t that make it okay to exercise just a little bit of violence to make the world more pure? After all, Jesus’ death was God’s redemptive violence at work, wasn’t it?”
These questions show that how foreign it is in Christian circles in North America to think that the heart of the gospel is found in God’s love. They can’t simply accept that God is love, full stop. There always needs to be something more. There is always something which qualifies God’s love. There is always a boundary, a limit, to God’s love.
I respectfully disagree. In my opinion, the heart of Christian faith can be summarized very simply: “I am your God. You are my people. I will never stop loving you. I will never let you go.” As one of my theology professors used to say, “Nothing we can do will make God love us any more; nothing we can do will make God love us any less. God doesn’t know what it means not to love, not to forgive, not to hold us with compassion.”
God is love. Full stop.
God loves each of us. God loves all of us. It doesn’t matter to God who you are. It doesn’t matter what colour you are. It doesn’t matter what faith you espouse. Your sexuality doesn’t make any difference. It doesn’t matter what you have done or what you have left undone.
It might matter to us — but I want to be very clear that it doesn’t matter to God.
The apostle Paul said the same thing in his letter to the church in Galatia. It was a church which was being torn apart by different groups set against each other. Some people were saying that in order to be a good Christian, you had to become a good Jew first. But Paul says quite clearly, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul says very clearly that all of our human distinctions count for nothing in God’s economy. As Eugene Peterson translates it in “The Message”, “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non–Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal.”
All equal. All equally loved. And it strikes me that this way of living is quite radical. It was for Paul. It is equally radical for us.
The word “radical” comes from a Latin word which means “going back to the origins or essentials”. So when I say that the gospel can be found in God’s love, for me, that is simply radical. It drives us back to the roots of Christian faith in Jesus; it drives us back to our origins, in which Jesus came proclaiming a vision of how deeply God loves all people.
And if God is love … then 1 John 4 reminds us that if we claim to know this God, we will in turn love all people, for “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
Here then, is the gospel.
God is love.
And if we believe that, we will live as lovers of all. It’s what Martin Luther meant when he said, “Love God … and do as you please.”
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican Priest living in Cranbrook