This morning, a Sunday morning, my Sabbatical continued. Instead of preaching at HillSong Church, my family and I worshipped for a 4th week in a row at Citywell Church in Durham, NC. Pastor Cleve May delivered a remarkable sermon on creation (Genesis 1). He made the case that the creation account actually comes out of the writings of Jews in the exile, 6th century BC. The account is a response to the violent origins story of the Babylonian god Tiamat. In the Tiamat creation drama, humans are the result of violent conflict among the gods. In the Genesis story, the universe, the earth, and human beings are all created as expressions of “God’s overflowing abundance.” A key quality in the creation is relationship. God is relational. The Genesis story flows from God’s love and shouts of God’s yearning for relationship.
Pastor May’s thoughts on Genesis, and more importantly on the relationship of God and human beings, aligns well with the writing of the great author, pastor, and Bible translator Eugene Peterson. In his sermon on Psalm 116 “Land of the living,” he says, “Every word [from God], every phrase, every sentence, every silence must be received relationally. God does not reveal himself impersonally.”[i] Creation is something God does. Relationship is something God initiates. We are created, but out of love, not violence. We are invited, but not coerced.
The key is love – love between God and humans and love humans show to one another. A Common Word (edited by Miroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammad, and Melissa Yarrington) is a compilation of essays written to reflect upon the October 2007 letter written by Muslim leaders to Christian leaders. The essence of the letter is that Muslims and Christians both have at the center of their respective faiths two central tenets or commands – to love God and to love neighbor. Mark 12:29-31 is one of many places in scripture that make plain the centrality of these commands for Christians. The Muslim authors who contribute to the A Common Word letter and essays to the book by the same title exhaustively demonstrate that similar commands are operative in Islam. While both the Christian and the Muslim authors in the book recognize the likely irreconcilable differences in the two faiths, including nuanced understandings of “love,” both demonstrate that love is the key. Furthermore, the Christian and Muslim authors make a compelling case that love is the ground upon which Muslims and Christians can meet in friendship and peace.
The key is love – in creation, in relationship, in drawing together parties that have experienced mutual enmity. The theologian Miroslav Volf writes one of the Christian responses. His essay is a tour de force of theological explanation as he explains the trinity even while demonstrating why the trinity cannot be explained.[ii] On the love of God Volf writes, “God loves irrespective of the existence or non-existence of creation; … the contingent world is created by a God who is always love and just because God is love” (italics Volf’s).[iii]
One of the points of emphasis in my Sabbatical is a study of the differences between people and how those differences can be overcome for the sake of beautiful friendship, and more importantly that differences be overcome because we are family – brothers and sisters in Christ. Admittedly, I have devoted much of my reading and conversation to the divide between European Americans (white) and African Americans (blacks) while knowing there are other divisions separating people. I felt the black-white divide demanded my attention. But, the animus many American Christians feel toward Muslims needs to be abolished too. And maybe my study of A Common Word will yield reminders of the call of Christ to love that can become identity markers in interracial friendships and encounters in the church I pastor. We Christians are called to, commanded to love our neighbors. The church is to be the community that witnesses to the world the unity and diversity of the body of Christ. We can do this when, within the church body, we see sacred neighbor love so powerfully that all who come in know from the start they are welcome and are at home among people who deeply care for them.
From Pastor May’s word on God’s love as the basis for creation to Eugene Peterson’s display of God as the supremely relational One to Dr. Volf’s smart, straightforward account of God as God is Love, the point is abundantly made. The root of who we are is love – God’s love. My son and I saw Wonder Woman, and we thoroughly enjoyed it, but I snickered at the end when her final conclusion was “the most important thing is love.” I smugly thought, “Well that’s just Hollywood cliché, its vapid fluffiness on full display. Wonder Woman kicks some serious bad guy butt and then in a reflection both hopeful and melancholy concludes, ‘the most important thing is love’? Seriously?”
Now, I’m saying the same thing.
I am because it’s how I was made. I was created by love (you know, 1 John 4:16, ‘God is love’). I was made in the image of the One who is love. He who made me knows me and in spite of my selfishness and impatience commands me to love my neighbor. He pours His Spirit and His love into me. Created and commanded, I must love. Also, I know that the hope for our church (HillSong) and for the church (Christians everywhere) is that we be the living embodiment of God’s love. Only then are we truly God’s church. And for peace and flourishing and joy, the world needs the church to truly be the church.
I can’t believe I am going to say it, but I have Cleve May, Eugene Peterson, Miroslav Volf, and Diana Prince’s endorsements (not to mention the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’s). And, seriously, who am I to question Wonder Woman? The most important thing really is love.