The Power of God’s Love
Sunday, May 14, 2023
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner
Romans 3:28-30, 5:1-11
I’d invite you to pray with me…
I recently saw the movie, A Man Called Otto, based on the Danish book, A Man Called Ove. It had Tom Hanks in it, so I figured it would be good. In it, Hanks plays Otto Anderson, the most rigid, ungracious, curmudgeon in the neighborhood. He’s shameless about yelling at and correcting people, and is completely intolerant of just about everyone. It was kind of jarring to see the guy who not so long ago played Mr. Rogers be so cruel to people!
But, what we soon find out about Otto is that he’s grieving the loss of his wife and all he really wants to do is die. He seemed to believe that the only source of love that mattered was now dead, and so he should be too.
The only problem is that his plans for death keep getting interrupted by unexpected life and undeserved grace. His neighbors, despite the way he treats them, keep embracing him – even when he doesn’t want them to. It’s his new neighbor Marisol, who takes this embrace to the next level. All his other neighbors know he’s grieving. They take him with a grain of salt. She doesn’t have a clue. She looks right past Otto’s crabby, crusty exterior and keeps trying to get at who he really is. She wedges her way into his life by helping him see that he is needed, that love is not dead. She asks to borrow Otto’s tools for her husband to fix things. She asks him to teach her how to drive. And she brings him delicious food just for being his curmudgeonly self. Otto finds her annoying, demanding, and intrusive at first, but the more she persists with curiosity and grace, the more human, and less inflexible and intolerant Otto becomes.
It’s kind of amazing what kind of power love has, isn’t it? This flesh-on-bone kind of love changes everything. And it isn’t just the stuff of Hollywood. The power of love is as old as Creation, when God breathed life into Adam, and gave the garden to him and to Eve to care for and steward. The power of God’s love is stronger than death, when Jesus resuscitated Lazarus from the grave, and showed what true and abundant life looked like to the 5,000 he fed with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. The power of God’s love took Rome’s instrument of humiliation and death on the cross and turned it into a symbol of hope and a way of life for those who place their trust in the risen Christ. The power of God’s love has caused Christians to care for the sick, and provide for the poor, to stand with the enslaved and oppressed, and seek peace and reconciliation throughout the world for 2,000 years.
When Paul says in our reading this morning, “Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us” he’s talking about the kind of love from God that isn’t conceptual or theoretical, it’s a flesh-on-bone, persistent love whose source has flowed toward humanity since the dawn of time. Paul writes that when we trust – or have faith – that this love from God is present in our lives, God offers peace that changes us and the world.
Deacon Stephanie shared in her sermon last week that there was a deep tension between the Jewish Christians who had been kicked out of the synagogues in Rome, and Gentile Christians who had started new church communities. Paul appealed to these early Christians to seek unity in their trust – their faith – in God’s love through Jesus. Faith is not just following a bunch of rules (like the Jewish Christians were prone to believe), or having particular knowledge about God (which the Greek Gentile Christians were prone to believe). Faith is trusting in such a way that it changes the way you live, the way you see the world, the way you seek life because of our trust in God’s power to bring life out of death. This life-giving, life-altering trust gives us peace from God.
Now, the people Paul wrote to would have been familiar with, and dependent not on peace from God, but from the Peace of Rome – the Pax Romana. That peace was secured by the Emperor through military might, and authoritarian control over the whole empire. It was designed to scare people into submission and obedience. This kind of peace, whether practiced 2000 years ago, or this week, is a cheap knock-off of the peace of God.
It’s tempting to go there though, isn’t it? In our minds and our politics – regardless of party – we’re tempted to trade security, at just about any cost, for peace. We’re just as dependent or more, on this kind of peace in our daily lives as Rome was. Please hear me, there is certainly a place for security and order in our shared lives as a society here and across the world, but as Christians, God gives us the gift of a deeper kind of peace in our individual and communal lives, that transcends the peace that world offers. Jesus said, “Peace I leave you. My peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
The peace Paul and Jesus spoke of was rooted in Jewish spirituality and practice. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. Shalom seeks a world without war and violence. It seeks security for all people, certainly. But it also casts a wider vision of healing and wholeness for broken relationships, for creation, for inner peace in ourselves, rooted in love for God and for neighbor. Shalom includes a vision for a world that isn’t made up of conquerors and the conquered, but rather a world where all have an equal opportunity to thrive where they live. This kind of peace is the peace that God gives as promise and gift to us through faith, and it is the peace God calls us to seek in our world that is too often broken by damaged relationships, desire for power, and inequality.
When I was pastor in Rochester, I worked with the worshiping community of South Sudanese refugees in my congregation. There are five South Sudanese worshiping communities in Lutheran churches in the area around Rochester. They came from different tribes, spoke different languages, and came from different Christian denominations. The only reason they were all Lutheran in America was that they received quilts from Lutheran World Relief in the refugee camps they were in when they first fled the country during civil war, and it was Lutheran Social Services who helped them resettle when they arrived in America. As one of my members told it, they wanted to be Lutheran in America because Lutherans loved them when no one else in the world cared what was happening to them.
Southern Sudan had been at war with Northern Sudan for the better part of 40 years. Most people in the country knew nothing but war and violence. When they finally gained their independence in 2011, it only took two years before the tribes of South Sudan, particularly the Dinka and Nuer tribes were at war with each other. They raided towns, they killed innocent people, they trained their children to take up weapons, but couldn’t teach them how to read.
The people in my congregation came from the Dinka tribe. Two other congregations nearby were from the Nuer tribe. At the height of the fighting in their home country these three churches’ leaders called their people to come together for worship and prayer. That afternoon I caught a glimpse of shalom. Five hundred people showed up on a Saturday afternoon. The leaders of the community called for an end to violence, they reminded each other of the unity they have in Christ. We worshiped as one people, we sang and danced to the rhythms of grace, embraced by the power of God’s love, and emboldened to live in shalom; even as some of their families were still at war with each other back home at that very moment.
The power of God’s love has been poured into our hearts, into our lives, through faith that despite the world’s continued warring, despite the grief we carry in our own hearts for losses that are too heavy to bear on our own, despite the groans of creation; that God’s peace dares to be present – and that this peace is always turning the world toward love.
Father Richard Rohr once said, “Christianity is a lifestyle – a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving.” This kind of love and peace isn’t always rewarded by the world. It doesn’t always match the rhythms of the mainstream. Instead, God’s love and peace is a counter beat to our broken world. May this rhythm live, and move, and have its being in us, and may it continue to transform our hearts and minds, so the world may learn to dance to God’s rhythm. Amen.