For the longest time I misread the meaning of Paul’s passage on the love of Christ. It was the “of” that threw me. I took it to mean our love of God, not God’s love of us. Thus, trial or persecution or threats should not shake our love. No creature should come between us and our love for God, no power should overcome us. Love, in this reading, was a task to do, an achievement to be strived for. Our faith was a noble task of steadfast love on our part.
It is quite clear, however, that Paul is saying something else: nothing in existence can ever separate us from the love that God, revealed in Jesus, has for us. Not only does the first interpretation miss the boat by focusing on our attitudes and desires; it fosters one of the most persistent mistakes about our faith. Christian faith is not primarily about something we do for God. It is about what God does for and in us. It is not so much an account of human aspiration as it is a revelation of divine desire.
The covenant that Isaiah promised to David’s progeny could not be bought or earned. It was there for the taking, like water for the thirsty to drink. It was the gift of food that need not be purchased, wine and milk without cost. All we need do is accept the offer.
This could be troubling. Does it mean that we don’t have to work at all? Is our faith effortless? Are our actions, good or sinful, inconsequential in the eyes of God?
It certainly seems not. After all, the dragnet parable about the reign of God from this week’s longer gospel reading suggests that we humans perform both good and evil acts.
More troubling still, it seems that at the end of the world there will be a host of angels who will separate the wicked from the just and cast the wicked into a fire, where they will grind their teeth. That statement sounds as though we actually can be separated from the love of God. It also sounds scary.
What’s going on here? Is it possible that the refusal of the gift, the rejection of God’s love, can separate us? Is faith in the promise, hope in the covenant, acceptance of the love, the work we must do, the only effort we must make to avoid damnation? Of that I’m not sure; it raises the awesome question whether anyone is eternally lost.
But I do believe the words of the psalmist suggest an answer: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. The Lord is good to all and compassionate toward all his works. The Lord is just in all his ways and holy in all his deeds. The Lord is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth.”
Jesus, his heart moved by compassion, cured the sick. More tellingly, when his disciples wanted to dismiss the pressing crowd to search for food, he told his followers to offer their own food freely. Five loaves and two fish fed thousands, the fragments filling twelve bushels. Maybe there is such a thing as a free lunch.
Somewhere in the mystery of God is an unlimited bounty, whether it makes sense to us or not. This God we meet in Jesus just does not work according to our ways. It may not make for good business, it may even be bad law, but whatever else it is, it seems to be God’s way of loving.