During a recent chapel service at the Lutheran Center, Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director for Global Mission, shared his favorite Bible verse with us: “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
Jesus was in Jerusalem in the upper room praying with his disciples, modeling selfless service as he washed their feet, and preparing them for his glorification that would take place on the cross.
“He loved them to the end.” To his bitter end on the cross, but to the end of so much more—to the end of the deadly grip of sin, to the end of everything that would try to mar the image of God borne by every human being, to the end of death.
And Jesus loved them, 12 flesh and blood human beings who carried all the “stuff” people carry—passion and humor and courage, fear and doubt, the need to be seen and affirmed, great faith and quaking uncertainty. Jesus did not love the concept of disciples or the theory of people— Jesus loved them, Jesus loves us.
Jesus loved. How does one describe that? At my cousin’s wedding, the priest noted in his sermon that human language is too small for God. All the poetry in the world can’t express the love for one’s beloved or for a new baby or for family. All of the hymns ever written or sung can’t convey the love we have for God. Neither can words convey how much God loves us. It’s almost incomprehensible how much we are loved by God. It is too much to take in. But it is true.
This is the message that the Lutheran movement still has to speak to the rest of the world. God loves us. God means well for us and for the world. God’s love is deep and constant. And God’s love is not sentimental. The Incarnation was not a whim. Emmanuel, God with us, was a deliberate immersion into human brokenness in order to bring about healing and wholeness. “For while we were still weak … while we still were sinners … while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son …” (Romans 5:6-10).
God loves us. God means well for us and for the world. God’s love is deep and constant. And God’s love is not sentimental.
The Lutheran movement presents an alternative face of Christianity to the world. Too often the image of Christianity seen in popular culture is of a judgmental transactional God demanding perfection from an imperfect people, a people who, in desperation, work harder and harder to save themselves. Rules for purity are erected—pure theology and pure morality. Stark lines are drawn defining who is in and who is out. Faith becomes work. Righteousness is our righteousness achieved by ourselves.
Grace—God’s love freely given—is God’s work. It is not our doing. It is a gift. It is freedom. This is not for a minute to deny the truth of our sinfulness or that God does judge us and finds us falling seriously short. Grace doesn’t give us a free pass, nor does grace gloss over the reality of suffering and evil in the world. This grace, this freedom, makes it possible for us to realize the love of God in Christ in the world and in our own lives. And no human can set bounds on God’s grace.
Jesus loves his own and loves us to the end. Jesus doesn’t expect us to do the same—Jesus makes it possible for us to do the same. Therefore, we have nothing to fear and nothing to lose when we reject the notion of racial supremacy, when we welcome the stranger, when we confess that God alone is first. We can tell that story.
A monthly message from Elizabeth A. Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Her email address: email@example.com.