Love Wins – July 30, 2017
Romans 8:26-39 Years ago as I was nearing the end of my seminary studies, I was chatting with a few friends when I said something about how I saw myself. I don’t remember the specifics of the topic or what I said but what I do remember, vividly, was one of my friends protesting: “Really?!? That’s not how I see you at all!” I remember being taken aback, especially as he went on to describe more positive qualities or personality traits he saw them in me, than I had expressed.
It has become something of defining moment for me… not because of the topic, which I don’t remember… but because of the choice I was presented with. I could cling to my way, my version of who I am… or I could choose to trust my friend and at least entertain the possibility that he could be right about me and I could be wrong. In such situations, I very much believe we need to consider the source and the thing was, this was a friend who was a kindred spirit and who I knew to be thoughtful and wise to the point that he could very well know me better than I knew myself. At that time of my life, trusting his opinion about me instead of my own meant choosing grace and love, rather than my own self-judgement. For that day, I decided to to let go of being right, and let love win instead.
When I reviewed the readings early last week, the summary that came to mind was “love wins,” exemplified in the conclusion of our passage from Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In a nutshell: Love wins. It reminded me of a book with that title that I had heard of but not read. The author is Rob Bell and a moment later I discovered that it was available at Chapters, so with my curiosity piqued, off I went to get it.
The full title is actually: Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. It’s an easy, beautiful read. Rob Bell is one of the thought leaders of the new evangelicals in the US. He is a gifted, charismatic, pastor and preacher who began and built a mega-church in Michigan early in the 21st century. He published Love Wins in 2011, it became a New York Times bestseller and Bell was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people that same year. That year he also stepped down from leading the church he’d started and now works on a variety of projects, including writing and speaking engagements… I actually got to hear him speak last October when I went down to Indianapolis for a conference. He’s mesmerizing and puts a sermon together brilliantly.
Love Wins reads like a series of sermons, poems almost, as Bell develops a decidedly not systematic theology. It’s theology written by a pastor so it reads quite differently than academic work. I’m sure there are many who have written critiques! But it is undeniably and profoundly theological. He begins with exhaustive series of questions about classic understandings of the Gospel that makes even me uncomfortable. They are questions most of us have asked, at one time or another, but have not collected all in one place. He goes on to explore the ideas of heaven and then hell and what happens when we die. He writes about the cross and resurrection and Jesus as “the ultimate exposing of what God has been up to all along.” (148) And what God has been up to all along, God’s ultimate purpose for the world, involves reconciliation, return, unity, the whole world, and individual hearts, being put back together. He writes: “This world is being redeemed, the tomb is empty, and a new creation is bursting forth right here in the midst of this one…” and he describes this new reality, in part referencing some of our parables today: “[It’s] like yeast, working its way slowly and quietly, and steadily, through the dough… the kingdom is like a mustard seed that grows and grows and grows until it’s a massive tree. Not everybody sees it, not everybody recognizes it, but everybody is sustained by it.” (160-1)
Bell also writes about God and a good news story better than a story of judgement. “Hell,” Bell writes, “is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story. We all have our version of events. Who we are, who we aren’t, what we’ve done, what that means for our future. Our worth, value, significance. The things we believe about ourselves that we cling to despite the pain and agony they’re causing us.” (170-1) Our story about ourselves might be one of shame or some other version of “not good enough” or our story might include its flip side of ego, arrogance, pride. Either way, hell is when we cling to our version. Instead, Bell writes, “What the gospel does is confront our version of our story with God’s version of our story… It begins with the sure and certain truth that we are loved. That in spite of whatever has gone horribly wrong deep in our hearts and has spread to every corner of the world, in spite of our sins, failures, rebellion, and hard hearts, in spite of what’s been done to us or what we’ve done, God has made peace with us.” (171-2)
The book ends with an invitation: “Our invitation, the one that is offered to us with each and every breath, is to trust that we are loved and that a new world has been spoken about us, a new story is being told about us.” (195)[Continue with paragraph at the bottom of 195… through to the end…]
It is a contemporary way of describing the same love in which Paul expresses such confidence today: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
For in the end, and in every day we let it, love wins.