Love's Earthly Life

Tim Kumfer

Tim KumferApril 29, 2012

John 10:11-18 and 1 John 3:16-24

I want to take just a few minutes today to talk about love. And if there is time when I'm done hopefully some of you can talk about it too. Now I want to emphasize that what I'm working on here is very much in process - these thoughts are provisional. I know most of us take our preachers here at Eighth Day with a grain of salt but I encourage you to add a couple more just for today's message.

These two passages, both arising from John the Elder and the community which gathered around him, share an immediate resonance - to love as God loves is to lay down your life for another. As beautiful as this is, I immediately feel myself pushing back against piles and piles of dusty theology books, trying to wiggle and writhe around the usual readings. You can already hear them: God's love is perfect; ours is weak. Divine love is self-sacrificing; human love is self-serving. Agape is immaculate; eros inevitably sullied.

Rather than adding some more pages pointing towards their disjunction, what I want to do today is consider their correspondence. Perhaps the love of and between creatures can teach us more about God's love than we had earlier imagined.

I should say too that some of the impetus behind what I offer here is related to an allergic reaction I have developed to certain strands of common Christian talk. I think the language of self-sacrifice is often deployed in dangerous or delusional ways, especially for those of us who walk through this life carrying a fair amount of privilege. For instance, the church can often look at others and expect more from them without turning that critical eye back upon ourselves.  We can judge the poor and vulnerable for resorting to rhetorical or physical violence without examining the structural violence our lifestyles rest upon. Or we make some tough life choices on the basis of conscience and imagine ourselves to be candidates for a new chapter in Foxe's book of martyrs. I myself have been quite guilty of bandying about phrases like 'carrying the cross' without being willing to really consider what such statements would mean for my life.

Most disconcerting, though, are the ways in which the call to lay down your life can be curved in upon itself, serving to consolidate rather than relinquish the will to power. What do I mean by this? Well, to put it briefly, when the Good Shepherd title was transferred from Jesus to his earthly representatives - the priest and the king - something went seriously wrong. Placing all our trust in them we have become sheep rather easy to mislead, shedding much unnecessary blood. All this to say, Christian proclamations of self-sacrifice are historically fraught with danger, and its perhaps best not to begin there.

So if we start not with the heavenliness of agape but the earthiness of eros can we find a bridge? Is there any link between the everyday and the ultimate? How might our own affections relate to 'a love supreme'?  I was helped along in my thinking through these questions Monday night when I attended Wendell Berry's National Endowment for the Humanities lecture at the Kennedy Center. Entitled "It All Turns On Affection," his basic point that he returned to again and again was that the only way out of the cultural and ecological mess we're in is through close and caring attention to bodies, land, and the relationship between them. 'Economy' names not some endless engine of growth for getting the stuff we want but the very shape of our life together, with each other and with the earth. A healthy economy, a whole planet, is one which all turns on affection.

Looking at our passage from the Gospel of John with such concerns foregrounded enables us to see some things we otherwise might miss. What is the real difference between the hired hand and the good shepherd? Is it simply that the one is selfish - ultimately caring only about his own safety - and the other selfless - willing to lay down his life? If we think for a second about the pastoral economy of ancient Palestine the picture becomes a bit more complicated. Shepherds who served as hired hands would likely have worked for absentee landlords; urban elites that bought up large swaths of rural land through debt entrapment. To make good on their investment, these elites would then hire the newly landless peasants to work for them. So the hired hand would have worked in a situation of complete alienation, separated from their own land, subject to the rule of a scoundrel, and barely earning enough to scrape by. Not the kind of gig that makes you want to go the extra mile. In fact, it's the kind of set up that would make you want to sabotage.

The good shepherd presented here is one who both owns his sheep and knows them - a small herder who retains his family's ancestral plot of land. In Jesus' day just as our own, the small family farm faced enormous economic pressures and was an increasingly rare reality. Acting on a scale small enough for sympathy, the good shepherd knows each individual sheep from birth and has a deep knowledge of the gifts and detriments inherent in his patch of earth. He seeks to preserve a deeper harmony beneath the hustle and bustle of animals and the land. His relation to the herd is one of care, intimacy, and deep creaturely belonging. And his willingness to fend off the wolves, to face predators on their behalf, is not simply a result of his selflessness. For in the end the shepherd's future is deeply intertwined with that of his sheep - this is his livelihood after all. In other words, he's got some skin in the game - he is part of a creaturely community where what happens to another deeply affects him as well.

Now of course we're not simply talking about sheep here, although it's perhaps the best way to talk about what we're really trying to talk about. The Gospel of John employs the imagery of the good shepherd to describe the relationship of Christ to each of us, and 1 John picks up on the theme by transposing it to our relationships with one another. So this picture of affection and connection is trying to teach us something about God's love and the ways we as creatures might participate in it, might even circulate it.

One element we see here is an almost mystical sense of union. Jesus knows us just as the Father knows him; we belong to God more deeply than we may ever know. We belong too to one another - other sheep who we might not have imagined to be part of our fold share our same shepherd. 1 John contends that we can have a boldness before God and receive whatever we ask; we can know we are God's children and receive confirmation of this truth in our hearts.  Distrust is dissolved in divine love.

The second element is what I would call a militancy, all be it a nonviolent one. Abiding in this love with God and with other creatures, some things cease to make sense while others come clearer into view. 1 John is rather blunt - 'how does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses to share?' The point is not simply a moralist one, i.e. that if you're a Christian you've got to share. It's that if you have experienced this love you will recognize your kinship with other creatures and necessarily seek to care for them. You will work to dismantle all those elements that prevent their flourishing. And you will fend off the 'wolves' that would seek them harm, even if it may involve putting your body on the line.

The point I am circling around here today is a fairly simple one yet it is utterly serious. Facing a century in which several important questions will likely be worked out concerning the future of our life together, I think we must consider some of the essential building blocks of this bridge that might carry us from the hell we're headed for to the world we deeply desire. And the thesis I am working with is that we won't get there with heavy-handed calls to self-sacrifice or Christian principle, as much as the theologian in me wishes things worked that way. We will only get there by love - by building on our everyday affections and intimacies, recognizing our creaturely belonging, and ever extending our lines of connection and care.

Will we give some things up, letting what is unimportant fall to the wayside? Will our priorities change, finding our lives very different than we might have imagined? Will we stand defenseless before power, risking everything on behalf of another? Almost certainly if we continue to abide in love. But I doubt we'll immediately recognize what we're doing as self-sacrifice. I'm guessing we'll more likely see it as a logical conclusion of the love we already experience; a natural outcome of the love we know with God, other creatures, and the earth.

So with the few minutes left in our teaching time today, I want to invite you to respond to a question - what do you love? What do you want to preserve in this world, or build anew? Who are your kin, who are you called to care for?