Wednesday, March 30, 2011
The Perfect Love that Loves Imperfect People
I well recall when my parents gave me the gift of the record album called the Goldberg Variations by pianist Glen Gould. Gould is regarded as one of the greatest pianists of all times and gave fresh interpretation to one of the grandest of Bach’s compositions – yet one that remained unfinished. As good as Gould was, he abandoned his concert career at age 31 and never performed in public again. The pressure of performance nearly crippled him. Geoffrey Rush played David Helfgott in the great movie “Shine” about another pianist left wounded by both his early success and a relentless demand for perfection placed upon him.
We might think that the pursuit of perfection is, after all, the very goal of religion. We might expect that God demands the price of perfection before He will receive us as His own and love us. Some see this as our quest in life – waiting for a perfect mate, perfect job, perfect happiness, a perfect life. Now I am surely not one to discourage the quest for excellence and yet this demand for perfection is a hopeless end, leading only to despair. God did not come to sift through humanity in pursuit of the perfect, holy, or good, but was determined to love sinners, to come for sinners, and to redeem sinners – a perfect love for imperfect people.
Christianity is not about the pursuit of perfection or our ascent to God but about the God who loved us while we were yet sinners and enemies and who descended to us. This God loved a quarrelsome people called Israel who complained to Him relentlessly and disobeyed Him regularly. This God loved a Samaritan woman at a well who never married yet had many husbands and offered her the water of life. This God loves sinners like you and me, who can never, ever measure up to His holiness and perfection. It is the surprise of His perfect love that it flows for imperfect, flawed, failed, and sinful people.
What we are talking about is the triumph of grace, the God who loves those unworthy of His affection. God meets us on the ground of our own weakness, infirmity, and sin. His love ought to be repelled by what He finds and yet His love moved Him to bear up our sin on His own shoulders and bestow upon us the grace of forgiveness, life and salvation. He loves us where we are but He does not leave us there. He declares us forgiven grants us the new birth of Holy Baptism. He plants His Spirit in our hearts that our fears may give way to faith. He directs our mind and hearts to that which is good, right, and holy, that this may become the desire we seek after with all our heart, mind, body and strength.
When we meet this perfect love for us imperfect sinners, how do we respond? The first mark of God’s perfect love at work in imperfect sinners is repentance. Repentance is not our effort to impress God but His grace working in us to acknowledge our sin, own it by confession, and grasp hold of the forgiveness Christ gives. The first fruit of His perfect love for imperfect sinners is always repentance. We come empty to this love, bidden by the Spirit, and there God claims us, just as this morning we saw that perfect love reach out through the baptismal water to name Matthew and Natalie as His own children. The living waters still flow to those who least deserve them and who know not where to find them until He directs us.
The second mark of God’s perfect love at work in us imperfect sinners is that we are sustained in hope no matter what comes our way. Through suffering and sorrow, in the midst of troubles and trials, beset by danger and death, we do not lose heart. We do not despair. The focus of our lives is not on the circumstances of the moment – be they good or bad – but upon the future God has bestowed upon us in this baptism. The holy joy that sustains our journey in faith is not getting what we want now but possessing eternity in Christ even in the midst of life’s greatest wounds and disappointments.
The third mark of God’s perfect love at work in us imperfect sinners is that we learn to love others as He has loved us. As God did not wait for us to become perfect before He loved us with the everlasting love of the cross, neither do we wait for the folks around us to be perfect before loving them as He has loved us. It is not that we are content with wrong, overlook evil, or accept sin. We love people as they are but we do not leave them where they are. We do not love the good or those who are nice or those who think like us or those who can do something for us. We love the imperfect, flawed and failed as God has loved us and we love them by telling them of the place where living water flows, where grace forgives, and where life is bestowed. We love them by sharing with them the good news of the cross and empty tomb.
Jesus met a woman at a well. According to the rules of holiness, He should have had nothing to do with her. Instead He engages her in conversation. He offers her to drink of the living water that gives eternal life. He exposes her sinful life but not to condemn her or push her away. He speaks of the grace that transcends right and merit and takes flesh for the sake of such sinners. This is the perfect love for fallen people, perfect flesh for sinful creatures, a holy Savior for unrighteous folks. This Messiah does not tell us what we must do but does for us what none of us deserve. He grants us the living water that fully refreshes, completely cleanses, quenches thirst, and becomes a well springing forth eternal life in all who receive it.
God’s love is perfect – He does not love us for who we are or what we could be but as we are – sinners. This is the love we meet in Christ. This is what melts our stone cold hearts, so quick to judge and so slow to love. Love does not wait for perfection but neither does love leave the sinner where it finds him. Today we celebrate that love met in the holy waters that give life and in the holy meal where the undeserving sit in honored place. Tomorrow we have the opportunity to show forth that love in the way we deal with one another. We will surely fail in love’s work, but let it not be for lack of desire or effort from us. And when we do fail, God meets us again with the perfect love that forgives and restores us to love one another again. Amen