“I Will Show You The Most Excellent Way” – Stage 4: The Way of Love
(Based on Job 42:1-6, I Corinthians 13:1-13, Galatians 5:6b)
A Message Offered by Toby Jones to the People of ChxUCC on March 14,2021
So far we have traveled with Brian McLaren through three of his four stages of faith. In stage one, we express our faith through beliefs. We subscribe to and sign off on a list of “right beliefs,” and that constitutes our faith. In stage 2 we begin to express our beliefs through spiritual activities: Bible studies, prayer, retreats, and reading. In stage 3, as we saw last week, our faith is primarily expressed through our doubts and our tough, often unanswerable questions. And finally, in stage 4, we begin to express our faith in what Paul calls “the most excellent way” – through love. Stage 4 faith is all about love.
As most of you know, Paul is responsible for over 2/3rds of the New Testament. And despite his verbosity and penchant for the long, drawn-out argument, when push came to shove, Paul always came back to same 4-letter word: L-O-V-E. In chapter 5 of Galatians, he writes this: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” For Paul, when all was said and done, the ONLY thing that counted was love. And then he begins his most famous chapter of all – I Corinthians 13 – with these words: “And now I will show you the most excellent way…” And, of course, he ends his incredible hymn about love with these words: “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Paul elevates love even above faith and hope!
In case any of us didn’t notice, Jesus did the exact same thing throughout his entire ministry – and not just with his words, but with his actions as well. The Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, the parables – they’re all about love. Jesus wasn’t interested in people’s beliefs; he never asked anyone what they believed. He never once held up a list and said, “To be my follower, you must believe these things.” Instead, he exemplified and called his disciples to the path of love.
In one of my favorite sections of McLaren’s book, Faith After Doubt, he has a little fun with the scriptures, revealing how much we misread and misinterpret them. He takes several passages about love and changes the words, so they are suddenly about “correct beliefs” to make his point that even though Jesus was all about love, we tend to be all about beliefs. He starts by misquoting James, the brother of Jesus: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to have correct beliefs, and to affirm liturgies, hierarchies, and creeds that reflect those beliefs.” Do you remember the actual quote? “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” There is nothing about belief in it.
Here’s another one from John: “Beloved, let us hold to correct beliefs because correctness comes from God; everyone who believes the required statements is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not confess the right beliefs does not know God, for God is correctness.” Do your remember how the actual passage goes? “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Again, absolutely nothing about belief.
A Christian’s spiritual journey really is all about love, folks. McLaren puts it this way. “Looking back on my own spiritual pilgrimage, I have come to see ‘the still more excellent way of love’ as the telos – the end point – whose gravitational pull has been drawing me through Simplicity, then through Complexity, then downward through Perplexity, and then deeper still, toward an experience that is too profound for words, the experience of Harmony.”
My own experience has confirmed what McLaren is saying here. I used to be so zealously devoted to my own sense of correct beliefs. I studied like crazy to shore up the beliefs I held. I got to the point where I could argue and quote Bible verses with the best of them. Looking back, I must have thought that my Christian faith was something I needed to defend, like it was territory God has helped me carve out, and I needed to fence it off so nobody else could attack it. In my first two stages of faith, people and how I treated them were not nearly as important as protecting and defending my beliefs. That’s why I could condemn homosexuals. I didn’t look at them as people or as God’s children; I looked at homosexuality as an issue, totally depersonalized and related to my structure of correct belief. The same was true of how I looked at other religions. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews weren’t people or fellow children of God; they were categories, outsiders who would never enter the kingdom of God, a kingdom I thought was reserved for me and those who believed exactly what I believed. My beliefs led me – almost required me – to dehumanize and categorize others.
But then…life happened. Circumstances changed. Relationships emerged, unfolded, and bumped up against my beliefs and against the fences I’d constructed to keep people out. I told you a story two weeks ago, about my gay friend and Bible Study leader Michael and how that encounter changed me. I could tell you dozens of other stories about friends, colleagues, and students I’ve had from other religions, other races and creeds who have changed me, loved me, and I them. This is why McLaren talks about love as a gravitational pull that has been working on him throughout his faith journey, pulling him through all the stages. I’m starting to see God’s love as a river, a flowing, winding river…and we’re all on it. It’s moving all of us. We may not always realize it. We may not always sense its motion or its direction. But make no mistake; it’s working on all of us, and sooner or later, Love will have its way with us. Love will expand us and add the most important rings of all to our tree of faith.
McLaren puts it this way. “A new center was emerging for me, a center that didn’t require agreement to long lists of beliefs, but rather required my heart to grow deeper in faith expressing itself in love…This new center invited me to grow deeper in love for myself, a self that my inherited theology had taught me to assess with a strange mixture of shame and fear…This same center invited me to deepen my love for the earth…And I gradually came to see that the love of God was not separate from the other loves of neighbor, self, and creation but was, in fact, the love I encountered and experienced in all these other loves…It was love all the way down, love all the way up, love all the way out, and love all the way in.” This is why McLaren calls stage 4 “harmony” – everything comes together in love.
You know, as I think about this harmony, this river of love, this gravitational pull of love that we’re all subjected to, it occurs to me that every adult I’ve ever known – including myself- who has significantly changed or altered his/her beliefs for the better, it has always been because of love, because of a significant relationship, like the woman in my old church who was anti-gay…until her own grandson came out…Like a Catholic man I knew who was fiercely anti-abortion…until his own teenage daughter came home pregnant…Like my cousin who was anti-Muslim…until he wound up with a Muslim business partner who turned out to be one of the kindest, most honest and ethical men he’d ever known, not to mention incredibly faithful and loving.
This is God’s plan, folks, for all of us…to move us down the river of love, putting loving relationships in our lives that test and then break through our beliefs. This river of love is never going to stop flowing. We can try all we want to stop it, get off it, damn it up; but it will just keep flowing. That’s what God’s love does. The worst thing we can possibly do is to try to damn up the flow of love. God’s river of love is supposed to flow into and out of us freely and constantly, and God help the person who tries to stop its flow.
There’s a great passage in Dostoyevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov. The wise priest in the story, Father Zossima, captures what Stage 4 faith and Paul’s “most excellent way” are all about. “Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth.” Zossima continues, “Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in all things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.”
In Stage 4 faith, folks, we are caught up in the beautiful harmony of love. Love is the primary force in this universe. Love is what compelled God to create the world in the first place. Love is what led God to create people to enjoy all that She created in love. Love is what motivated God to give us the 10 commandments to protect us against anything that would undercut community. And love is what empowered and informed every single thing that Jesus said and did. So, of course love is the ultimate destination of our faith journey. It’s where we’re all heading.
When I began this study of McLaren’s book and these 4 stages of faith, I assumed that it would be by my own efforts, by my own work that I would progress through these stages. But as I near the end of this book, I’m starting to see that just as a tree doesn’t make itself grow through its own efforts, neither is our spiritual growth something we are fully in control of. As I look back on my 50-year journey through these stages, it occurs to me that I have been led through these stages, pulled by God’s primary force of love. My progression through simplicity, complexity, perplexity, and harmony was precipitated by people, circumstances, and events that unfolded naturally in my life. The rings on my tree are not the results of my own effort but are formed by the natural unfolding of my life on God’s river of love.
If we believe that God is love, that love is the primary active force in this universe, then it only makes sense that love is where we’re all heading. If God is love, then God’s deepest desire for us all is that we would come to love all of creation, every grain of sand, as Father Zossima said. There are no limits to this kind of love, and there are no fences or outsiders. May we become a church that is about one and only one thing: faith expressing itself in love. Amen.