God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Theologians have long held that love is the cohesive bond of the three persons of the Trinity. This is pure love as described by St. Paul in the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians: this is love that is patient and kind, love that is neither jealous nor boastful, love that is neither arrogant nor rude, love that does not insist on its own way, love that is neither irritable nor resentful, love that does not rejoice in the wrong but rejoices in the right, love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, this love never ends, this love is holy.
This love permeates all three persons of the Triune God to the extent that the Apostle John can say that “God is love.” (I John 4:16) This is that wonderful self-giving kindness and affirmation that unconditional positive regard that we know from the Greek as agape.
And if the bond of the Trinity is this agape love, then I would like to reflect on one aspect of this holy love and that is vulnerability. And if one is vulnerable then one is subject to be hurt and to experience loss, even great loss, and the loving response to loss is grief. It is the grief of the Father when beholding his Son suffer and die on the cross, it is the grief of the Son upon noting the great sinfulness of our human condition, it is the grief of the Holy Spirit when violence and hatred become all too common in our interactions. The collective heart of the Blessed Trinity grieves and breaks especially when we humans submit to our lower natures, when we succumb to temptations, when there is the whiff of sulfur that wafts up from Hell and the enemy rejoices. And the great remedy for all this grief is love, an irony because it makes the all powerful, all knowing God vulnerable in a holy way. It is the love that is spoken of by St. John in our Gospel lesson when we read that: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.
With love there is always risk. The risk of being hurt, and yet if love does not reign supreme, then we are in a wretched place. In God’s call to us to love him in return and to love our neighbor as ourselves, we often fall short. Sometimes our vulnerability makes us so very weary. We fall victim to disease, distress, dryness, depression, abandonment, despair. We can easily feel overwhelmed. And when we are overwhelmed, we often have something other than love at the forefront of our lives.
The prophet Jeremiah spoke to this in the 12th chapter of the book that bears his name. He asks: “If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you do in the swelling of the Jordan?” (Jer. 12:5)
Jeremiah is talking about being hunted, about giving your all in escaping, by being exhausted by the ordeal. Imagine that your enemies, in this case the foot soldiers of Babylon, have been tracking you down, trying to kill you and you’re “done in” after outrunning them to safety only to look up and find that they have called in the cavalry and they are now hunting you down on horses.
They have found you and they are about to capture and kill you, so you flee once more and in your great fatigue you keep stumbling, and finally you’ve made it to the river’s edge, the boundary to home and safety. But once you get there, you see that the Jordan is in flood stage. The roaring waters are deep and swift and treacherous. What do you do? Jeremiah asks how will you fare if you have to cross the roaring river on foot when you can’t even keep your balance on dry ground? Panic overcomes you and you fall into despair.
Jeremiah has been experiencing some of this as the Children of Israel are being taken into captivity as slaves by the Babylonians. Some have escaped, trying to return home across the Jordon but they are being captured and killed. In this passage the prophet is railing at God, bewailing how unfair life can be. He is crying out: “Lord it is too much, I cannot go on!” And then his heart becomes still and he is chagrined because he realizes that this is something that is so very common in our human condition. And God is there grieving with him, with us, because God’s love has made him vulnerable. It’s akin to the love of the Blessed Virgin as she watches her son being hammered to the cross. The Holy ones know what it is like to be vulnerable and aching.
We get upset because God doesn’t do what we want; he isn’t delivering us as we demand. But he is here with us, always. We must remember that the day of redemption, salvation, is nigh but it is not here yet. We get frustrated as things are often overwhelming in their unfairness. But there it is, a product of our broken and sinful world, today’s world.
In today’s world, I ask you, what would you do if you were a citizen of Syria and you were hit by a ceaseless bombardment of mortar rounds and no one is there to help and worse, the attackers are preventing anyone from coming to your aid. Filth and disease and death are everywhere. There is no relief. And then more shells start landing again and again and again, and you can’t find your children, and your sobbing prayers seem to go unheeded. This is true vulnerability. This is what it is like to be a bombing victim in London or a stabbing victim on a Portland Light Rail train. This is what it is like to be a family member of the victims of such atrocities.
I am no chirpy optimist, horrible things happen all the time in this broken and fallen world. The task before us is to be realistic without being cynical. Sometimes that is a real challenge for me and yet I confess that the older I get and the more I see, the more I am amazed at the tenderness and kindness of the love of God.
Embracing this is the great conviction of the faith, that our time here on earth is transitory and that our hope and home is in heaven. You may think you believe in that, but wait until a loved one dies violently, and that belief is sorely tried. Lower your dear one into an open grave and you will learn what true believing means.
But never forget that we have wonderful hope and help. Not only do we have the Triune God who conveys love in so many ways. We also have the angels and saints who are constantly intervening for us; and of course our sisters and brothers in Christ here on earth.
In closing I want to remind you that each of us can get so self-preoccupied that we become absorbed with our own agendas and we lose the big picture, the call to love God and others. For perspective, have you noticed in your readings of the lives of the saints that there is almost never mention of the folks back home who grieve for a martyred family member? But there is a great deal written about the saints in glory. Even Dante, who focused on the terrors of hell, went up on a hill. And suddenly he is confronted with a strange sound. “What’s that?” he asked. And his guide smiled. “Some happy soul,” he said, “has burst through into victory, and all the heavenly host is singing praises to God with great jubilation.” It’s tough to keep this in mind when the blow falls. But we are in this together and like the three persons of the Trinity, love is what binds us together, whether in sharing the Eucharist or chatting over coffee and donuts or bringing comfort and offering prayer when the there is so much hurt and desperation. We experience our Trinitarian God who is love; it’s what keeps Christians together; it’s what keeps us together and keeping this in mind puts everything else in its proper place.