The fire of God

Many Waters is a song Julie Lee first released in 2000, on an album recorded in the chapel at Downtown Presbyterian Church. It was the first song of hers I ever heard, and I became a fan the moment I heard her voice soar into the chorus the first time. I used to play it in the car and sing harmony in that little sanctuary of song, and when it was over, I felt like I’d been to church. No, I’m not going to play it, let alone sing it; I want to share some of the lyrics with you:

Love, set me as a seal upon your heart

As a seal upon your arm

Love’s as strong as death

Oh love’s as strong as death

Jealousy, well it’s as cruel as the grave

It consumes you like a fire

With an unforgiving flame

Then the chorus:

Oh but love,

Many waters cannot quench it

Many waters cannot drown it

When it’s true…[1]

Some of you studied Song of Songs this morning in Sunday school, and perhaps you heard echoes of that beautiful collection of love poetry in these lyrics.[2] Many Waters is a song for lovers as well as a passionate affirmation of faith for God’s Easter people; it plays beautifully on both levels. Love’s as strong as death, oh, love’s as strong as death – that is what we see when we look to the cross; that is what we see when we remember Jesus laying down his life for his friends, loving God, loving his disciples, loving all of us: love as strong as death. And then, on the third day, the Easter chorus rises, Oh but love, many waters cannot quench it, many waters cannot drown it – because love is stronger than death, and the life laid down in love is raised, and new life washes the world in joy and hope.

First John, from which one of today’s readings was taken, was written for communities whose faith and life together had been shaped strongly by the Gospel of John. We commonly refer to First John as a letter, but it’s more like a sermon on the great themes of the Gospel of John, a sermon written during trying times when theological differences in the community had led to deeper divisions and fractures.

There are two great themes in that Gospel: One, Jesus Christ is the full revelation of God’s own self. And two, Jesus commands those who believe in him to love one another. And the two are inseparable. Toward the end of today’s reading from First John it says, “This is God’s commandment, that we should believe in the name of God’s Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as Jesus has commanded us.”[3] It’s a single commandment, combining the two themes in a union of belief and action, heart and hand, knowing ourselves to be loved and loving one another. In Julie’s song, it’s “set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm,” because the love of God, the love revealed in the life of Jesus, is meant to redeem and renew the core of our identity, the heart, the defining center of who we are, as well as all that flows from it, namely our thinking, speaking, and doing. The Venerable Bede, an English monk who lived from 672 to 735, wrote

Note that here John gives us only one commandment, though he goes on in the next verse to speak about commandments in the plural, adding love to faith, since these can hardly be separated from each other. For in truth it is impossible to love one another in the right way if we do not have faith in Christ, just as it is impossible to believe in the name of Christ if we do not love one another.[4]

Some three-hundred years earlier, Jerome, a priest and scholar mostly remembered for his translation of the Bible into Latin, wrote,

When the [Apostle] John could no longer walk to the meetings of the church but was borne [there] by his disciples, he always uttered the same address to the church; he reminded them of that one commandment which he had received from Christ himself, as comprising all the rest, and forming the distinction of the new covenant, “My little children, love one another.” When the brethren [and sistren] present, wearied of hearing the same thing so often, asked why he always repeated the same thing, he replied, “Because it is the commandment of the Lord, and if this one thing be attained, it is enough.”[5]

You see, there’s a theme being played and replayed from generation to generation, from the Song of Songs to the life of Jesus, to the Gospel of John, to First John, to Jerome and the Venerable Bede, to countless sermons in countless gatherings of the church, to Julie’s song, and to this preacher’s retelling of it all, it’s a theme connecting all of life from the dawn of creation to its completion in glory, and the theme is love – love pouring from the heart of God and flowing without ceasing to the day when we, in countless variations, love one another the way we are loved.

“I give you a new commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”[6] And the writer of First John picks it up and tells us, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”[7] Jesus is the pattern. Laying down our lives for one another has a heroic ring to it, doesn’t it? What comes to mind are Christian martyrs bravely stepping into the arena to meet the lions. What comes to mind are men and women in exceptional circumstances, demonstrating exceptional faith and love. Martin Luther King, Jr., murdered in Memphis for his vision of the beloved community, laid down his life for us. Bishop Oscar Romero, murdered at the altar during mass for his witness to Christ’s love during years of government-sponsored terror in El Salvador, laid down his life for us. Sister Rani Maria, murdered by a hitman for her work with the landless poor in India, laid down her life for us. But laying down their lives wasn’t a single, heroic act of martyrdom; it was their life.

Jesus is the pattern, and Jesus didn’t wait until government and religious leaders came together in uncommon accord to condemn and execute him. He laid down his life for us from the beginning. With every word of his, with every gesture and touch, with every step, every breath he laid down his life for us.

How do we lay down our lives for one another? In First John, the answer is given in the form of a question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” We lay down our lives for one another, not in rare heroic moments, but in the everyday encounters of each week. It begins with seeing a brother or sister in need and not turning away. She is thirsty? We give her something to drink. He is hungry? We give him something to eat. They are strangers? We invite them to stay. Laying down our lives for one another we begin to see our lives and theirs — whoever they may be and whatever labels the world may have pinned on them — we begin to see our lives and theirs not as separate, but as inseparably connected in the love of God. We lay down our desire to live for ourselves. We lay aside our claim to own our lives and we let ourselves be re-created in the likeness of Christ.

In his essay An Experiment in Love, Dr. King writes about

an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object. It is the love of God operating in the human heart. It is a love in which [individuals seek] not [their] own good, but the good of [their neighbors]. [Such love] does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is entirely “neighbor-regarding concern for others,” which discovers the neighbor in every [person] it meets. … [It] makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both.[8]

Dr. King calls this unsentimental love “a willingness to go any length to restore community.”[9] We see and receive this kind of unsentimental love in Christ, and we participate in it in countless, everyday ways.

There’s a fire burning in the world, a fire the shroud of death cannot suppress, a fire the violence of the oppressor cannot smother, a fire sin cannot snuff. Many waters cannot quench it. Many waters cannot drown it. It’s the fire that lit the bush where Moses took off his sandals. It illumined a path in the the night for the Hebrew slaves on their way to freedom. It burned in the hearts of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. It flickers brightly wherever people stand up and raise their heads in hope. It’s the fire of God. May it burn in our hearts and illumine our path.

 

[1] Julie Lee / Country Gentlemen Music Pub. / SESAC / 2000. See https://julielee.org/music for all her recordings.

[2] See Song of Solomon 8:6-7

[3] 1 John 3:23

[4] On 1 John, Patrologia Latina 93: 105.

[5] Jerome (347–420), Comment. in Ep. ad Galat. c. vi.

[6] John 13:34

[7] 1 John 3:16

[8] Testament of Hope, 19,

[9] Ibid., 20.

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