Sermon: Is God’s Love Unconditional?
Scripture: John 3:16
Date: May 12, 2019
I have really wrestled with how I should approach these last few weeks of preaching before I ride into the sunset. My first thought was, as I was going through and packing up my sermon files, to pull out 4 or 5 of the best that I have preached down through the years, and just use those. Kind of a greatest hits approach. But a funny thing happened on the way to executing that plan. God stepped in. And he placed on my heart that instead of just repeating things that I had already shared in other settings, that what I really needed to do was to talk about things that I have wanted to, but for one reason or another have been too chicken to do so. So buckle up because I fully expect there to be some turbulence along the way. And if you take exception or even offense at what I say, just remind yourself that in a few weeks I’ll be gone to that place where heretical preachers often go – retirement. Here we go.
And since this is Mother’s Day, I thought I would start with love. And more specifically – unconditional love. All of my ministry I have heard about, learned about, taught about and preached about the unconditional love of God. But I will now confess, that through the years, there has been this nagging little question that has stuck in the corner of my brain, never to be dealt with, until now apparently. And that is: “Is it really? Is God’s love really unconditional?” So I searched the scriptures for all of the references to unconditional love and what I discovered was that there aren’t any that specifically talk about love that is unconditional. Now there are certainly a lot of passages which talk about love, but if you read them carefully, few if any, really describe love as completely unconditional. Now stay with me here. Don’t head for the exits yet. Before you do that, I want you to take your order of worship out of the bulletin, and turn it over. There are four questions listed on the back. The first one is “How would you define unconditional love?” And the second is: “Which, if any, scripture passages have led you to that definition of unconditional love?” Jot them down in the space there. Now we’re not going to take a lot of time for this but take a few moments to think about those first two questions. If you would like to turn and consult with your neighbor there on the pew, feel free to do that.
(Project the two questions on the same slide during this time.)
If you “google” unconditional love, the definition that is given is pretty straightforward. Here it is: “Unconditional love is affection without any limitations, or love without conditions. Love which has no bounds and is unchanging.” But you see, here’s what I discovered as I read through the scriptures, particularly those that we usually think of in terms of unconditional love. And that is that most of them imply that there are conditions placed on the love of God. Consider John 3:16 for instance. This is one of the most familiar passages of all the scriptures that speaks of love. Let’s say it together: For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. But look at that. Is that really a description of unconditional love or does it say that before we can experience the unconditional love of God we must first believe? While you’re contemplating that – think about this. A second familiar passage concerning love is the response that Jesus gives when He is asked: Which is the greatest commandment? And He responds that the greatest commandment is to “Love God with all your heart, and mind, and soul.” And then He goes on to say that there is a second that is nearly as important and that is that we should “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Is that really a description of unconditional love or is Jesus saying that you can’t really experience unconditional love until two conditions are met. First, you’ve got to be all in. You’ve got to want to be loved with all that you are – heart, mind and soul. And then to emphasize that He goes on to say that you can’t love others unconditionally unless you love yourself, unconditionally. You see, it seems to me that our culture often refers to Jesus’s admonition to Love our neighbor with out the qualifiers in order to cover a multitude of sins. So is that really unconditional love. And, of course, the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians in what has come to be known as the Love chapter, Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. I think that this is as close to a definition of unconditional love that we have in scripture. But here’s the thing that we need to understand about this passage. I don’t think that Paul is telling the Corinthians that this is what love is, as much as he is saying that this is what love ought to be. You see, the Corinthians were a troubled and conflicted church. And so when Paul lists these attributes of love: patience, kindness, without envy, etc., I don’t think he is commending the Corinthians for experiencing and practicing love in this unconditional way. I think he is describing love in this way in contrast to the way that some in the Corinthian community are practicing love. God’s love is intended to be without condition, but the reality is that we human beings have always added conditions to it. God’s love is not meant to justify the way we live with and treat one another, but rather call us to account for the way we love others and ourselves. I think that Paul is saying to the Corinthians that your impatience, and lack of kindness, and the envy that you give into, and your arrogance and pride, and your inability to respect and honor one another, and your selfishness, and anger, and evil actions, and your lies, place limits, and barriers and conditions on the love that God has for each one of us. That while God’s desire is to love us completely, the reality is that we place conditions on that love through our unbelief, and our inability to love Him with our whole heart and mind and soul, or to even love ourselves, or by being impatient and unkind and envious and prideful – and the list goes on. These are the conditions that we place on God’s love. And so as I come to the close of my active ministry, I think what I have come to understand is that God’s love can not truly be unconditional as long as you and I continue to place our conditions on it.
For instance, our sin places conditions on God’s unlimited love. Consider Adam and Eve. As I understand the creation story, they were created so that God would have someone to love. It was as simple and complicated as that.
I love the way that many years ago, an African American poet by the name of James Weldon Johnson put it in describing the creation story. He wrote this in his poem entitled The Creation:
Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that he had made.
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.
Then God sat down—
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!
And so creation emanated not from the mind of God, but from his heart. And Adam and Eve didn’t have to do a thing to be loved by God because that’s the very reason they were created. But then they introduced sin into God’s unconditional love – taking a bite from the forbidden fruit – and everything changed. Adam and Eve were the first who placed conditions on God’s love and because of that they were forced to leave paradise and toil to survive in this world. And from that moment on, humanity has been working to return to that place of unconditional love. You see, when we sin we challenge the very heart of God. We are saying, in essence, will you still love me God even if I do this which I know is outside of your will for me. Sin contradicts the very reason we were created in the first place. Our sin does not change God’s need and desire to love us, as much as it rejects our need to be loved by God. The unconditional love of God does not justify our sin. It is not the assurance that God is going to love me no matter what I do. The fact that God loves me does not condone my sin, but rather His love opens a path for me to be forgiven and restored. John writes: In this is love not that we loved God, but that God loved us and gave His son for the atonement of our sins.”
Today is Mother’s Day, of course. And I was blessed to have a mother whose love was the closest that I have ever known to unconditional love in my life on this earth. No matter what I did, I knew that in the end she would continue to love me. But that didn’t mean that there weren’t times when I placed conditions on that love. There were many times as I was growing up that I disobeyed her, and disappointed her and defied her. Times when I tested her love. There were a few times when I went so far astray, that for a moment I wondered if she could ever love me again. But, like the prodigal’s father she was always ready to forgive and celebrate my return from that far country of disobedience and defiance. I believe that one of the greatest examples of unconditional love that we have in the scripture is the Father in the story of the prodigal son. Think about all of the conditions that the younger son had placed on the Father’s love. By demanding his share of the estate, he was in essence telling the father that he was dead to him. And then he rejected everything the father had worked so hard to build for him – all the comforts of home – to strike out into the unknown world because in his mind, even though he didn’t know where he was going or what he would experience – the message was loud and clear – anything has to be better than this. And then he rejected his heritage – the very faith in which he had been raised and chose to hang out with the pigs which was strictly forbidden by the faith. You see, when he left home, he fully believed that he was leaving behind the love of the father. Surely the father could not continue to love him through the lifestyle he was choosing to live. But how wrong he was. Because no matter where he went or what he did his father continued to love him in spite of the life he had chosen. And so when he was finally ready to accept the father’s love, he went home. Jesus said he came to his senses. And two things happened. First, the fattened calf was sacrificed to atone for the conditions that the son had placed on the Father’s love. His sin. And secondly, a great celebration broke out. You know more and more we hear from people that they have dropped out of church because they feel like the church is too judgmental. That Jesus loved everyone and so whatever we choose to do with our lives, whatever lifestyle we choose to live, whatever sin we engage in, is okay because Jesus loves me. So the church should not judge me, because Jesus doesn’t judge me. But I think too often we confuse judgement with condemnation. Think of all of the people that came to Jesus to be healed of a variety of afflictions and how often Jesus perceived that the root of their problem was actually sin. And so to the lame man that friends lowered through the roof to be healed of his paralysis, Jesus acted in a loving way toward him and healed him, and then says, now that you have been healed, take up your mat and go and sin no more. You see the implication, the judgement that Jesus made was that it was his sin that ha caused him to be in the state he was in. Not that God had paralyzed him as punishment, but that his guilt had brought him to that paralyzed state. To the woman at the well, after discussing the sinful lifestyle that she had been living that had caused her to be unwelcome among her own people, Jesus concludes the conversation with the admonition to go and sin no more. And the story of the woman who was guilty of adultery that the men brought to Jesus to be stoned to death, clearly illustrates the difference between judgement and condemnation. To the men Jesus says, in order to follow the law and condemn this woman to death, you must first be free from sin. So having made the judgement that there were none there who were not guilty of sin, he invites any that are sinless to cast the first stone. And when none of them can do that, he turns to the woman and says no one condemns you, and neither do I, so you need to go and don’t sin anymore. I think, in Jesus’ eyes, judgement is often the beginning of acting lovingly, because it calls us to have a change of heart. In truth, there can be no justice, or redemption, or healing, or forgiveness or grace, without some degree of judgement. Jesus went to the cross because he judged us all guilty of sin and in need of atonement for that sin. When we say that our behavior, no matter what it may be, is justified by Christ’s love for us, we are essentially denying the power of the cross. I do not come to the church to validate my sin, but rather to hold me accountable for it. Not to condone my lifestyle but rather to redeem it. Because what I have come to understand is that it is grace and forgiveness that makes the love of God truly unconditional. God does not love us based on what we do (either good or bad) but instead loves us because of who we are, or who we were intended to be. And sometimes that means he loves us in spite of what we do. Unconditional love does not deny or ignore our sin, but rather recognizes that we are all sinners, that we all try to add conditions and stipulations to God’s love for us and others, but that through His great grace and forgiveness, we can all be redeemed and transformed. I suspect that many of those who claim that they have been hurt by the church, don’t really understand what the unconditional love of God is really all about and don’t understand that the church, in the words of one preacher “isn’t a collection of saints, but of sinners redeemed by grace.” That’s how God loves us and it is how we are to love others. You know, I knew that my mother would love me no matter what, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t times when she was disappointed, even angry, with the choices I made. Sometimes her love for me called on me to account for my actions. Her unconditional love for me was both formative and sometimes transformational. Look again at the Toolbox on the back of your order of worship because there is a third question there which I think really gets at the heart of understanding what Unconditional love is. Because to be loved unconditionally by God, you must be willing to be loved in that way and that means that we need to stop placing conditions on God’s love for us. So What conditions are you placing on God’s unconditional love?
Sometime ago two women appeared on the Mother’s Day episode of one of those daytime talk shows. Both of the women appeared to be somewhere around 40 years old. They were both nice looking, one was blond, the other was brunette. Both were mothers. But there was a strange bond that linked the two women–for you see, the brunette had killed the blonde lady’s daughter. The brunette lady confessed that day that she was an alcoholic who had finally gotten her life together. But not before she had done some tragic damage to people around her. She had three children of her own, who, when the alcohol was in control of her life, she tragically neglected. But even worse, one day she had gotten behind the wheel of a car in a drunken state and plowed into a car carrying the other woman’s young daughter and killed her. How would you feel toward a drunk who had killed your only daughter? How would you feel toward the person whose irresponsibility had robbed you of the one person you loved most in the world? What would you do with that kind of grief, and anger, and rage? I don’t know what you or I would do in this situation, but here is what this lady did: she forgave the woman who had killed her daughter. She not only forgave her in her mind; she reached out in love to this sad woman who had taken her daughter’s life. She helped this woman deal with her own remorse, helped her break her dependence on alcohol, helped her take control of her life and become a loving mother and a responsible member of the community. And the host of the show asked in obvious awe, “How did you do this? How did you forgive this woman who had done you such a terrible wrong?” And this nice-looking blonde lady said, “I had to.” And then she added, “Because Someone once forgave me.” And she went on to say “And because I have experienced the unconditional love of God in my life, I had to share it with someone else.” Wow! Have you ever experienced unconditional love? Or do you spend your life, erecting barriers, and denying God’s love, placing conditions on God’s unconditional love. Because here’s what I know, and that is that God’s greatest desire is simply to love you -without strings, love you without expectations, love you not because of something you’ve done, but simply and solely because you are you. Because you were created to be loved by God completely, and forever, and without condition. Will you let Him love you in that way?