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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Romans 5:1-5
May 26, 2013 - Trinity Sunday

         “I just loved it!” gushed the woman next to her as the credits were rolling. The movie reviewer thought “Really?” If the reviewer hadn’t been required to write a review of the southern gothic teen romance “Beautiful Creatures,” she would have left an hour before. She had been checking her watch, praying for the end. But there’s “no accounting for taste,” she thought. Here was somebody who “just loved it.”

         As we come to the third, last, and greatest of the theological virtues, we face the daunting fact that in English, as in many languages, we mean dozens of very different things by the word “love.” You can love a film, love your child, love a fishing rod, love an old sweater, love a friend, love your dog, love chocolate, love country-western music, love your country, and love your wife or husband. As a Christian you would want to say that you love God. What could all those different “loves” have in common?

         One popular solution among Christians has been to suggest that there is in fact nothing in common between all the different forms of love. When Christians talk about love, they say, we need a different word to distinguish what we’re talking about. So they borrow a Greek or Latin word to try and distinguish the highest and best form of love from lower forms such as liking a corny movie or craving sweets.

         You will regularly hear Christian love labeled as agape-love, using a Greek word, believing that it denotes some higher and purer, more selfless form of love, that it denotes the way God Himself loves. Or, not too long ago, English speakers used the word “charity,” derived from the Latin caritas to mean a better, higher sort of Christian love. The problem is that meanings shift, and today “charity” almost always means giving to the needy and nothing more.

         But I’d like to join Josef Pieper today in saying that we don’t want to completely separate lower, merely human, ways of talking about love from the highest and best forms, from what appears at the end of our text today in Romans 5:5, “God’s love.” Pieper argues that we can find something in common between divine love and even the silliest forms, like the girl who “just loves” a new lipstick color or the boy who “loves” bacon maple donuts.

         What all loves have in common, says Pieper, is an affirmation, a “Yes!” to the very existence of something or someone.[1] When we love we are saying or feeling something like “How wonderful it is that you exist!” And even the most mundane way we use the word has something of that element in it. To love donuts is to be very, very glad that donuts exist.

         This same idea of love as the affirmation of existence attains to its highest form in God. When God loves He isn’t just glad that something exists, His love causes it to exist. That’s why at each stage of creation in Genesis 1, the writer pauses and tells us “And God saw that it was good.” God loved His creation into being, expressing His delight in its existence and making it happen at the same time.

         Human love is at its highest and best when it tries to be like God’s love in not only affirming the existence of what’s loved, but actively working to keep the beloved in whole and complete existence.

         There are many of us who would say we love to fish, even that we love fish, the bright sparkling stripes of a rainbow trout or the speckled black and white of a crappie. We’re glad these creatures exist. But that love for fishing and fish rises a notch when we are willing to actively do something to see that they keep on existing. The true fish lover will release that beautiful trophy trout to swim again, or will spend a Saturday pulling trash from his favorite stream and rebuilding aquatic habitat.

         The best love affirms the existence of the beloved and then actively seeks the welfare, the ongoing life or existence of the one loved. As human beings our ability to do that is limited in all sorts of ways and, as much we try or want to, we can’t always help or save those we love. But when we do, our love becomes like God’s.

         As I said at the beginning of this series on Christian virtues, there’s a progression. We begin with faith, grow into hope, and end in love. My wife is fond of Peter Kreeft’s picture that love is a flower. Faith is the seed from which it grows, hope is the stem from which it draws its strength and beauty, and love is the glorious flower.

         Faith is simply our belief in God’s love. It’s the conviction that God affirms our existence. What makes it Christian faith is the fact that God’s love is expressed totally and completely in the fact that Jesus Christ gave His life for us. In order to keep us in existence forever, in order to actively do what is best for us, God sacrificed Himself when Jesus died on the Cross so our sins might be forgiven.

         That’s where our text begins this morning in verse 1, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death brings us back into a peaceful relationship with God, knowing that He does in fact affirm our existence, affirms it enough to die for it.

         Jesus Himself said it in John 15:13, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Love is at its purest and highest when you give up yourself for the one you love. You affirm that existence by allowing your own existence to be sacrificed.

         That’s why we’re honoring those who died in service to their country this weekend. It’s out of this Christian conviction that we’ve caught a glimpse of a love like God’s when we remember someone who put love for others, whether it was for family or for friends or for country, before his or her own life. Military service is certainly not the only way to show that kind of divine love, but the dangers of war have a force that calls such love out of many.

         We begin then with faith in that sort of love, God’s sacrificial love. He affirms our existence so highly that He will give anything to make us right and whole so that we might go on existing with Him forever. But then verse 2 of our text moves on to talk about our present state, our access to “this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”

         Because we believe God loves us, we stand in grace, in the free gift of His love. And out of that grows hope, a hope of sharing in that glorious love with which God loves us. Hope grows out of the seed of what we believe, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” We have hope because of God’s love to us through His Son.

         Yet hope has to grow. As Kreeft says, it’s a stem. So verses 3 and 4 of our text talk about the slow and difficult growth of hope, coming up through our sufferings. To believe that you are loved, to be shown evidence of that, even when you are struggling and hurting, is to be given the soil in which hope can grow. Paul’s progression from suffering to endurance to character to hope is a description of how God grows us up into the glorious existence He affirms and wants for us.

         In our Gospel lesson in John 16:12 Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Growing into the people God made us to be, into the kind of existence He wants us to have, is not quick and easy. We couldn’t bear it all at once. It’s a slow process that involves learning to be like Jesus Himself in being willing to suffer and endure and build a character that lives in hope.

         What we do know now is that there is hope in our struggles, that God loves us and that He affirms our existence. God wants to save us. That’s why He was willing to suffer with us and for us on the Cross. He wants us to be and to go on being.

         In verse 5 we come to the point of our hope in God, “and hope does not disappoint us.” As we said two weeks ago, our Christian hope is more than just a vague wishing for good fortune or for things to get better, like hoping to win the lottery or that the economy will improve. Hope in God doesn’t disappoint because its grounded in this eternal fact of God’s love, which we enjoy and experience right now. So Paul says, “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

         What we realize when we get to verse 5 and what we heard also in our Gospel lesson from John 16 is that what God does, He does as three persons, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would come to declare the truth His disciples weren’t read for then, the truth that Jesus the Son received from God the Father. And that truth is that God is pouring out His love on us through the Son and the Holy Spirit.

         Just a couple weeks ago the ground was dry. You can still see brown spots of grass where the lawn dried up. Some of our shrubs began to wilt. We turned our sprinklers on a month early, hoping to save our church yard. You may have had similar worries at home. Then last week it started raining again. The clouds opened and an abundance of water poured down, more than any sprinkler system could give.

         The God who created wind and clouds and rain to water His world is the same God who has an abundance of love to pour out on His creation. And the reason He has all that love is that God is love. Love is God’s nature.

         God didn’t start loving when He created something, as if He were lonely before and He needed something or someone else to love. No, there was already love going on before the world ever existed. God the Father loved the Son and the Son loved the Father and the Holy Spirit received the love of both and shared it back and forth.

         It’s the Holy Spirit, in fact, as the third person of the Trinity who makes true everything I’ve been saying. If God was just two persons loving each other, there wouldn’t be much place for anyone else. My freshman year in college my roommate Rick was a surfer. I’d lived near the beach in California all my life and never had an opportunity to get on a surfboard. Rick was going to give me that chance.

         Then Rick met Wendy. They fell in love. Eventually they got married. But in the meantime, there was no room for a third person, no time to take me surfing. I never have learned to surf and probably never will.

         But because God is three persons, God’s love is not exclusive by nature. It’s not a love made up of private intimacy and jokes that can’t be shared and moments alone together. From all eternity, God’s love doesn’t just connect a couple, it connects a community, a family. And that family, community love pours out from God. As God’s Spirit goes out into the world, God’s love goes out into His creation, and into us.

         What all this means is that faith in Jesus Christ and the hope that grows out of that faith is meant to flower in a love, an affirmation of each other’s existence, that mirrors the love which can be found in God’s own self. When we come together as believers in Jesus Christ, our relationships with each other are to reflect the way the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit relate to each other. That’s the ultimate outcome of having God’s love poured into our hearts. We start to love each other like the persons of God love each other.

         Part of the doctrine of the Trinity which we’re remembering on this Sunday is that there are three divine Persons in one God. There’s both diversity and unity in God. There are three individuals and yet there is one single community in God. What makes that work, what is at the heart of God, is the love, the mutual affirmation which binds Father, Son and Holy Spirit together into one.

         We human beings are desperately in need of the divine love in which different persons can be together in perfect unity. Here in the west, in the United States, we’ve cherished the freedom of individuals, encouraged each person to stand strong on his or her own feet. And we’ve begun to lose sight of our need to be a community, to work together for the common good, to care for the least among us together with everyone else.

         My daughter’s been in China for a couple months. There they went down the road of emphasizing unity, of blending their lives together to create one great society with common goals and purpose. Yet somehow along the way they lost sight of the importance of individuals, of a concern for each person. Joanna tells me that if there’s a car wreck on a Chinese highway, injured people can lie there for hours, sometimes die, because no one stops to help. They have their jobs, their places in society, and it’s not their role in the bigger scheme to care for those particular people.

         Our Christian faith stands between East and West, between radical individualism and totalitarian socialism. We believe in a God who loves, because God is a Father and a Son and a Holy Spirit who have been loving each other forever. And we believe it is that love of God which calls our western world out of our selfish focus on our own personal needs and welfare and that calls the eastern world out of its blind submission to a society that ignores individual rights and needs.

         The place where the love of God the Trinity is poured out is not a country, not a political system. It’s into the hearts of Christians who believe that the Father sent the Son to save us and that the Father and the Son gave us the Holy Spirit to fill us with their love and draw us together as His people. The place where God’s love is found is in the Church.

         Yes, I know as well as anyone that the Church is not always a loving place. But at the least, the Church is where the truth about love is told, that it begins in God and spreads out to fill our hearts so that we may affirm and care for each other as God does for us. And sometimes His love shows up.

         In the last few years I’ve seen this sanctuary packed absolutely full only twice. Both times it was a memorial service for a Christian who had been well-loved, not just in his or her own church, but by the Church across this community. Both at Carla’s funeral and at Brian’s funeral, there were Presbyterians and Catholics, Baptists and Episcopals, and dozens of people who claim no denomination. Yet on those two days they came together as one Church for a few hours, came together in love. They came to say “How wonderful it was that she existed!” “What a good thing that he lived!”

         Such an affirmation, such a love, really only makes sense if it’s grounded in the faith and hope that Paul talked about here. We love someone and want them to go on being, but we can’t make it happen. People die. The people we love best die on us. But when we come together loving each other in the Church we announce to the world that there is more. There is a love that called the world and each of us into being. And that love reaches beyond death. That love can keep those who are loved forever.

         May God keep on pouring His love into us, making us more and more into a community like the Trinity. May we love and give ourselves to each other as the Father loves the Son and the Son gives Himself to the Father. And may we be actively sharing and pouring out that love as the Holy Spirit shares and pours out the love of God. And may our families and friends and neighbors and the world see our love and then discover its eternal source in God our Savior.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Faith Hope Love (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), p. 163ff.

Last updated May 26, 2013