Adapted from a sermon preached at Roots Revival, a midweek worship service grounded in Americana/roots-based music at Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on Wednesday, August 16, 2017. The Scripture was Jeremiah 31:1-6.
Many churches follow what’s called the lectionary to guide their worship planning and preaching. The lectionary is a 3-year cycle that assigns 4 Scripture passages to every Sunday and holy day. Although my church doesn’t follow the lectionary, I almost always take whatever Scripture we’re using and look to see where it shows up in the cycle.
Jeremiah 31:1-6 is found in Year A of the lectionary, on Easter Sunday. I read this passage completely differently after putting it in the context of the resurrection. My initial focus in this passage had been the declaration of love—“I have loved you with a love that lasts forever.”
I’m not sure I had thought very deeply about what the resurrection means in terms of love—obviously, Jesus died and rose again because God loves us and wants to save us from sin and death. But theologian N. T. Wright puts a much finer point on it when he points to the resurrection story in John chapter 21.
In John 21, the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, and although they cannot believe their eyes, they immediately know it is their friend and teacher. Jesus doesn’t ask if they believe he died and rose again. Jesus asks the question, “Do you love me?”
Belief in the resurrection, or in Jesus at all, isn’t a matter of cognitive assent. It’s a matter of love. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “It is love that believes the resurrection.” Our heads cannot make sense of it, but our hearts believe through love.
The words from Jeremiah embody how Jesus appears to us and how we come to believe and trust in God’s promises of restoration: through the assurance that God has, does, and will always love us. We don’t ever have to wonder whether God loves us; but Jesus asks: “Do you love me?”
We’ve all seen the signs, the stickers, the t-shirts bearing what Forbes called one of the top ten tourism marketing campaigns of all time: “Virginia is for Lovers.” But the image currently stuck in my head related to this slogan is not the license plates or the highway welcome signs—it is one of a young woman who went as a counterprotestor to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville this past Saturday. In the picture, she is carrying a handmade sign that says, “Virginia is for Lovers—Not Racists.”
If we continue to think about love in the context of the resurrection, there is an important question that needs to be asked. In order for resurrection to happen, first death must occur. So the question is—what needs to die in order for love to rise?
There is sin and selfishness in each of us individually that needs to die; there is traditionalism and idolatry in the church that needs to die; there is narcissism and cynicism in our broader society that needs to die. We cannot be rebuilt in love until the rotten boards are torn out and thrown away. And the rotten boards at the front of my mind this week are those of racism and white supremacy.
I’ve heard and read a lot of arguments about how to think about and respond to the violence in Charlottesville this past weekend. Most of them make me furious or just plain depressed. But it seems to me that a good litmus test for assessing what we think about any action or rhetoric we see is to ask whether it has anything to do with love. Let’s really just boil this down to love. Are the words and actions of neo-Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists loving?
I hope and pray that none of us has to even think about our answer to that question.
But when we do stop to think about it, it turns out that we love a lot of things, not all of them good.. We love our family and our friends, our possessions and our lifestyles. We love our church and our community, our homes and our cars. We love food and travel and entertainment—and we love ourselves, and not always in a healthy way.
Those gathered at the “Unite the Right” rally were expressing a kind of love: a love of themselves, of their skin color, of their privilege and supposed supremacy. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love myself, my skin color, and my privilege, too. I benefit from the same system they were supporting every day whether I like it or not. The question is whether I am going to make an idol of my whiteness or let that privilege die so that love can be reborn in me and in this country.
Jesus’ question comes back to each of us: “Do you love me?” Or, to quote his whole question, “Do you love me more than these?” Do we love our Southern “heritage” more than our black and brown brothers and sisters? Do we love our privilege more than we love justice? Do we love ourselves more than we love God?
Since this weekend, I’ve heard people—mostly white people—calling for peace and unity. I am all about peace and unity. But just as resurrection doesn’t happen until something dies, so peace and unity are meaningless until the violence and division that keep us from them are rectified. As writer bell hooks put is, “There can be no love without justice.”
The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness. …the Lord appeared to them from a distance: I have loved you with a love that lasts forever. And so with unfailing love, I have drawn you to myself. Again, I will build you up, and you will be rebuilt.
When we let the rotten boards be torn out of our hearts, our churches, and our nation, we, too, can be rebuilt. When we let the sin and prejudice in each and all of us finally die, we, too, can be resurrected in love. God has loved us with a love that lasts forever, and he asks us: Do you love me more than these?