I dedicate this meditation to Ruth Robertson (neé Shoch) who died this week aged 87. Ruth was working for the South African Council of Churches (1968-72) as personal assistant to Bishop Bill Burnett when I joined the staff in 1968. She was the first woman to study theology at Rhodes University. A committed ecumenist and worker for justice, in later years, after marrying John Robertson, Ruth with John were deeply involved in the life of Volmoed. Ruth was one of the most loving and generous people I know which is part of the reason for the choice of my theme.
“God is love.”I John 4:16b-21
“You loved me before the foundation of the world.”John 17:17-25
We were just three old friends sitting and having coffee while we gazed out over Walker Bay from the terrace of Burgundy restaurant. We were hoping to see whales , but only saw a school of Dolphins in the distance. Did I say “only” as if that was second best to whales? Of course, not. Dolphins are amazing, graceful creatures, every bit as wonderful to see as a Southern Right with its calf swimming beside her. While we gazed into the distance, my friend, a trained theologian, asked whether I believed in a personal God, not just a mysterious force that might pervade the universe and give birth to the beauty we perceived. It is not difficult when you see dolphins at play to believe that there is a mysterious force at work in the universe. But is that force Someone with whom you can have a relationship? Someone to whom you can pray, Someone you can love and be loved in return? Someone we call God, and relate to as to a Father or Mother?
I know that people living in poverty don’t contemplate the majesty of the universe while leisurely drinking coffee and discussing theology, and yet many of them ardently believe in God who enables them to cope with life. I also know that many people don’t believe in God because the world as they experience it is ugly and full of suffering and violence. How can you believe in God in a world plagued by disease and war, they ask us. My friend who was probing the meaning of mystery with me over coffee was fully aware of all of the arguments against faith in God. But this did not detract from our shared awareness, as we sat and chatted together, that we were surrounded by a great mystery, a mystery we glimpsed as we looked out into the vast expanse of Walker Bay and watched the dolphins at play. But the question persisted, was this mystery “in whom we live, move and have our being” personal? Can we relate to this transcendent mystery as children relate to their parents, or lovers to each other? And therein lies the clue. I believe that the mystery we call God is personal because I believe God is love. That God loves the world and loves us. This is the good news of Jesus the Christ.
One of the doctrines of Christian faith about which you seldom hear these days is what is called the “pre-existence of Christ.” That is, the notion that the Word who became flesh in Jesus was with God from the beginning. “You loved me before the foundation of the world,” Jesus says in his high priestly prayer as told by St John in the gospel passage we read this morning. In other words, God’s love for the world that was revealed in Jesus did not only start when Jesus was born. God’s love for the world was there from the beginning. God’s love for the world was not an after-thought which God had when the world went skew and needed redemption. It was God’s love that gave birth to the universe. It is God’s love that sustains the world. Love is the foundation of everything else.
When we say that “God is love” we are not describing an attribute of God, we are describing the essence of God, what makes God God. If God is not love, God is not the God revealed in Jesus, the God Jesus called “Father.” Of course, we are not thinking here of love as something sentimental, like the so-called love that oozes out of too many magazines, movies and the like. The love we name God is holy love, it is the love that expresses itself in mercy and compassion, and justice for the oppressed. It is self-giving costly love, redemptive love, the love that heals and makes whole. It is beautiful, creative love, the love we see as we gaze out on the ocean or welcome a new born baby into the world. Love is the power that brings new life and beauty to birth; love is the power that heals and restores. This love is the beginning and the end of the story of Christ and of the universe.
Listen again to the majestic words in the first letter of John. “God is love and those who love abide in God, and God abides in them… We love because he first loved us.” The only way in which we relate to the God is through the love which God evokes in us, something so evident in the life of our friend Ruth. “Those who do not love a brother or sister who they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” To believe in the God who is love is to love God what God loves — justice and mercy, the creation given into our care, the families and friends who surround us, and the strangers who meet us along the way. Julian of Norwich, Isobel’s favourite “saint,” understood this profoundly:
…love keeps us in faith and hope;
and faith and hope lead to love.
And at the end all shall be love.
I had three kinds of understandings on this light of love;
the first is love uncreated;
the second is love created;
the third is love given.
Love uncreated is God;
love created is our soul in God;
love given is virtue —
and that is the grace-filled-gift of action,
in which we love God for Himself,
and ourselves in God,
and all that God loves,
for God’s sake. (From A Lesson of Love: The Revelations of Julian of Norwich, ed. John-Julian, London 1988, 211)
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 12 May 2016