Labor for Love
1 Thessalonians 1:3
November 13, 2011
Beloved in the Lord, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
And that labor is good because it also
teaches us how to love as Christ did (John 15:12). Now the one whom I
believe has written most cogently and faithfully on this topic is Søren
Kierkegaard (1813-1855) whom we commemorate today [Lutheran
Book of Worship (1978) p. 12]. In his big book, aptly entitled,
Works of Love (1847), where
he celebrates Christian love, he gives us many helpful insights. There he
battles against sentimentality and ease in matters of love (Kierkegaard’s
Writings 16:376) – much like
But rather than letting that deter us, let us instead simply move steadily forward with Kierkegaard’s Works of Love – as Martin Luther (1483-1546) might well advise us to do – as he used to do long ago (Luther’s Works 22:305; 52:143; 28:106; 12:388).
Love Gone Awry
So what does he say? At the end of his book, Kierkegaard writes:
Christianity is [often] presented in a certain sentimental, almost soft, form of love. It is all love and love; spare yourself and your flesh and blood; have good days or happy days without self-concern, because God is Love and Love – nothing at all about rigorousness must be heard; it must all be the free language and nature of love. Understood in this way, however, God’s love easily becomes a fabulous and childish conception, the figure of Christ too mild and sickly-sweet for it to be true that he was and is an offense,… that is, as if Christianity were in its dotage (KW 16:376).
In its dotage? Yes indeed! For to reduce Christianity to sentimentality is to render it senile – thereby weakening it hopelessly!
Kierkegaard believes that the only way to save Christian love from this senility is to have “the possibility of offense… thoroughly preached back to life again” (KW 16:200). That means seeing how offensive Christian love is. And he shows this in Works of Love – and in many ways, with the clearest case coming from 1 Timothy 1:5, where love is said to be properly at home in the heart or conscience. This means that love isn’t based fundamentally in the
self-willfulness of drives and inclination. Because the man belongs first and foremost to God before he belongs to any relationship…. To drives and inclination this is no doubt a strange, chilling inversion; yet it is Christianity and no more chilling than the spirit is in relation to the sensate;… moreover, it is specifically a quality of the spirit to burn without blazing. Your wife must first and foremost be to you the neighbor; that she is your wife is then a more precise specification of your particular relationship to each other…. Without really being aware of it ourselves, we talk like pagans about erotic love and friendship, arrange our lives paganly in that regard, and then add a bit of Christianity about loving the neighbor (KW 16:140-141).
But that would be to get it all backwards. Instead we must begin with God and “the spirit’s love,” which “you cannot point to” – weaning ourselves “from the worldly,” and then build on that purified, “bound” or “transformed” love (KW 16:146, 145, 149, 139).
So let this witness to the spirit’s love strike you and change you – with powerful words that “want to lift cars off pinned children, rescue lost and frozen wanderers – they’d bound out, little whiskey barrels strapped to their necks” [Ellen Bass, Mules of Love (2002) p. 65]. But even so they may still sputter and fall flat.
Our Double Mediator
And so we need Christ himself, who in “madness, humanly speaking,… sacrifices himself – in order to make the loved ones just as unhappy as himself” (KW 16:111)! But by so doing we not only become unhappy – because we’re no longer looking to this world for our salvation (1 John 2:15) – but we also rejoice in the cross of Christ, for “Christianity’s hope is eternity, and Christ is the Way” (KW 16:248)! For he is our “sacrifice of Atonement” (KW 16:112) – for Christ, as Luther said, “is not the Mediator of one; He is the Mediator of two who were in the utmost disagreement,… a damned sinner [and] the wrathful God” (LW 26:325)!
So come, receive him today, for he is here for us in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. But note that this is no ordinary meal – where “perishable food,” as Luther taught, “is transformed into the body which eats it.” No, this food is holy – and so it “transforms the person who eats it into what it is itself” (LW 37:100). So eat and drink, saying with Luther: “I take to myself the blessed sacrament, when I eat his body and drink his blood as a sign that I am rid of my sins and… have a gracious God” (LW 51:99)!
And finally with Kierkegaard, thank God for the “royal law” (James 2:8) that tells us to love (Matthew 22:39). Even though this law doesn’t hinge on our insights and efforts (John 15:5; Luke 18:9), but on faith (Ephesians 2:8-10), by which we’re given the ability so we “can” perform these loving deeds (KW 16:41), it is still holy and good (Romans 7:12). So don’t recoil from this command as other Lutherans do [contra S. D. Paulson, Lutheran Theology (2011) p. 230], but with Kierkegaard, celebrate it, saying:
Wherever the purely human wants to storm forth, the commandment constrains; wherever the purely human loses courage, the commandment strengthens; wherever the purely human becomes tired and sagacious, the commandment inflames and gives wisdom. The commandment consumes and burns out the unhealthiness in your love, but through the commandment you will in turn be able to rekindle it when it, humanly speaking, would cease. Where you think you can easily go your own way… [or] despairingly want to go your own way, there take the commandment as counsel; but where you do not know what to do, there the commandment will counsel so that all turns out well nevertheless (KW 16:43).
No wonder, then, that Luther called the law “the greatest treasure God has given us” [The Book of Concord (1588), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 411]! Even though it cannot save us from our sins (Romans 10:4), it surely can help us do good deeds.
One such good deed is the famous one to be like the Good Samaritan in showing mercy. “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37), Jesus commands us. And Kierkegaard takes up this charge at the end of Works of Love. There he reads it in light of the story about the widow’s mite whose tiny gift into the temple treasury was deemed “more than” those who put in large sums (Luke 21:1-4):
If… the merciful Samaritan had come not riding but walking along the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, where he saw the unfortunate man lying, if he had been carrying with him nothing [to help him with], if he had carried him to the nearest inn, where the innkeeper refused [to help because the Samaritan had no money, and if] the Samaritan… had [then] sought a softer resting place for [him], had sat by his side,… but the unfortunate one died in his hands – would he not have been equally merciful? (KW 16:317).
Kierkegaard asks this question to refute the saying that “mercifulness that is without money [is] a kind of lunacy, a delusion.” “Therefore,” Kierkegaard goes on to say, “have mercifulness; then money can be given – without it money smells bad” (KW 16:321).
So “mercifulness works wonders. It makes the two pennies into a large sum when the poor widow gives them” (KW 16:323). So give it priority! Yet, even so, “the world,” as Kierkegaard notes, “certainly must think this the most annoying kind of arithmetic, in which one penny can become so significant” (KW 16:318)! So be not conformed to the world (Romans 12:2) – “keep within your bosom [a] heart that despite poverty and misery still has sympathy for the misery of others. [For] if I myself am lying with a broken arm or leg, then I cannot plunge into the flames to save another’s life – but I can still be merciful” (KW 16:322, 324). And then, by so doing, you’ll also be laboring to love one another. Amen.