Intro: Just south of the border with the United States, in Tijuana, is Mexico’s most notorious prison, La Mesa State Penitentiary. It is overcrowded and dangerous. Built to house 2,600 inmates, 7,000 now live there, including 500 women. Rampant corruption means that, for a bribe, you can get whatever you want on the inside, alcohol, drugs, prostitutes or guns.
In 1977, a twice-divorced mother of seven who named Mary Brenner Clarke gave up her home and possessions in California to move into La Mesa where she was known as Mother Antonia. There she lived among the prisoners in her own prison cell and serve them with love. In 2008, a riot broke out at La Mesa while Mother Antonia was away. Upon her return, she begged police to let her go back into the prison, even the riot was still raging within. Skye Jethani describes what happened next in his book With:
“Let me go in,” she pleaded, “I know I can do something to stop the violence.” The authorities refused, fearing for her safety. “I’m not afraid,” she responded. “When you love, you don’t have anything to be afraid of. Love casts out fear, the Bible tells us, and I love the men there…
They let her enter. Mother Antonia entered the darkness and found an inmate named Blackie. She fell to her knees and begged him to end the riot.
“It’s not right that you’re locked up here, hungry and thirsty,” she said. “We can take care of those things, but this isn’t the way to do it. I will help you make it better. But first you have to give me the guns. I beg you to put down your weapons.”
“Mother,” Blackie replied, as soon as we heard your voice we dropped the guns out of the window.”
Through her love for the people of La Mesa, Mother Antonia has transformed the prison. That love that Mother Antonia was not something that she conjured up from within herself. Her ability to love others selflessly came from her Life With God, where she experienced God’s sacrificial, self-less, unconditional love for her. Each morning, she would start the day by spending an hour with God, reading the Bible and praying. As Skye Jethani writes, “It was this time set apart for silence and solitude that filled her reservoir of love.”
My hope and prayer as a church is that everyone would be able to experience and then share God’s love as they live life with him. That is the reason behind this series of blog posts called “Life With God” which are based on a book by Skye Jethani titled With: Reimagining The Way You Relate to God. In this post, I am inviting you to reflect with me on how our Life With God is a Life With Love.
To guide us in our reflections on Life with God’s Love, we will be looking at 1 Corinthians 13, a passage from the Bible that is often read at weddings and, because of that, is often associated with romantic love. But the love spoken of in this famous passage is bigger and better than romantic love. The Greek language uses several different words for love and the word used here is agape, a self-less, sacrificial love that chooses to want what is best for the other person even when they do not love in return. This is a love that applies to, and is needed by, all people, whether they are married, single or divorced. But agape love can only be found in one source, God, and God’s agape love only comes into our life through a faith connection with him. Only as we receive and relish the unconditional love that God has for us we are then able to love others with agape love. As we recognize that God is holding us in his loving arms, and pouring his love into our lives, we realize that we don’t have to worry about who is going to look after us or who is going to love us. We are already content and filled with God’s love to the point of overflowing. We have been set free from worrying about ourselves and God’s agape love can then overflow from our lives into the lives of the people around us. As we read in 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.”
Before we read the Love Passage, as 1 Corinthians is known, let’s review some of the concepts covered in previous posts in this series. We start by recognizing that all human religions begin with fear as a common starting point, and then we humans tend to relate to God in ways that we think will give us control over the chaos around us and in us. But that concept of control is an illusion and our striving for control can make our lives more dangerous, which increases our fear and we end up getting caught in a cycle of fear, control and danger.
God is inviting us to turn away from relating to him on the basis of our activity, which is religion. His passionate desire for each and every person in the world is to have a relationship with them through his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus came into this world as the exact representation of God so that we could know, love and treasure God above everything else. Jesus went to the cross to pay the full cost of forgiveness for all sins for all people so that we could be united with God in a mutual relationship of love. God gave us the Holy Spirit when we were baptized so that we could rest in an ongoing experience of Life With God as the Holy Spirit communes with our spirit.
As we live Life With God, we live with faith, hope and love. Knowing that God will always be there to catch us when we fall, we are free to let go of all our worries and fears and fly through life with faith. Knowing that Jesus is going to come back to this world to make us and all things right, we fly with a sure and certain hope knowing that in the end, with Jesus, everything is going to be okay.
Let us turn now to what Paul calls “…a way of life that is best of all,” the third of these three great virtues of life, which is love. I may speak in the languages of humans and of angels. But if I don’t have love, I am a loud gong or a clashing cymbal. I may have the gift to speak what God has revealed, and I may understand all mysteries and have all knowledge. I may even have enough faith to move mountains. But if I don’t have love, I am nothing. I may even give away all that I have and give up my body to be burned. But if I don’t have love, none of these things will help me. (1 Cor. 13:1-3 GW)
In verses 1 to 3, speaking in the first person, Paul demolishes all the religious ways of relating to God, saying that without love, they all amount to nothing. Keep in mind that Paul is not speaking of love as an emotion, but as an inner reservoir of compassionate concern for others that is filled to overflowing by God through a relationship with him. We could live Life From God and receive from him the greatest gifts that one could imagine, like knowing multiple languages or speaking in tongues, but without God’s love in our mind directing the use of those gifts, they will all amount to nothing. We could live Life Over God and have great knowledge and be an excellent preacher, or we could live Life Under God and have faith that can move mountains, and we might look like a super Christian, but without God’s love in our hearts governing that knowledge, ability and faith, we are nothing, an actor who goes through the motions pretending to be something that we really aren’t. We could live Life For God, giving all our possessions to the poor and dying as a martyr for our faith, but if we don’t have God’s love in our soul, we gain nothing. Our loveless sacrifices are a worthless sham for we are giving in order to get, which is giving to ourselves.
Let’s continue our look at 1 Corinthians 13 with verse 4: Love is patient. Love is kind. Love isn’t jealous. It doesn’t sing its own praises. It isn’t arrogant. It isn’t rude. It doesn’t think about itself. It isn’t irritable. It doesn’t keep track of wrongs. It isn’t happy when injustice is done, but it is happy with the truth. Love never stops being patient, never stops believing, never stops hoping, never gives up.(1 Cor. 13:4-7 GW)
It is through Life With God that we experience what love is really like. Through the quiet moments of prayer and reading the Bible, and through the ongoing back-of-mind connection that we have with God, we experience his incredible patience and kindness toward us. He keeps on loving us unconditionally even when we mess up. He keeps on giving us dignity and hope by assuring us that we are his beloved, forgiven children. He keeps on turning us away from falsehood and fabrications and bringing us back to his truth, where we thrive. God has hope for us even when we don’t have hope for ourselves because he knows how the story will end. He knows that a day will come when the process of being transformed by his love will be complete and we will be more whole, more human and more alive that we have ever been before.
Starting in verse 8, Paul explains the permanence of God’s love to us: Love never comes to an end. There is the gift of speaking what God has revealed, but it will no longer be used. There is the gift of speaking in other languages, but it will stop by itself. There is the gift of knowledge, but it will no longer be used. Our knowledge is incomplete and our ability to speak what God has revealed is incomplete. But when what is complete comes, then what is incomplete will no longer be used.
God’s love will never fail us. In the new heaven and earth to come, gifts like being able to predict the future, being able to speak multiple languages, or having a lot of knowledge will all be rendered useless. Even virtues like faith and hope will be muted for faith will turn to sight and hope will turn to reality as the things that we longed for and trusted in are revealed to be as really real as we always believed they were. What will endure throughout this life and into the life to come forever is our communion with God and the love that binds us together. As Paul writes in his letter to the Christians in Rome, “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
Dear friend, my encouragement to you is to rest in the love that God wants to give to you through a relationship with him. Trusting in our Father’s love, we love God more than anything or anyone else in our lives. Trusting in Jesus’ forgiveness, we wrap our arms of love around the Saviour who is holding us. Trusting in Holy Spirit’s faithful presence within us, we carve out sacred times and places where our spirit can be nourished, rejuvenated and renewed by God’s love.
II. Experiencing God’s Love Through Prayer
Teresa of Avila, who lived during the 16th century, described the soul as a garden grown for our Lord’s delight. The garden is nourished and grows as it is fed with the water of prayer. In her writings, Teresa described four different styles of prayer, each with different degrees of human effort offset by reliance on God. The first style of prayer, or water for the garden, was a well, where water was drawn up from the well and carried to the garden by bucket. In this style of prayer, we are doing all of the talking in our prayer time with God. The second water, was a water wheel which lifted the water into troughs which carried it to the garden. In this style of prayer, we still talk to God, but we also have occasional periods of silence where we listen to God and receive from him. The third water is a stream which supplies flowing water on its own and the only effort needed is to direct it to the garden. In this form of prayer, God is doing most of the work and there are longer periods of silence in our prayer time as we listen and receive. The fourth water is rain, which falls upon the garden without any effort on the part of the gardener. In this form of prayer, we simply surrender to God, rest in his presence and receive the nourishing downpour of his gracious love.
III. The Fullness of Our New Identity
As the garden of our soul is nourished by the waters of God’s love, it blossoms and grows into something incredibly richer, fuller, more colourful and more fragrant than it ever was before. It is the same garden, but it is very different. Before there was only hard, dry dirt devoid of life except for the odd thistly weed. Now there are beautiful flowers and fruit-bearing trees everywhere. The soil is dark and rich and full of nutrients and life. Earthworms squirm through the black dirt as birds and bees fly above, pollinating the plants and filling the air with a symphony of song.
That is a word picture of what happens to a human soul that is watered by God’s love. It is the same soul that it always was, but God’s love has made it so colourful and fruitful that its identity has changed from what it was before. In our head we may know that we are a beloved child of God, but experiencing God’s love through prayer helps that new identity move from our head, where we know it like an intellectual fact, to our heart where we know it like a relational truth, just as real as the love of a child for her parent or two best friends for each other.
Our unfolding of our new identity will continue throughout this life into the life to come. As we read starting with verse 11: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I no longer used childish ways. Now we see a blurred image in a mirror. Then we will see very clearly. Now my knowledge is incomplete. Then I will have complete knowledge as God has complete knowledge of me.
So these three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the best one of these is love. (1 Cor. 13:11-12 GW).
Perhaps, like me, you have thought that this verse refers to the partial knowledge we have now of reality or of God, which it does. But it is also the case that in this life we only have partial knowledge of ourselves. We don’t fully know who we are, and we certainly do not know who we are going to become. But God does, and in the life to come, we will too.
In Revelation 2:17 are recorded these words from Jesus, And I will give to each one a white stone, and on the stone will be engraved a new name that no one understands except the one who receives it. (Rev. 2:17). While, in a general sense, everyone who believes in Jesus is a beloved child of God, God’s transformation of our identity is much more personal and goes much deeper than that. In the new heaven and earth to come, we will finally see ourselves for who we really are in God’s love as God gives us a new name. This new name will define us in a new way that will resonate deeply with our soul. Though we will not understand how or why, in the age to come we will finally see ourselves as we really are and it will be more than we had ever hoped or dreamed we would ever be. And it will all be because of God’s love.
Conclusion: Dear friend, I want to encourage you to let God water the garden of your soul with his love. Instead of always trying to do things and accomplish more, be intentional about being still and knowing God. Make time for times of silence with God. There is nothing more precious than being with our greatest treasure. There is nothing more fulfilling than being with the source of all life and love. Let his love wash away that hard coated exterior that we all wear to protect ourselves and let him show you who you really are in his eyes.
I will close this sermon and this series with the last paragraph from Skye Jethani’s book With:
While imprisoned by the Nazis and awaiting execution, Dietrich Bonhoeffer composed a poem that revealed his own identity questions. Was he a pastor, a theologian, a prophet, a spy, or a conspirator? Could he be fully known by his enemies or his allies? Could he be understood by his obedience to God, his service to the church, or the content of his writings? Bonhoeffer came to this conclusion, which captures the truth for all who live with God: “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, You know, O God, I am Yours!”
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on June 30, 2019. For more info about WGLC, go to wglc.org.)
 Skye Jethani, With: Reimagining The Way You Relate to God (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 158-159.
 Jethani, 160.
 Jethani, 160-161; The Four Waters of Prayer taught by St. Teresa of Avila (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oO8fvJOJbmc); Four Waters of the Soul (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/prayergardens/2014/06/four-waters-of-the-soul/); St. Teresa of Avila’s Four Waters (https://newevangelizers.com/blog/2015/08/01/st-teresa-avilas-four-waters/)
 Jethani, 173.