The Surprising Love of God

Scene of a river flowing towards the sunset or sunrise.
“Flow” by Olivia Kuser

Last year Mum added me to the mailing list of The Community of the Sisters of the Love of God and a couple of weeks ago their latest newsletter, Fairacres Chronicle, arrived. In it there is a wonderfully thought-provoking article entitled “The Surprising Love of God” by The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Revd Dr Rowan Williams, from a talk he gave at the community’s Centenary Day celebrations in September.

The Surprising Love of God

Reading: Galatians 2:19 – 13; 3:13-14; 6:14-16; including:

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us-for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’-in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith … May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

Christ redeemed us by becoming accursed, says St Paul. Christ redeemed us by going to the place where everyone was sure God was not, and everything in the Letter to the Galatians hangs on that single-though I cannot call it simple-confession. The love of God is love that goes where God is not supposed to be, where God is not imagined or conceived to be.

Love, we may often think, is free and gratuitous, and yet in most of our human relations, it rather tends to go where it is expected or returned or where it makes sense. God’s love is recognizable precisely as that love which goes where it has no business to go and which lives, blossoms and acts in the place of the curse, in the place where God is forgotten.

When St Paul writes about what does and does not justify us, set us right with God, he is reminding us that anything less than this vision of the God who redeems us through the accursed body of Jesus on the tree is likely simply to be a more or less sophisticated way of telling ourselves that at the end of the day, we deserve to be loved; that is to say, that we have a contract with God. St Paul wants us to believe both that it is utterly, absolutely, eternally, divinely natural that we are loved, because God is God, and that it is not divinely, naturally, the case that we are loved, because we are who we are.

St Paul walks that particular tightrope in all his letters, trying to save us from the twin abysses of despair and complacency. It is very much what justification by faith is all about; recognizing the love that is God’s love, because it goes where it is not expected. And whether we think we are a place where God’s love is to be expected because we are good, or whether we think we are a place where God’s love could never be expected because we are bad, St Paul drives a coach and horses through both these errors. God is God, and the love of God is the love that goes where you don’t expect.

… And so, when St Paul says ‘God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of Christ’, I believe what he is saying is that he wants to be simply a place where the love of God in the cross is made visible — that is, the unexpectedness of God’s love being the place of the curse.

Paul doesn’t say, ‘My credentials are my learning, my energy’, and happily he doesn’t say, ‘My credentials are my niceness and easiness of temperament’ either, because that would be extremely implausible from what we know about St Paul! He does say that he will boast in the cross, because he has been called simply to be that place where the unexpected love of God comes alive.

… It is not an easy time for this Community, or for any community — we are all aware of that — but that is, at the very least, a good moment to celebrate the God of surprises and the God whose love lives in unexpected places, and the God whose love seeks nothing more than to be in the place where everyone thinks it is not — in our hearts or in the world. So may God strengthen the purpose and resolve of this Community, called to be under his cross, boasting in his cross. May God strengthen the resolve of every one of us to be witnesses to that God who will not be confined by any expectation or any law, but who will obstinately and relentlessly go where he is not expected. and even where he is not invited, because he is who he is; and he is eternal, burning, unqualified love.

Archbishop Rowan Williams at Fairacres, Vespers of the Feast of the Holy Cross, 14 September 2006 (Centenary Day).

I find in these words of Dr Williams’ that I am both encouraged and challenged. Encouraged that God is not confined only to those places where he is expected to be, and challenged to demonstrate the love of God more effectively in these places.

As this year draws to an end I find myself pondering the journey I have travelled in these last twelve months; at the time I often felt that I was simply putting one foot in front of the next, but looking back I can see that I’ve come some distance. I’ve found myself asking again why I moved out of parish ministry: have I made a mistake or have I been obediently following God? Have I been running away or running towards God? I’m not sure that I have an answer that is truly satisfactory, at least at this stage but with so many doors opening and the path to where I currently am having been travelled so effortlessly I can’t but conclude that I am where God wants me to be. At least for now.

One of the many reasons that I stepped out of the parish setup was to step out into the unknown, out into the place where God is not believed to be. It may be comforting to confine God to the church building and to be the property of the faithful, but God is bigger than that.

Where will God lead me next? I don’t know. But I do know that 2007 will be an exciting adventure with God as he leads me deeper into his surprising love and both allows and enables me to share that with others.

Happy New Year folks and thanks for sharing part of the journey with me.

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master at Safeguard Global; latterly at Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

One thought on “The Surprising Love of God”

  1. Happy New Year Gareth and Jane! We hope you will ‘visit’ us occasionally in St Margaret’s (Leven) in 2007. It was good to have you take our Midnight Service on Christmas Eve Gareth and anyone who brings an extra member of the congregation (Jane) is particularly welcome!!

    Good wishes – and enjoy the next part of the journey!

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