January 27, 2019 Sermon
The Unconditional Love of God
Rev. George Furniss
We have a big God. God’s love for us is unconditional. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Our problem is that we limit God. We make God conditional. As J.B. Phillips said years ago in his popular book Your God Is Too Small, we apply our human limitations to God. We shrink God’s love to fit our limited human imagination rather than expand our sense of God’s love to the enormity of what Jesus tried to show us.
Let me clarify what I mean by unconditional and conditional. Take an example from the business world. An appliance is said to come with an “unconditional guarantee.” In theory that means that you can return it for whatever reason in the world and get a replacement. But the buyer better read the small print because it may really be a “conditional” guarantee; if the buyer has carefully followed the printed instructions and not misused the product, he or she qualifies for the replacement. Conditions applied. Unconditional love of God means that God’s love has no strings attached, no “ifs,” “ands” or “buts.”
I encountered people’s too small God often in my work as a hospital chaplain. One patient, a woman in her early 60s, was dying of emphysema. Her anxiety about her impeding death was off the charts. At first, she was reluctant to discuss the reason for her agitation. It turned out that she was raised in a fundamentalist church where the pastor preached hellfire and damnation for unbelievers. She was so alienated by this conservative religious atmosphere that when she graduated from high school and left home, she never went to church again. As she was dying, she was terrorized by the thought of God’s retribution for her unreligious life. She believed that she had committed an unforgiveable sin.
Over several visits, I helped her explore her understanding of God. I described my sense of God’s incredible love and God’s boundless forgiveness. She resisted my counsel, so firmly implanted in her mind was the image of a conditional God whose love was limited to those who followed the path of Christian faith. Gradually her anxiety lessened. She was realizing that God would understand the reason why she had avoided church all those years and wouldn’t hold it against her. The last time I saw her, her change of mood was noticeable. She felt embraced by a loving God who would accompany her in her dying.
A few days later, a funeral home called saying she had asked me to officiate at her service, which I gladly performed. Her son, a noted surgeon, gave me the largest honorarium I ever received for a pastoral service. I sensed that the check reflected the family’s gratitude for her peaceful death.
Many people’s “too small” God is based on faulty theology. They understand the Trinity as three persons—the Father (God), the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit—who operate separately. The Father is a holy God whose sense of justice and abhorrence of sin requires humanity’s punishment. God was supposed to have wiped out sinful humanity in the time of Noah. But this time, according to this view, Jesus’s crucifixion satisfied God’s need for retribution. This was the rationalistic doctrine of Jesus’ atonement formulated by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century. Later theologians recognized this was an incorrect understanding of the Trinity. Anselm’s doctrine violated their belief in the indivisibility of the Trinity. There is complete unity of God’s action. Mental gymnastics are needed to reconcile one’s belief that God is love with the idea of God as judge who required his son’s sacrificial death to satisfy his need to accomplish justice. Luther, astute theologian that he was, rejected this idea of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement.
The emphysema patient couldn’t believe in a “hellfire and brimstone” God. As a hospital chaplain committed to the unconditional love of God, I dealt with evangelical people who subscribed to the very theology that she rejected. I was the chaplain for the intensive care unit. I met with the families of patients in ICU. On several occasions, a family was highly agitated about a family member, usually Dad, in ICU, on a respirator in critical condition. “You are our last hope, Rev. Furniss,” I would hear. “We have tried for years to get Dad to accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior, but he has steadfastly refused. His salvation is at stake at this very moment. Can you see if he can hear you and ask him to accept the Lord?”
I did not accede to these requests. I believed that in the next life, their family member would have further opportunities to respond to Jesus. My understanding of God’s love meant one’s moment of death was not his or her last chance of salvation. I responded to the anguish of the family members but, given the impossible conditions, I said that I did not feel I could effectively initiate the conversation they sought.
Universalism, the belief that all persons will find ultimate salvation, has existed as a minority viewpoint in Western Christian history. Some of the early Church Fathers believed that no one would experience eternal damnation. Jesus’s parable about the “lost sheep” is frequently cited as representing Jesus’ view that the unconditional love of God extends into eternity. Would God ever give up on accomplishing our healing and wholeness? A movement supporting a belief in universal salvation spread in19th century America that included Presbyterians. For those of us today in traditional churches, in order for us to reach the younger generation and those outside the church, we need to rethink our understanding of salvation. Rob Bell’s popular book, Love Wins, responds to the discomfort about doctrines of hell, heaven and salvation.
C.S. Lewis wrote a delightful fantasy, The Great Divorce, about a bus taking residents of Hell for a day trip to Heaven. The travelers are told that they can stay in heaven if they choose. They have many interactions with the heavenly people. Many decide to stay in heaven, but some think there has to be some catch to it. God’s love can’t possibly be this good. Despite how much the people whom they meet seem to enjoy their life in Heaven, they reboard the bus to return to Hell.
Remembering Jesus’ parable of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to search for the one lost sheep, are we bold enough to believe in the unconditional love of God? Is our God too small, a judgmental God? Do we shrink God’s love to fit our human perspective? Let us think Big! Amen.