I love you.
Three little words that can wield the power to change….well, everything. Turn a friendship into romantic attachment, and an acquaintance into a friend. Forgive a hurt; heal a breach; restore what’s broken. Declare a commitment. I love you. Three little words that tap the limitless essence of the universe—God—in whom we live and move and have our being.
Those three little words also form the heart of Christian faith. Perhaps the most influential 20th century Reformed theologian Karl Barth wrote hundreds of scholarly works parsing Christian scripture, creeds, and explanations filling dozens of books. When asked near the end of his life to summarize the bottom line, the elderly man responded resolutely not with a quote from his own impressive canon, but with the words of a children’s hymn: Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Our biblical text this morning could well be the basis for that simple truth. In words that were part of a letter circulated widely among the early congregations, the author affirms that God is love. God’s I love you to the people made in God’s image is unconditional and irrevocable. Immersed in that transforming reality, how could we not respond in love? A reading from the first letter of John, in the fourth chapter, verses seven through twelve. Listen for God’s word to us. [I John 4:7-12] The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!
I love you.
The text confirms the power of those words, and only hints at the ways they can be corrupted to hurt, mock, and manipulate through sin. We all learned long ago that words don’t simply reflect reality; they create it, and that old saw about sticks and stones being the only weapons to break bodies and souls simply doesn’t hold up.
So this morning I want to offer an addendum to those three little words to help retain their beauty and transforming power, and to move us from “ought” to “able.” The text testifies that practice does make perfect, or at least better.
The addendum consists of three little words to avoid and three others to replace them with. I found them in some marriage preparation materials from Sam Wells, vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields church in London [published in the Christian Century, September 2022]. Their truth goes further than the context of marriage; and provides insight for loving one another, our neighbors, and ourselves, and for creating the beloved community welcoming and accepting all.
First, replace “if” with “always.” For some of us that means unlearning a theology of God’s conditional love; if you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior, then you will be saved. If you obey the commandments, then you’ll have life. If is transactional; it depends upon the reactions and responses of the loved person to count. How much damage has been done by this propositional understanding of Christian faith; that God loves you only if you believe the right things, say the right things, do the right things. There’s plenty of evidence that this damning message is prevalent, as we see the rise of hate crimes upon LGBTQ+ siblings. Twisted variations on a more subtle (but no less painful) judgment that these human expressions of gender identity and sexual orientation are wrong. But there’s no good news in a religion that purports to speak for God and wields words and passes legislation that dehumanizes the people God has created. It’s a joyless, airless, graceless creed that limits the scope and power of God’s love for humanity—-all of it. What if we spoke of “always”—God’s love for us is unconditional, permanent, and there’s nothing that can separate us from it. When we receive love like that, we grow in our own ability to love without calculation or a sense of quid pro quo. I love you….always.
Second little word: avoid “for” and say “with” instead. “For” is a subtle divider between giver and recipient, and assumes the moral superiority of the former. “For” keeps a tab open, and a way to measure and compare. Look at all I do for you! Oh, it’s the same few people who do all the work for the church. We do so much for the poor—you’d think they could work a little harder to help themselves. We can see the negative effects of this word in the perception and treatment of immigrants coming to our country. We imagine there are finite resources and “these people” put the supply at risk. They threaten the accomplishments for which we’ve worked hard. Some of our language—describing these neighbors as invaders and criminals—erects a barrier as effective as any wall. We forget that “justice” means more than “just us.”
By contrast, “with” is about sharing, collaboration, a sense of mutual purpose and trust. It spreads responsibility and accountability broadly, among all the beloveds. We may succeed and we may fail; we may struggle and we may soar; the important thing is that we do it together. South African archbishop Desmond Tutu frequently suggested that the question God will put to us at the last won’t be about our behavior, but about our bonds: Not “What good did you do?” But instead, “Where are the others?” I love you…and will be with you.
Finally, replace “ask” with “wonder.” Cease the interrogation that feels judgmental. Why do you think that? What else can you tell me? Who is your favorite (and least favorite)? How are you going to solve this? Of course asking serves a purpose as we get acquainted, but it’s the questioner who holds the power. Better, instead, to go deeper by wondering. I wonder what keeps you awake at night? I wonder what formed your understanding of that perspective? I wonder how we can be most helpful to you. You may have noticed that this approach is the one we use to tell Bible stories to children: helping them engage with these ancient narratives through imagination. I wonder. . . . Faith formation is more interested in exploration than explanation; the process rather than the answer. I love you…and am open to something neither of us knows yet.
Today we’re commissioning teams who will travel far from home to demonstrate God’s love to neighbors in very different circumstances than our own. Speak of love, my friends. But whether you are going or staying, these three little words can express the magnitude of love and its power to change…well, everything. As Wells puts it to premarital couples (and it applies to us all): “Always” takes away the fear of the future. “With” means you’ll never be alone. “Wonder” means the future is an adventure. [Wells, Ibid. p.33]
May it be so. Thanks be to God!