Harrowing Of Hell
March 27, 2022

Only God Can Save the World

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Let me be a little Lenten apocalyptic today; I say with a smile….  Because I love you. Our guide in the Holy Land, Iyad, always said that to us… “Remember, I love you,” and then he’d take us up a hill or something. Love is the theme of the sermon, incidentally. We’ll get to that later.

First, to Lent and the litany. It starts by owning where we are because in truth, humanity has never ever experienced anything like the world as it is right now. I know every generation thinks that it is coming up against the end of time. Every generation has its apocalyptic moments and perspective. But, we are seeing things we’ve never seen before: Global warming with its unstoppable environment change; Fire blazing uncontrollably the world over, sometimes ignited by human selfishness, but other times by lightning strikes that send flames dashing across grasslands or ripping through forests. There are super storms churning oceans into a frenzy  as they stomp on islands and crawl across coast lands.  There are tornados dancing indiscriminately from Texas to Minnesota.  And pandemic, 1,000,000 Americans dead. War launched by nations with nuclear tipped missiles, capable of murdering millions upon millions and destroying billions upon billions in property, under the leadership of unhinged men.

And this litany of cataclysm runs lock step with the deeper existential threat that humanity will soon lose its self in the morass of the metaverse; while artificial intelligence induces machines to highjack human work and in doing so steal a chunk of our identity. Then there are algorithms that drive our spending and our lifestyles. And video games that trick our bodies into inactivity and our minds into repetitive patterns of compulsion. There is an epidemic of anxiety in the hearts of humanity that is expressed through the highest rates of drug use and suicide and depression ever seen in young people.

It is as Susan Pitchford said last Sunday; very clearly, very simply: We are not in control. Quite possibly we are out of control. If the world, as it is, doesn’t drive you to your knees, then you’re not paying attention. And I can see why, because to pay attention is to be thrown into the outer edges of existential angst. So, it seems the only option is to find venues of avoidance or avenues of delusion…Or maybe there is a better way, an older way, a deeper way, a truer way, a more powerful way…

If you came to church today looking for good news, you’re going to find it, because as I said at the beginning, I’m going to talk about love…Because I am convinced that it is love and only love that can save the world; and not love as an idea or a feeling, but as an action of reconciliation as perfectly designed by God to heal this broken world. That is what we are going to talk about today, love, because we must. It is the only answer to the litany of apocalyptic Lent I just prattled through.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Swiss Jesuit theologian gives us a framework to follow built on the three sacrifices of love. These sacrifices are: the sacrifice of independence, the sacrifice of pleasure, and the sacrifice of advantage.

But before we unpack these sacrifices of love I want to review the Christian theology in which they materialize. It is important and it is simple…Two things: The cross and resurrection. The cross represents human freedom. Resurrection represents God’s freedom. Freedom being the essential component because if there is no freedom there can be no love.

The cross is the ultimate expression of human freedom. It symbolizes full human agency even if employed to kill God – Which is why Jesus was God. He had to be if God is actually a god of love. Jesus was the necessary, accessible, personification required for the possible, and it turns out actual, murdering of God.

The resurrection is God’s response. Resurrection is God rejecting human rejection. Resurrection is God rejecting the limits of death. Resurrection is God making God’s self known and present, without forcing God’s self upon us. Resurrection is God being with us, and yet, allowing us to still freely choose to reject God. It is genius. But that’s God, pretty smart, or shall I say pretty loving.

Which brings us back to von Balthasar and the three sacrifices of love: the sacrifice of independence, the sacrifice of pleasure, and the sacrifice of advantage. These three loves, when braided together, have a title… It is reconciliation. When we talk about reconciliation, we are talking about the three sacrifices of love.

A few weeks ago, I preached about reconciliation and forgiveness. I defined forgiveness as being a singular activity that we can do on our own and reconciliation as an event that needs a partner. We usually imagine reconciliation as reserved for someone with whom we have a tattered, if not broken, relationship. And while that’s true, it is not exclusively so. Reconciliation should also be considered for people we are in “good” relationship with as well. Why? Well, first of all, because every relationship is broken just a little bit. But also, more importantly, we learn to love better when we have a friend or a community with whom to practice. And the better we get at loving, the better the world becomes.

So today, let’s think about reconciliation and let’s do so keeping in mind people we like, trust, and are in relationship with. They are, after all, the practice partners God has given us. You can find this partner in a spouse, or a spiritual friend, or even a community. But wherever you find this partner or people, it must be someone or someones  who wants to invest, mutually, in this exercise of reconciliation.

With that in mind, let’s return to the three strands of reconciliation: the sacrifice of independence, pleasure, and advantage. We’ll start by looking at the sacrifice of independence. What that means is prioritizing interdependence over our independence. What might that look like? It might look like caring for someone who is ill, or taking on a task or assuming a duty which impedes on a date or a vacation or a Sunday morning talk show. It might mean giving away a car you don’t need to someone who just wandered into church one Sunday. I’ve seen that happen before.

“Preach,” you may be thinking, “that is crazy.” But play it out. What if that spiritual friend had committed to you in like kind? All of a sudden you both find yourselves in a spiral of ascending mutual interdependent support. That is powerful. That is love. That is changes the world. That is the sacrifice of independence.

Now, I know, “sacrifice” can be a trigger word, but keep this idea in mind: the more mutual sacrifice there is, the less sacrifice there needs to be.  And what is left on the table is love. Let me say that again. The more mutual sacrifice there is, the less sacrifice there needs to be. And what is left on the table is love; and it is love, only love, that will save the world.

So, let’s move on to the second strand of reconciliation: the sacrifice of pleasure. Now in intimate relationships it is easy to imagine how a partner’s pleasure, as top priority, when prioritized by both participants, results in deepest satisfaction. But the sacrifice of pleasure doesn’t have to be just around physical encounter. It can be around a meal, or where you go get ice cream, or the kind of flowers that adorn a sanctuary, or art on the wall, or the aroma of candles.

The key is paying attention to the things that bring pleasure to someone else. And here is the reward! Their joy and their satisfaction is your joy and satisfaction. Anyone who has played with the child knows what I’m talking about.

Now you may be thinking: “Preach, this could get a little silly.” Imagine a conversation about going on vacation…“No, where do you want to go?” “No, where do you want to go?”  “No. where do you want to go?”  But trust me, if you find yourself in that conversation, you will work it out, and both will find pleasure in where you agree to go.

Which brings us to the third sacrifice under the rubric of Reconciliation: the sacrifice of advantage. Let me give you an example of what this looks like in community. There was a study done that looked at the financial benefits for NBA players in playoff games who took a shot, rather than passed the ball. And it found that for each shot a player took $22,000 was added to their compensation. While, on the other hand, each pass a player made diminished their compensation by $6000. So, passing the ball rather than shooting it could cost a player $28,000. (The Culture Code, pg. 49)           

And yet, the most successful team in the history of the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs, under the leadership of coach Gregg Popovitch, does just that. They play selfless ball, always seeking the advantage of their teammates. There is no “tit for tat.” There is no “it’s my turn.” There is no “its about the money.” Instead, they play with love, and love wins. In sacrificing their own advantage the San Antonio Spurs have won NBA championships in 20 years and have the highest win/loss ratio ever in the NBA.

Now you may be thinking: “Preach, that is basketball, this is life. Sacrificing advantage sounds like becoming a doormat.” I can see how you might think that, but remember, as I said earlier, seek a partner who wants to enter into this experience of reconciliation with you, mutually. That is what happens with the Spurs, and that is where the difference is made. In the sacrifice of advantage. In the sacrifice of pleasure. In the sacrifice of independence.

That is love and I believe that practicing love is the answer to the world’s most intractable problems. You see, what love does is it makes us our most human, and whether or not machines are running the world, the point is to be our most human selves. That happens through love. Love is an attribute unique to creatures made in the image and likeness of God.  And when we live toward love of neighbor, by sacrificing independence, pleasure, and advantage, we are our most godly, and our most reconciled; which means being in sync with the world as God made it to be, which then positions us to best save this broken and angst-ridden world.

That is the ministry of reconciliation. That is what Paul is getting it in today’s lesson when he invites us to be Ambassadors for Christ. That is what Paul means when he implores us to be reconciled with God. For the attributes of God’s love are the same as the attributes of our love.

God’s love IS our love. The way God loves IS the way we love. Reconciled: sacrificing independence, pleasure, and advantage for our neighbor. The more mutual sacrifice there is, the less sacrifice there needs to be. And all that will be left on the table is love.

It is love and only love that will save the world.