Love is a Verb: God’s love made flesh

2016_10_17_isaac_villegasAs the featured speaker at  Hope for the Future (HFF) in January 2016, Isaac Villegas offered these reflections on the theme of “Love is a verb” as a way into the Bible passage assigned to him for the gathering: Ephesians 4:15-16. This part two of his series of three talks.

“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” ~ Ephesians 4:15-16

This passage begins and ends with love — the body in love. We love. We are a people of love. The church is the love of Jesus in the flesh, the body of Christ. Trinitarian theologies identify the Holy Spirit as the bond of love, the One whose love holds God together — the love who is God. As the 4th century African theologian, Augustine of Hippo, wrote: “The love which is of God and which is God is the Holy Spirit” (De Trinitate 15.18.32).

Jesus is the overflow of this love into the world. “For God so loved the world,” therefore Jesus (John 3:16). Jesus is God’s love in the world. The theologian M. Shawn Copeland names this divine movement as the eros at the heart of God’s life — the erotic life of God, the ecstasy of God exceeding God’s self, God beyond God, reaching out, overflowing, Jesus as the worldly embodiment of God’s eros, divine love. “Jesus lived out and lives out of a fully embodied spirituality, an eros,” writes Copeland. “Jesus had and has an eros of others; he gave his body, his very self, to and for others” (Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being, 65).

Jesus is the Spirit’s life-love enfleshed. God living outside of God’s self, in the world but not of the world. Love made flesh. Love incarnate. Love as a verb, as the action of the Holy Spirit in the world.

When we read about Jesus in the Gospels, we read about the Holy Spirit. When we see Jesus, we see the Spirit. This divine relationship begins with Mary, in her womb, as the Spirit of God rests upon her body, conceiving the Son, Jesus Christ. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born of you will be holy” (Luke 1:35). The life of Jesus begins in Mary with the Holy Spirit. The annunciation is a declaration of the solidarity of the Spirit and Jesus, their intimate bond, one so close to the other that we can’t speak of one without describing the other.

The scene at the Jordan river, with John and Jesus, is a further identification of the Holy Spirit with Christ. Jesus is baptized into the Spirit. And the work of the Spirit is the announcement of love: “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are the beloved’” (Luke 3:22). To use classic trinitarian language, I would say that the mission of the Holy Spirit in relation to the Son is love — the announcement of love, the affirmation of love, the work of love.

After his baptism, Jesus goes into the wilderness, a furthering into the waters of his baptism, plunging ever deeper into his intimacy with the Holy Spirit. In the wilderness, Jesus learns radical dependence on the love of God. He learns the movements of divine love as the Spirit possess his body — his life “full of the Holy Spirit,” “filled with the power of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:1, 4:14). His life becomes the form of love as the Spirit flows through his body. The Holy Spirit equips him to resist the ways of the world — the temptations of power, of coercion, of violence.

Then, after his baptism into the Spirit’s love, Jesus begins his ministry with a sermon in Galilee. “Jesus, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, returned to Galilee,” where he “began to teach” (Luke 4:14-15). Jesus is awash with the Spirit, God’s eternal love flowing through him. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he declares (Luke 4:18).

For the rest of his life, throughout his ministry, Jesus and the Spirit are inseparable. With one comes the other. Jesus is the labor of the Spirit’s love, the work of love in the flesh.

Wilderness love

His experience in the wilderness sets the course for Jesus’ life. The wilderness is a furthering of Jesus’ baptism into the Spirit’s mission of love — a love so fierce, so passionate, so vulnerable, that the powers of this world can’t control him so they kill him. “Real love is a dangerous, disturbing, and subversive force. If you offer it to the world then, as John has Jesus say, ‘The world will hate you,’” writes the preacher Herbert McCabe, “but Jesus remained faithful to his mission” (God Still Matters). In the wilderness, Jesus learns that love involves a struggle against the powers that be, that divine love will be taken as a threat to the established order. The world tempts him with alternative ways to live, alternative ethics, various models for social change, worldly tools to get what he wants. But he refuses the methods of the world. He refuses to play the devil’s game. Jesus refuses to confine his love to the forms of the world.Love is a Verb

When I read the story of Jesus — his resistance to temptations in the wilderness, and his resistance to worldly power throughout his life — I think of the words of Audre Lorde. “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” she writes in Sister Outsider. “They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Like Lorde, Jesus refuses the methods of the worldly master. There will be no master for his love, for God’s love — no master for the Spirit.

The theme of the devil’s temptations is grasping — a rush to get what you want no matter the consequences, effectiveness at all costs, the temptation of speed. Jesus is promised the kingdoms of the world, in an instant, without having to wait, without having to undergo time, without having to endure a life of oppression. “If you worship me,” the devil says, “it will all be yours” (Luke 4:7). Indeed, as Messiah, Jesus will become lord of lords, king of kings, but he won’t be given his kingdoms by the devil. He won’t play the devil’s game. Because, as Audre Lorde put it, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Jesus refuses the devil’s offer — the devil’s methods and tools — because Jesus wants genuine change. He wants new life, not another version of the old.

And this new life Jesus will offer the world is God’s life, the eternal love of the Holy Spirit. Jesus chooses a life of divine love, to undergo the Spirit’s labor, as new life is born in the world. This life Jesus offers takes time. Love takes time. To love this world takes time — to fall in love and learn how to love. Love is patient, not grasping.

In the wilderness Jesus embarks on a path to crucified love. When we pay attention to the life of Jesus as a revelation of God’s love, we learn that to love — to love like God loves, to embody the Spirit — gets you kicked out of worship services, gets you sent to appear before religious courts where the authorities judge your love, where they decide if you’re allowed to love people the way Jesus does. They killed him because he risked the love of the Holy Spirit in a world that couldn’t bear that love, a world that couldn’t receive that love. They had to get rid of him because of the intensity of his love.

A body in love

We have been brought into this life of Jesus — this love — through baptism. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27). We are now in Christ. We now find ourselves within this body — the life of the Holy Spirit, wrapped in God’s love, Christ’s love made flesh in us.

“I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says to his disciples, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). We have been brought into Jesus’ love, into the unfinished work of Christ. We are now the labor of the Holy Spirit, the work of Christ’s love for the world — a commitment we’ve made with our lives, a lifetime of learning how to love this world, to love our world.


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One thought on “Love is a Verb: God’s love made flesh

  1. What a fine biblical exposition of love — engendered by the Spirit, embodied in Jesus, and offered to us all as beloved children of God. I’m grateful for both Isaac’s courage to dig deeply into our heritage of scriptures and his theological acumen in interpreting them anew for our time. A gift for the church and our world!

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