Editor's note:

This week at Renovaré, our Institute faculty and staff are blessed to be gathered with the Dallas cohort. This is the third residency of four for this group, and at each meeting their friendships deepen as love is lived out. From the group of strangers at the cohort’s first residency to the bonded family with whom we are fellowshipping this week, there is something special that happens when God’s people find each other in a space that is open, “safe and enriching.”

In this piece, Chris Webb writes about that sort of love and how it may be the “fulfillment of holiness.” Not only are we created to love, he says, but “love, rightly ordered, will be the foundation of the kingdom of God.” We here at the Renovaré Institute are certainly seeing the Kingdom breaking in this week in one thousand holy moments. 

—Renovaré Team

The opening chapter of the Bible tells us that we are made “in the image of God” (Gen 1:27). Scholars and theologians have reflected for over two millennia about exactly what that might mean, but the apostle John, in his first letter, gives us an important insight into at least one significant implication. “God is love,” he writes, “and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 Jn 4:16). To bear the character of God is to have love hardwired into our essential nature. The more we are conformed to the character of God, the more perfectly loving we will become. We are created to love.

When God calls us to holiness, he roots that call in his own character: “Be holy,” he says to the Israelites, “for I am holy” (Lev 11:44). Holiness, then, cannot simply be an abstract purity of our interior nature–an unsullied conscience, free from guilt. Rather it is a summons to pure love, to be the kind of people who can develop good, deep, loving relationships, both with God and with other people, relationships which are safe and enriching for all concerned. Jesus certainly seems to understand the call in this way. In the first half of the Sermon on the Mount he addresses a series of issues which threaten to undermine the quality of loving relationships: anger, adultery, divorce, deception, and revenge. He then pushes the boundaries of love further than any reasonable morality would seem to demand: “Love your enemies,” he says, “and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). In this way, he says, you will “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Love, it seems, is the fulfillment of holiness.

Many years later, the great twelfth century Dominican writer Thomas Aquinas picked up on this strand of biblical teaching and made the startling assertion that love was more than the goal of Christian perfection: it is the fundamental power behind the created order. Just as physicists probe sub-atomic structure to identify the basic forces and particles that make up this physical universe, so Aquinas probed to the depths of Christian theology to identify the driving energy behind creation itself. In the end, Aquinas argued, everything is grounded in love, since all creation reflects the character of the one who made it. He suggested that we are not only made to love, we are made of love. Everything we do is driven by this divine quality: all we can do is love.

But Aquinas had no illusions about the terrifying human capacity for sin. He wrote about the lethal power of sin, that “turning away from our last end which is God.” He came to see love as having the kind of awesome power we see in nuclear fusion. Well-ordered and directed to the right ends, love can transform lives, inseparably unite people with one another and God, and act as the harmonious and creative power which holds all creation in being. But misdirected–allowed to turn in on itself, allowed to run wildly on the heels of any and every desire of our misguided hearts–love can become a horrifyingly destructive force, tearing apart the world from under our feet. Love, rightly ordered, will be the foundation of the kingdom of God. But grotesquely disordered love, inordinate self-love which swirls in on itself like a fierce tornado, has the capacity to shape tragedies like Auschwitz or the Rwandan genocide. Sin–love disordered–is horrific. But holiness–love rightly ordered–is life in all its abundance.

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