On Sunday, January 24, 2021 I preached on the right way to be hated at The Sanctuary in Denver, CO. The essay on love and power that shaped my thinking is the second chapter of Henri Nouwen’s book, Intimacy.
In John 15:18–21, Jesus tells his disciples:
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.John 15:18–21 (ESV)
I have a simple question I want to explore this morning, ”What’s the right way to be hated?”
Now it certainly sounds like an odd question. But in light of the cultural and political tensions in our country right now, I think it’s an important one. I’ve heard voices from across the Christian ideological spectrum who are quick to turn to these words of Jesus. They use them to explain the hostility they experience both from the broader world and other Christian factions. The problem is, when we quickly turn to a verse like this, we do not engage in legitimate self-reflection. We get to assume they hate us because we align with Jesus. Unless we stop and examine our theology and practice, unless we ask hard questions, how do we know they hate us for the right reasons?
So I want to engage in some of that reflection this morning. We will start by using the Lutheran theological tradition that I grew up in as an example. Then we will move on to what I call pop theology. Finally we will delve into the framework I find most helpful. It comes from an essay by Henri Nouwen titled, “The Challenge to Love.”
The Lutheran Frame
In the 2010 I served as a guest professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, in Pretoria, South Africa. One of my classes introduced students from across the African continent to the Augsburg Confession, a founding document of Lutheranism.
Now for Lutherans, the 4th article of the confession, the one that covers justification, is the most important. In that theological system, everything else revolves around it. As I taught, I very purposefully demonstrated how everything links to justification. From original sin and sanctification, to Baptism and Communion, to marriage and politics. It all connects back to the belief that we are justified exclusively by grace through faith.
At the end of the semester, I reinforced the centrality of justification on a study guide I produced. As a way of testing the guide’s quality, I ran it through a word cloud generator. The font size increases every time a work is used. It came up with this image:
Putting Justification in the Middle
If my students embraced my teaching, they could explain why Lutherans insist on original sin as complete depravity. They would know anything less, any possibility a human being could please God, undermines justification by grace through faith. Anything less than complete depravity opens the door for you to earn some portion of your forgiveness.
They would also tell me why infants need baptism. They would know we need forgiveness not just for the things we do, but who we are as deprived sinners. Therefore, the grace given to an infant in the waters of baptism reinforces justification by grace through faith.
Finally, they would argue good works we do in life only benefit our neighbor. To honor justification by grace through faith, we need to always remain in a state of total depravity towards God. So God gets your sin and your neighbor gets your good works.
With that mind, how do Lutherans answer the question, “What is the right way to be hated?”
The Right Way to Be Hated (Lutheran Edition)
When I strove to be a theological consistent Lutheran, I reviewed the Vince Vaughn Christmas movie, Fred Claus. Vaughn plays Santa’s younger sibling. He goes to the North Pole and destroys the naughty list claiming every kid is good and deserves a present. I critiqued the movie saying there are no good kids because we are all depraved from birth. But the Gospel offers everyone a present, justification by grace through faith.
Based on the comments to my review, I upset some folks. Maybe hate isn’t the right word, but they were not fans of mine. I saw their opposition as simply a rejection of what the good news needs in order to be good news. There was complete theological consistency on my part.
Unfortunately, my theology and practice, while consistent in itself, failed to align with the theology and practice of Jesus. Jesus does not run around calling everyone a depraved sinner destined for hell from birth. Actually, Jesus doesn’t spend much time talking strictly about justification at all, be it by grace or by works. So when I sparked the ire of people while reviewing Fred Claus, they didn’t hate me because of Jesus. They hated me because I was being a spiritually abusive and shaming jerk with an incomplete and entirely inadequate theology. I was not hated for the right reason.
The Kingdom of God
I can still remember the first time someone planted a seed that Jesus’ teaching focused on something larger than justification. It had yet to attend Seminary. It happened in a small muggy teaching tent at the Spirit West Coast Christian Music Festival outside Monterey, California. There is not much I remember about the teacher beyond her being a young and passionate Black woman. I couldn’t tell you most of what she said. A single comment consumed my attention: That Jesus’ taught the Kingdom of God.
15 years later as I worked on my dissertation, I found myself compelled to re-examine my theology. As I did, those words I first wrestled with that day came back to me. They had popped up every time I read about the ministry of John the Baptist. I recalled them whenever I read Jesus‘ words after returning from temptation in the desert. They pressed themselves on me when I studied the dozens of parables teaching what the Kingdom of God is like. But for whatever reason, it took 15 years of them poking at me for them to finally take hold.
We could do a whole sermon series on the Kingdom of God. As a brief overview, a better translation of the idea would be the Kinging of God. You see, it’s not so much about a geographic place as it is a way of ordering existence. It is wherever things operate per God’s desires and creation honors God’s rule and reign. That’s what we ask for when we pray, “Thy Kingdom come.”
While I’m not as familiar with other theological branches as I am Lutheranism, I see other traditions trying to better embracing the Kingdom. This is true even if I think they ultimately misunderstand just what the rule and reign of God means.
The Holiness Gap
For example, I read and hear what popular American evangelical theology both on the Right and Left teaches. As I do, I noticed a similarity in the teaching centering on what I call the holiness gap. It argues that God is holy and people are not. So we must close the holiness gap through faith in Jesus. Then we keep it closed through obedience. The difference between the Right and Left is in their understanding of what it means to be holy.
Generally, the Right focuses on individual behavior. They tie holiness to morality. This is what fueled prohibition almost 100 years ago. It explains the popularity of the True Love Waits movement in the late ’90s. In the United States, it tends to take on a strong national focus. It becomes politically active through the appointment of conservative justices in hopes of overturning Roe vs. Wade and honoring the wishes of business owners who don’t want to make wedding cakes for gay couples.
In contrast, the Left focuses on issues including racism, sexism, and the environment. Because they focus the diversity of God’s people, they think in broader humanitarian terms. This shapes their approach to subjects like immigration. They tie holiness to justice. Many on the Christian Left celebrated Twitter banning accounts and the unplugging of Parlor. They saw it as being in line with the Kingdom of God.
The Right Way to Be Hated (Pop Theology Edition)
I believe both sides of this dynamic engage in a genuine attempt to bring heaven here on earth. Moreover, the work they do is theologically consistent with what they believe. They both try to use what power they have to enforce what they see as good, right, and holy. This makes it is easy for both sides to think people hate them because they are pressing for Jesus’ agenda.
But just like Lutheran me erred when I put justification at the center of all things, we misunderstand the Bible when we place a gap focused understanding of holiness in the middle. The result, once again, means we found the wrong way to be hated.
What Does It Mean For God to Be Holy?
Now I am not saying we shouldn’t have God’s holiness sit at the center of our understanding of Scripture. I believe that the coming of the Kingdom of God is about the manifestation of God’s holiness. I even think that this holiness stands in opposition to the ways of the world as we know it. So the right way to be hated is to be a bringer of divine holiness. At the same time, we fundamentally fail to understand what it means for God to be holy. Therefore we often fail to grasp how the Kingdom of God is different from the world as we know it.
So what does it mean to say that God is holy? One of the many themes woven through the Gospel According to John is the idea of Jesus’ hour. He tells his mother at Cana that his hour hadn’t come. He tells the Samaritan woman of a coming hour when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. Jesus tells the Jews at a ritual feast an hour is coming when the dead will hear his voice. And on multiple occasions, the religious leaders attempted to arrest Jesus but couldn’t because his hour had not yet come.
Then, in John 12, Jesus finally declares it is his hour to be glorified. It is an hour where he will be, quite literally, lifted up. But it is also an hour when the light will most fully shine in the darkness. It is an hour that most clearly reveals divine truth. John makes it abundantly clear that for Jesus, to be glorious, to be set apart as holy, to clearly reveal the work of God, demands he embrace the Kingdom of God even while being crucified by those who embrace the way of this world.
This is where Henri Nouwen’s essay, “The Challenge to Love,” becomes both thought-provoking and helpful. According to Nouwen, the way of this world is power and the way of the Kingdom is love. So God is glorious because God always chooses love.
Let’s unpack that a bit.
The Ubiquity of Power
Power is so ubiquitous that you and I assume it’s the only way life can be. Power is akin to David Foster Wallace’s parable in, “This is Water.” Two fish swimalong talking. A third fish swims by and says, “Enjoy the water.” The first two fish pause and look at one another curiously. Once the fish going the other way is out of earshot, they ask each other, “What’s water?”
Nouwen describes this ubiquity when he writes:
“We are judged, evaluated, tested, and graded, diagnosed and classified from the time our parents compare our first walk with a little neighbor’s. Gradually, as time goes on, we realize that our permanent record is building a life of its own, independent of ours. It is really not so amazing that we often feel caught, taken, and used for purposes not our own. The main concern then becomes not who I am but who I am considered to be, not what I think, but what others think of me. In this taking form of existence, we find ourselves operating in terms of power, motivated by fear.”Intimacy, 26
Power in Dating
So from the moment, we come into this world, what we witness and therefore embrace, is power. And it’s not like it starts out rough and eventually gets easier. I’m 46 and it’s been 2 years since my ex and I separated. That human desire for connection beyond is stirring. I like my son, roommate, coworkers, and an occasional beer with the friend, but I want something different. So I thought I’d try and figure out dating in the age of COVID.
Now, even without COVID, I generally suck at dating. We live in a world where most conversation revolves around pop culture. My interests are theology, psychology, philosophy, and politics. I usually struggle to find something casual to say after, “Hi, I’m Joe.”
You might think dating apps would help. In theory, I could find something on a profile indicating a mutual interest that I can engage with. But what you do when you sign up is thrustyourself into a world driven by power. You set yourself up for women to compare you to every other single guy in the city.
Now, this is essentially what men have been doing to women for thousands of years. So some might consider it a step forward. I mean, the relational playing field is leveled. But it a leveling based on power. Now both sides engage in the judgment and evaluation. Both sides are compelled to craft an image they will never live up to.
Then there is the part where, in the more desired ways, I don’t play the power game well. The most stable of my numerous unstable streams of income, involves me being a glorified Al Bundy in the REI footwear department. Or, if you heard me preach my story last May, there’s the constant debate about when to bring that up. Preaching about your history with sex addiction is hard. Having that conversation with someone you might eventually have sex with is brutal.
No wonder Nouwen writes:
Sometimes it seems that a boy feels more relaxed in the classroom than when he is alone with a girl. Instead of feeling free to give his affection, express freely his moods and concerns to the girl he loves, he is more self-conscious than ever, wants to make the right remark at the right time, and is everything spontaneous. What looks at a distance like love is often, at a closer look, fear.Intimacy, 27
Power in Marriage
And it’s not like any of this is better for many married couples. My second marriage ultimately ended because of this. Rather than giving my affection or expressing freely my moods and concerns, I remained entirely self-conscious and afraid. I refused to reveal anything potentially shameful. I strove to do the right thing but never from a place of genuine love or service. At best, marriage with me was like a relationship Nouwen describes where:
John and Sally walk in the park. After a ten minute exposition by John about Hegel, Kierkegaard, Camus, Sartre, and some other of his recent authors, there is a long silence. Sally asks, ‘John, do you care for me?’ John becomes a little irritated, ‘Sure I do, but I wanted to know what you think about existentialism.’ Sally: ‘John I don’t want to marry a philosopher, I want to marry you.’ John becomes mad. ‘Don’t be so silly and stupid, if we can’t have a decent conversation, how can we ever get along?’ Sally: ‘There is a little more to love than a decent conversation, and I just don’t want to be another of your classmates.Intimacy, 30
And all the women in the room just said, “Amen.”
Power and Toxic Pseudo-Masculinity
But it’s not just in relationships with each other that we find ourselves living by power. Jungian psychologist James Hollis writes about this in his book, Under Saturn’s Shadow: The Wounding and Healing of Men. The book unpacks the story of the Roman god Saturn, the god of agriculture and generativity who became a tyrant. It’s a story “of power, jealousy, insecurity — violence to the principle of eros, to generativity and to the earth” (10). Because it is without eros, this power is “haunted by fear and compensatory ambition, driven to violent ends” (11).
This creates a culture where men live under the constant pressures of “work, war, and worry” (15). It comes at the expense of their own soul’s health. This drive to dominate does position men to set the rules of how the broader society works. But it is a society that cultivates violence towards themselves, each other, women, and children. Making matters worse, because men establish the social order, equality for women often means behaving like men. Their only choice seems to demand conforming to patterns of toxic pseudo-masculinity.
If this is true, it is easy to see how men living under Saturn’s shadow, under Nouwen’s way of power, is a catalyst for universal suffering.
Now, some of the men might be feeling a bit defensive right now. You might even be hating me a bit. But hear me out, because what you feel, begins to reveal the right way to be hated.
Power and Western Christianity
Making matters even worse, the way of power even sits at the very core of the Western understanding of atonement. In the West, especially over the past 1,000 years, Christianity uses the way of power to interpret the Bible. This means God operates from power. It is as if fallen people operate according to power, so we assume God does too. As Voltaire said, “In the beginning, God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.”
There are a variety of ways to talk about how salvation theology evolved differently in the West versus the East. Many of you are familiar with the idea because Brad Jersak demonstrated it for you in this room:
Five years before Brad shared it with you, it was first put on my radar. Rather than talking about the therapeutic model, this priest titled his video, “The Orthodox View of Salvation.”
Richard Rohr points us to his Jesuit tradition. They would say that according to the way of power, Jesus changes God’s mind about us. However, through the way of love, Jesus converts us from power to love, and changes our mind about God.
Power vs. Love
The distinction between living by power versus love is at the heart of John‘s Gospel. It is what he means by dark versus light and this world versus the age to come. In other words, what Nouwen calls the way of love is both the Kingdom manifest and the Logos of God.
So how does life look different under love? It begins when you dare to be seen. Love insists you dare to be known. You reject the temptation to defend, excuse, explain, or rationalize yourself. You know that no matter how ugly things might be below the surface, you are loved.
Now let’s pull that out of theory and put some skin on it.
Love and Dating
I’ll start with one example from my week. I mentioned earlier my foray into the online dating world. For the past month I have messaged someone on and off. We talked about trying to connect in person but between schedules, COVID restrictions, and uncooperative weather things haven’t lined up. Last Sunday she sent me a text and asked what I was up to. I mentioned that in part I was preparing to preach this week. I wrote, “I’m trying to wrap my mind around how I want to approach my chosen topic given everything that’s going on in the world right now.”
After clicking send, I realized that was not honest. I sent a follow-up message saying, “By the way, since we’re exploring the whole dating thing and I’ve pledged myself to uncomfortable honesty with someone I’m interested in, you can read, ‘trying to wrap my mind around’ as having a serious preemptive vulnerability hangover with sides of hypocrisy and inadequacy.”
She messaged back that she didn’t totally understand what I meant and ask me to explain. So I shared a bit about love and power, and I read her a quote from Nouwen. I talked about how I’ve played vulnerability in past relationships. Then I shared why sermon prep is such an emotionally intense experience. Let me be clear, I hated every moment of sharing because it left me feeling completely exposed.
The whole time, I kept saying in the back of my mind, “It doesn’t matter how she responds, you’re love. It doesn’t matter how she responds, you’re loved. It doesn’t matter how she responds, you’re loved.” over and over and over again.
Love and Human Sinfulness
It is true. No matter how she responded, the Gospel declares that God sees me in the fullness of who I am. God simultaneously sees both my strength and my weakness. My confidence and insecurity is on full display. There is my faith and my doubt, as well as my kindness and my anger. Then there is my loyalty and my infidelity, my compassion and my cruelty, my love and my lust. Seeing that full picture and more, God relentlessly loves me. Not part of me … all of me.
The way of power says we need to rip out and purge that which isn’t good. If you cannot get rid of it, then hide it. The way of love calls us to be honest about all of it. And you know what, the way of power, hates vulnerability and anything else it perceives as weakness.
Love Demands Vulnerability
But the way of love doesn’t stop there. Rather, love insists on seeing others for who they are. It inviting them to reject their attempts to hide behind the fig leaves of a crafted image.
That is what Jesus does when he comes to the Samaritan woman at the well. “You’re right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” (John 4:17-18)
Notice, he doesn’t condemn her. He doesn’t point out her moral failings. He says, “Yes that’s true, but I know there’s more that you’re hiding because you’re ashamed of it.” He realizes that this is a woman, in a culture where women depend on men for provision, had five men pledge to care for her, only to die or cast her aside. Now the man she’s with won’t even make the commitment to her. Can you imagine how much that hurts? The last thing she wants is someone to see her. Because in a world operating on power, to be see, is to be rejected.
While we live in a very different culture, I am a man who married two different women. I promised love and faithfulness only to deliver duplicitous infidelity. Revealing my dating record is the last thing I want. But as I embrace the way of love, love refuses to let me hide. And you know what, sometimes I hate love for it.
Love Speaks Truth to Power
But this exposure doesn’t just happen with individuals. Jesus also exposes exploitive institutions. In common parlance, you could say that he speaks truth to power. One example of this comes in John 2 when Jesus cleanses the Temple. The more I look into this account, the more common answers as to what upset Jesus fail. I hear some say the market gave the Gentiles no place to worship. Others says Jesus opposed any kind of marketplace.
But as you can see in the image, the Court of the Gentiles is a massive space. There is more than enough room for a marketplace and for the Gentiles to gather. Moreover, the Law required sacrifices, and sacrifices require animals. Traveling long distances with animals for sacrifice is dangerous. It risks injury to the animal making them sacrificially unworthy. So logically it is just easier to buy them in Jerusalem. Buying animals requires the right currency so money changing is necessary. Given that the Court of the Gentiles is one of the few places near the Temple where there is room to conduct this necessary Temple business, it only makes sense to do it right there near where the sacrifices will take place.
So what is Jesus‘ objection? What does make sense ties into Jesus’ broader issues with exploration and greed. Think of the parable about the rich man who built larger barns for himself. Or Jesus encounter with the rich young ruler. Then there is the way Zacchaeus’ responded when he came to faith. The most logical conclusion is that Jesus objected to how they were conducting business.
They were not seeking to offer a service that benefited the people. It was a system designed to help the rich grow richer at the expense of the poor. They exploited the limited options the poor had to obtain animals required for sacrifices. In other words, Jesus got angry because the Temple conducted business using the tactics of power. They used tactics designed to elevate the popular perception of the merchant class and further degrade the perception of the economically marginalized. It makes you wonder how Jesus might respond to the economic climate in America today.
And so we find ourselves a bit closer to the right way to be hated.
The Right Way to Be Hated
This love and power framework changes everything. It forces us to reexamine every aspect of our individual lives and how we function in society. Love make us uncomfortable at home as we reveal ourselves and fear our partner won’t love who they see. It will force us to rethink how we do business and talk politics. Love offends both the Power Right and the Power Left. It reveals the truth of how our politics, no matter what the issue, is really expanding power. Love exposes corruption across the board. When love does that to those who devoted their lives to crafting power, love is hated.
The Lutheran way of power seeks to highlight inadequacy and strip away any sense of power. Popular American Christianity seeks to demonstrate its own power and therefore superiority over others. But the Gospel, even as it exposes us, gently invites us to resist following the path of Adam and Eve. It tells us not to cover ourselves, but to bask in the rays of divine love and invite others to stand in those rays with us.
There, as we discover we are loved for who we are and not the image we project, we slowly find ourselves less desperate for power. Knowing I am loved is the only reason I told that young woman about the emotional intensity and insecurity that comes during sermon prep. And my vulnerability then gave her permission to be vulnerable as well. I invited her to embrace the reality that, even if we are not a match, she too is loved just as she is.
But that’s scary. Not everyone will accept that opportunity. So, when love insists on honesty, when it expects the revelation of all the ugly details, when it insists that we be truthful about our doubts, fears, insecurities, and manipulations, some people will hate it. But that’s why they hated Jesus and that’s what makes it the right way to be hated.
The Love Meal
Sometime on the same night Jesus told his disciples the world would hate them, he took bread and broke it and gave it to them saying take and eat, this is my body, this is the way of love made flesh and I want you to digest it. I want you to consume it so that in time, it an consume you.
Then he took the cup and said this is my blood. This is the way of love that flows through me. Drink it, so that it can flow through you as well.
What we know is power, but what we receive in this meal is love. So take and eat, and as you do, ask love to have its way with you, even when you hate it.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.