September 5, 2004

Christ’s Love Compels Us
2 Corinthians 5:11-21

What motivates people? That’s the question that kept swirling through my mind as I read John Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air. Why would otherwise reasonable and intelligent men and women risk their lives to climb through horrendous conditions—wind, snow, ice, diminishing oxygen—just to stand on the peak of Mt. Everest? Riding the train to the top of Pikes Peak was enough for me. I had trouble breathing there, at an altitude of 14,110’, let alone Everest’s 29,035’. Why do people do what they do?

Motivation is an intriguing subject to think about, isn’t it? We sometimes wonder where it comes from, and why some people seem to have it in great quantities while others have very little. We wonder about how to encourage it, either in our children, students, or even in ourselves. Just how many unmet resolutions weigh us down by now, anyway?!? And sometimes we wonder about those factors that actually do motivate us. Are we motivated, for example, by the right things? Are our motives healthy?

People are, as you well know, often motivated by any number of things. Some are motivated by guilt, striving tirelessly to make up for something they did wrong earlier in life. Others are motivated by fear, hoping to protect themselves from all of the catastrophic things that could happen to them. Still others are motivated by pride, wanting everyone around them to think highly of them. And others are motivated by greed, longing always to have more and more and more. To these possibilities you might add other motivating factors of you own.

Motivation, I might suggest, is no less important for communities than it is for individuals. Churches, for example, demonstrate varying degrees of motivation. Some seem never to move on in any discernible way—they are apparently content to remain just as they have always been. I think specifically of a tiny church near the camp where I spent every summer of my life until I married and left home. I was there just a few weeks ago, and it was as lifeless as I remembered it years before. No passion. No imagination. No motivation. They certainly were not trying to scale Mt. Everest. Why, they are not even climbing Cemetary Hill. Other churches appear to be profoundly motivated, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. They seem more concerned about growing numerically or keeping up with the church down the street than they do with being a faithful presence for God in the world. Motivation matters, both for us as individuals as well as for us as a community. We want to be motivated. We want to be alive and well, seizing the opportunities that God in his goodness sets before us. But we always want to be sure that we are motivated for the right reasons.

The Apostle Paul, here in 2 Corinthians 5:11-21, expresses with great force and clarity exactly what it is that now motivates him to live as he does. Paul, from all indications, had been accused by his opponents of any number of things. “He is out of his mind,” some said, “behaving like a nut-case.” And I suppose that Paul’s untiring willingness to travel endless miles through even the worst of conditions, to preach to even the most hostile audiences, and even to endure emotional and physical abuse for the cause of Christ, might lead people to question his sanity. Yet it wasn’t mental instability that motivated Paul to do what he did. It wasn’t guilt, though he left plenty of corpses lying in the streets to feel guilty about. It wasn’t pride, though he had spent endless amounts of energy earlier in his life attempting to climb the corporate ladder as a religious Pharisee. It wasn’t greed or the longing for personal gain, although he assures us elsewhere that, should heaven turn out to be a fantasy, he would of all people be most miserable. It wasn’t even fear, although he informs us in this same passage that he does in fact have a healthy respect—a profound degree of reverence—for the God before whom he realizes he will stand one day. No. These are not the factors that drive Paul.

What motivates Paul, first and foremost, is simply this: Christ’s transforming love for him and for all of the world. Paul is awe-struck, captivated, and compelled by the love of Christ. Let’s unpack this for a moment. Paul is overwhelmed, for one thing, when he realizes that Jesus Christ loves him. In spite of who he was and is. In spite of his past record and personal shortcomings. In spite of his stubbornness and rough edges. In spite of everything, Christ loves him and died for him.

Do you remember the first time your boyfriend or girlfriend, husband or wife, or other significant person, told you they loved you? I recall telling Deb that I loved her, and I prayed that she might say the same to me. When she did, I could scarcely contain myself. “Yes,” I shouted to myself. Realizing that Christ genuinely loves you, not simply on an intellectual level but deeply within your heart and soul, is an even more earth-shattering experience. I have, quite honestly, struggled with this myself from time to time. It has been difficult for me to receive and accept God’s love and grace. In part because of certain sins that I committed earlier in life, I always felt like I had to earn Christ’s love again and again, but I never quite could. Some months ago I specifically prayed that God would help me come to experience his love in a profound way. A few days later, my oldest son moved out of our house and into an apartment of his own. When I came home from work that Friday and stepped for a moment into his empty bedroom, I was overwhelmed by what I felt. In that moment, I realized how deeply I loved this guy. Whatever frustration he may have caused me over the years. Whatever aggravation. Whatever ups and downs. Everything else faded out of sight, and I was literally overecome by the love that I felt for him.

And it struck me—God loves me in measures well beyond any manner of love that I might ever feel toward my son. It doesn’t matter what I’ve done in the past. The mistakes I’ve made, the sins I’ve committed. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve turned my back on him, nor is it of primary importance what others might think of me. God hasn’t fallen in love with me, as though he at one time or another either didn’t know me or despised me. He simply loves me—period. And that is an absolutely liberating thought.

Imagine, for just a moment, the person in this world who you believe loves you the most. Now recall the time when you tested that love to the limits. You perhaps did something revolting. Perhaps you betrayed a trust. Whatever it was, you did something nearly unthinkable, and yet that person loved you in a way that left you nearly bewildered. Now multiply that love one million times in your mind. At that point, you are just beginning to scratch the surface of the love that Christ has for each and everyone of us. Paul has come to realize, deep within him, that Jesus Christ truly and totally loved him with an everlasting love, and that realization sets his soul on fire.

But Paul here recognizes further that Christ loves, not just him, but everyone on the face of the earth. One person, Jesus Christ, died for everyone—everyone—and this, too, becomes a driving force in his life. In an instant, the way Paul looks at the people around him is completely and utterly altered. “Jesus loves the Jewish leaders with whom I now am constantly at odds,” he realized. “Jesus loves the civil authorities who often make my work more difficult. Jesus loves those who heckle me when I preach and who walk away, more hard-hearted that when they came. Jesus loves men and women, boys and girls, rich and poor, dignitaries and commoners. Jesus even loves those people about whom I personally care the least.”

In one of the graduate classes that my wife enrolled in last year, the professor began class on the first day of the semester by reading down the list of students. That, as many of you know, is not unusual. But what made this role-call different from any other that I’ve heard of is what the teacher said after she pronounced each name. “John Burton, a person for whom Christ died. Sara Schwartz, a person for whom Christ died. Mary Abbott, a person for whom Christ died. Deb Brensinger, a person for whom Christ died.”
What a liberating way of looking at other people. The person who cuts you off as he merges into traffic on the interstate. The student who stares blankly at you as you present a stirring lecture. The boss who can be overbearing at times. The fund-raiser who calls during the dinner hour. The person down the street whose house is either too small or too large. The spouse who hasn’t changed quite as much since your wedding day as you had hoped. Jews. Arabs. Russians. Pentecostals. Catholics. These are all people for whom Christ died. People whom Jesus Christ deeply loves. Paul now realizes that, and it causes him to rise to attention.

But it is not simply the love of Christ for him and others that shakes Paul to his senses. Paul is equally struck with the idea that the love of Christ is itself so transforming. “This wonderful love of Christ enables me to live, not for myself, but for Christ. This love of Christ enables me—and others!—to go through a process of spiritual metamorphosis, so to speak. We can, in fact, become entirely new creations.” Paul isn’t speaking only of some positional or theoretical change here, as though we merely move from being lost to being found, from being condemned to being forgiven. He is describing a total rebirth. Just picture the hope expressed in Paul’s response: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old—my sin, pain, guilt, mistakes—has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Love works that way. Beaten, tattered, and bruised creatures respond to love. Abandoned children placed in caring homes. Lonely people finding their way into communities like this one. Why, it is true even in the animal world. I guess it is simply the way God created things. A few years ago Dave and Lynn Brown brought Dreamer home, a dog who had been viciously mistreated by her previous owner. When I first saw Dreamer, she hid out in the kitchen, away from everyone. I couldn’t get within fifteen or twenty feet of her. The last time I saw her, Dreamer was a different dog. She even walked up to me and let me pet her. Love offers the hope of transformation to even the worst of God’s creation. Paul has come to realize that, and he is driven to spread the news.

What motivates us to do what we do? For Paul, it is the love of Christ. “It compels me,” he testifies. “It urges me on. It puts a fire in my soul.” And, my friends, it is the love of Christ that ought also motivate us. Why should we worship God joyfully? Why should we seek to follow Jesus faithfully? Why should we care for each other graciously? Why should we welcome others warmly? And why should we share God’s reconciling love and peace globally? In one word—love. When we realize, deep within our hearts, that Jesus loves us like no one else ever could. When we understand that Jesus loves the entire world with that same everlasting love. And when we come to appreciate just how transforming that love can be, both for us and those around us, then we too will be compelled to live for him as long as he gives us breath.