On Tuesday nights in the summer, I lace up my cleats and hit the soccer field, surrounded by good friends. As the sun sets over the field and the lights come on, I feel a deep sense of peace. Sweaty, out of breath, mosquito bitten and at peace. When I play soccer I often am reminded that I am deeply loved by God. It’s not that God has blessed my cleats or anything (I’m not very gifted in the ways of soccer), it’s just that I feel so whole, so happy, so me, that I feel God’s loving presence surrounding me.
A few years ago, the feelings of joy and completeness I experienced when I did things I love or spent time with people I love were quickly pushed away to make room for guilt every time. “How can I be this happy? I’m just playing soccer. It’s not like I’m actually doing something worthwhile.”
I didn’t have words to express it this clearly back then, but I think I felt that I was only good enough to be loved by God, or even to be happy, when I was at that moment engaged in an act of service to others.
I am still on a journey to truly internalize the fact that I am good enough, and God believes I am worthwhile as a human being when I play soccer, when I putter in my garden and when I lay on the couch napping. Have I ever mentioned that napping is my favourite spiritual practice? That’s a story for another time. The point is, I am good enough. I am loved by God. I do not have to earn God’s love through my acts of charity.
The important nuance is that I believe God does call us to respond to God’s overflowing love to transform the world. God calls us to be, in the words of my favourite song “midwives of justice.”* It’s my belief that the purpose of our acts of justice, however, is not to earn God’s love (and our own salvation) but rather to respond to the love we experience but pouring that love out to the world around us.
God’s love for us is not dependent on our actions, but rather, our actions are dependent on God’s love.
Reading through Matthew recently, I noticed something that caught me off guard. Jesus splashes into the water and asks John to baptize him, and as he is coming up out of the water, dripping wet:
the sky suddenly opened up and Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and hovering over him. With that, a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Own. my Beloved, on whom my favour rests.”
(The Inclusive Bible Matthew 3:16-17)
What struck me for the first time in this familiar story is that this blessing, this expression of God’s love for Jesus does not come at a moment when Jesus is hard at work healing or teaching. It also isn’t pulled out at the Last Supper as an award for years of faithful service. No. It happens right at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In the book of Matthew, for all that the readers are told, Jesus hasn’t performed one single miracle or preached a single sermon when he steps into the river for a ritual bath and is also bathed in God’s love.
Similarly, in Luke, when the angel comes to Mary before she becomes pregnant with Jesus, the angel says:
Rejoice, highly favoured one! God is with you! Blessed are you among women!
(The Inclusive Bible Luke 1:28)
We are given no introduction to Mary besides the fact that she is young, she lives in Nazareth, and she is engaged to someone named Joseph. I sometimes like to imagine the perfect life that Mary might have led before being deemed worthy to carry God’s child, but Matthew gives us none of this.
What if Mary is favoured, is blessed not for her saintly deeds but simply because everyone is worthy of God’s love? What if she didn’t have to earn it?
Mary has so often been praised for her humility and submission, but what I love is her confidence. She questions the logistics of the situation “how can I get pregnant when I’ve never had sex?,” but she never questions her own worthiness for God’s love and favour.
Today, I’m at work, and in my own small way, I see the purpose of what I do here at PiE as being to work towards a world where God’s radical love for every living thing is expressed in human actions.
Tonight, I’ll be at soccer. If it’s a really good night, then for 90 minutes I will be fully present to myself, to my team and to the game, basking in God’s love for me while I play.
*From “God of the Bible” by Shirley Erena Murray #27 in Sing the Journey