A Love in the Ruins

“Dead, dead,” whispered the law. “Love,” whispered the gospel.

The following this from the introduction and conclusion to chapter 8 of The Word of the Cross: Reading Paul (Eerdmans, 2022) by NYC Conference speaker, Jonathan A. Linebaugh.

Love in the Ruins. The title of Walker Percy’s 1971 novel captures the book’s setting and theme — Thomas More’s Utopia this is not. But the phrase also catches a moment in the marriage of its protagonist, a Dr. Tom More:

“Don’t you see,” says his wife, “people grow away from each other… We’re dead.”

“I love you dead. At this moment.”

“Dead, dead,” she whispered…

“Love,” I whispered.[1]

The poignancy of this exchange is the paradox, the surprising where, when and who of this whispered love: it is in the Ruins, “at this moment” of despair, this dead end, and it is “love” for “you” — for the “dead.”

The gift that Paul calls “the grace of God” (Rom 5:15; cf. Gal 2:21) is a similar — and no less surprising — embodiment of love. The Ruins are “the present evil age” (Gal 1:4), the “moment” is “at the right time, while we were still sinners,” and the “you” — the “us” — that God loves there and then are identified, in addition to “sinners,” as “weak,” “enemies,” and “ungodly” (Rom 5:6-10).

If Walker Percy’s words give us occasion to pause, Paul’s news invited ridicule and incited riots: “scandalous and foolish,” taunted his contemporaries (1 Cor 1:23); he has “turned the world upside down,” claimed a mob (Acts 17:6).

To feel the surprise of “the word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18), two aspects of Paul’s language of grace need to be brought into focus: grace, as Paul defines and preaches it, is both particular and distinctive. Grace is particular because, for Paul, it is not a given; it is given — it is a specific gift: “the grace of God” is the son “God did not spare, but sent” (Rom 8:32), it is “the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). And this grace is distinctive because — against the grain of economies of both divine and human giving in Greco-Roman society and early Jewish theology — the gift of Christ is not given to those who are socially, morally, intellectually, or religiously worthy. Rather, strangely and mercifully, Christ is given to the unworthy — to the slave, to the social failure, to the sinner. To speak the Pauline gospel is therefore to announce a gift that is christological and incongruous: God’s grace is God’s son given at the grave — “I love you dead.” But this grace is also an Easter sermon that rolls away the stone: God, says Paul, is the one the who “gives life to the dead” (Rom 4:17) […]

The “word of the cross” is forever spoken as a surprise. It is something other than what Bob Dylan calls “the song you strum,” the “weary tune” that weighs a person’s worth according to their pedigree or their past, the record of what the Book of Common Prayer calls “things done and left undone.” The gospel, rather, invites us to “rest yourself ‘neath the strength of strings” that whisper what Thomas Cranmer calls the “comfortable words”: the gift of Christ is not indexed to but is given in the absence of any human tokens of worth.

God’s grace calls the poor, the low, the weak, the foolish (1 Cor 1:26-29); Christ is given to the sinner, the ungodly, the enemy (Rom 5:6-10). To borrow Walker Percy’s language, it is “at this moment” of sin and fear and “in the ruins” of bondage and death that God gives the crucified and risen Christ who justifies and gives peace, who sets free and makes alive. Used to describe this pattern of giving, the phrase “the incongruity of grace” points in two directions: it identifies the contradiction between the content of God’s gift and the condition of its recipients even as it signals the impossible overcoming of that contradiction and that condition: enemies are reconciled, the abandoned and alone are adopted, those in captivity are redeemed, the ungodly are called righteous, and the dead, by grace, are summoned from the grave.

In Martin Luther’s words, “the love of God does not find but creates that which is pleasing to it.”[2] What God finds, according to Paul’s diagnosis, is the nothingness of bondage, sin, and death. What God’s love creates — incongruously and impossibly — is freedom, righteousness, and life. If Luther had read Walker Percy, he may have put it like this: “‘Dead, dead,’ whispered the law. ‘Love,’ whispered the gospel.” But this love that is the incongruous grace of God also whispers, “Wake.” It says, “I love you dead,” and it also shouts, “rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14).

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One response to “A Love in the Ruins”

  1. Debbie Bastian says:

    I I loved this, thank you! This:

    “Dead, dead,” whispered the law. “Love,” whispered the gospel. ”
    That is so incredible, isn’t it?! How can we not fall in love over and over with Jesus?!

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