I was reading a discussion recently about how many church bodies these days talk about love. Love is described as this desire we have to care for humanity and, in particular, the less fortunate. On its face this can be a helpful force driving works of compassion in communities everywhere. In practical application, this movement shows very little in the way of love. I don’t mean to say all of the food drives, homeless shelters, and other fundraisers and such are unhelpful. Many of these projects are life changing.
When we think about love in our daily lives, this sort of activity doesn’t mesh with how we think about love, because one of the most fundamental aspects of love is the relationship. Husbands and wives have a love built on their relationship. The same is true of parents and children, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and any other relationship you might think of. Sending donations to a charity may be helpful and may make a big difference, but does little to build that relationship. They may be good things and helpful things, but there is no personal connection and no way to build a relationship on that alone.
When we look at the life of God’s people in the Old Testament, we find times when God calls to people as a group, instructing them to follow Him and trust Him. If that were all He did, there would be a danger of God having the same kind of love we are content to show. However, but even with those broad and generalized calls, God is doing things for His people on a personal and individual level. God calls to the Israelites in Egypt to follow Him out of Egypt, but everything God does for the Israelites on the covenant He made with Abraham. God makes a promise to each son of Abraham through circumcision, and through those me, to the whole nation. If ever any man wondered if God loved him as His treasured possession, he had only to remember the sign of the covenant He bore in his flesh.
This is one of the reasons Christ’s incarnation is so profound. It is God showing love to His people personally, forgiving them and healing them on an individual basis. He makes sure each person He interacts with knows He loves them specifically. Generalized love leads to specific love.
In the age of the church, we continue the precedent set by God. We do some acts of love and compassion that care for people in general ways. But this kind of love is not the goal, the end unto itself. The goal is to bring those people to where they can hear God speak to them specifically. This why the sacraments are so critical. Baptism and Communion are carried out at God’s specific and personal invitation. Luther remarks with some regularity how his baptism was his constant assurance of God’s forgiveness and love. It was a statement that, while God loves all humanity, God also specifically loved Martin Luther.
This is part of the joy and wonder if the sacraments. God comes to us personally, invites us personally, loves us personally. Christ dies for the sins of the whole world, and, at the same time, He dies for you.