Extremists for Love

One of my favorite scriptures, I think of it as a parable of Jesus, is John 2:1-11, the story of Jesus and the disciples attending a wedding. Unlike the other gospel accounts, in John there is no description of Jesus’ baptism or any other public declaration of the beginning of his ministry. In John, his introduction to the broader community happens when Jesus changes water found in six giant vessels, leaning up against a wall in the banquet hall, into wine. It becomes the good stuff–the best wine the steward ever tasted. I think over and over again about the water jars, each able to hold 30 or so gallons: filled to the brim with the best wine, served long after the wedding reception has begun. Jesus did plenty of miracles during his ministry, but this event is unique in the impact it has on the observers: some are surprised, some shocked, others believe.

I’m thinking about this story this week because Monday is the annual observance of the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. Dr King is a hero of mine, because of his unique understanding of the role of the gospel in the transformation of the nation. While many will watch his iconic speech from the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Dr King’s vision for our democracy, our society, and the world went much further than the few seconds of that speech most people watch or remember. Dr King advocated for civil rights for all: equal protection under the law; universal voting access; an end of the Vietnam war; and end of poverty in the richest country in the history of the world. He said this in a speech at Riverside Church, New York City, in 1967:

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

But for millions of us, we will not hear those words. We will only listen to a handful of sentences about a dream of equality for all. Those words are magnificent; but to truly honor the preacher who wrote them, we need to realize the depth of Dr King’s faith. He proclaimed God’s future for America that would become reality, in spite of the lack of actions by the powerful to bring it about. From his classic Letters from a Birmingham Jail, yes, he wrote these words in jail, Dr King said this:

“Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’ And John Bunyan: ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’ And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”

Dr King stands alongside the great prophets of the Bible: individuals such as Amos or Jeremiah, raised up by God to bring a message of necessary change to fulfill God’s ultimate vision. As we observe Dr King’s holiday, let us remember and honor the entire person, but not just with empty words or sharing memes on social media. The water jars of the wedding reception contained way more wine, and better wine, than was needed for the occasion. In the same way, God’s love has a depth and impact far beyond what we can imagine. Different people observed the events of the wedding reception in different ways, but each person had at least a reaction of surprise, that something out of the ordinary happened in their presence. As extremists for love, let us draw from the depths of God’s love to seek justice, freedom, and peace for all of God’s people. Thank you, Dr King, for your continued inspiration and challenge to us.