One of my lingering memories from the Humboldt Broncos tragedy last April was the heart wrenching sermon of Broncos chaplain Sean Brandow from the vigil that took place two days following the accident.
As team chaplain, Brandow not only knew all those who had been on the bus on that fateful evening, he had been at the scene shortly after the collision took place. To live that experience — losing one of his best friends (Broncos Coach Darcy Haugen) alongside other members of the team he knew and loved — and then be asked to share a message of faith and hope two days later seemed an impossible task. In his sermon, Brandow wove a raw honesty alongside the hope of faith in a message I won’t soon forget.
When the Broncos played their first game since the accident on September 12, Brandow was once again asked to be in the spotlight, but this time he brought a much simpler message. He remembered how former coach Haugen had asked him to help with the team because of a belief they both shared: “We believe that Jesus, knowing who we are, for some reason still loves us.” It’s a simple sentence, but one that is ripe with meaning: one which in my experience, far too few of us truly understand.
The easier part of this is understanding that God loves us.
A quick search in the Bible app I use (Olive Tree), comes back with 606 results in a search for the word “love.” Among these are a few favorites:
“I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3), “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16), and, simply, “God is love” (1 John 4:16).
We need to know that God’s love for us is not mere sentimentality, nor some trite word of encouragement. You’ll find that we cannot discuss any part of the history of our faith – the creation of the world, the Old Testament covenants, the sacrifice of Jesus, and the life of the Church – without considering God’s love at the centre of it all.
The beginning of John’s Gospel sums this up well: “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12).
God’s eternal goal has always been to bring us into a familial relationship with him. It’s for this reason that when the apostles asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he began with “Our Father…” (Luke 11:2).
This would have been a tremendous shift for them. Through most of the Old Testament, it was believed that God was holy and unreachable, but Jesus was showing them a nearness to God beyond anything they could have imagined.
All of this being said, we need to remember that we are only able to call God ‘Father’ because He has first called us His own. And as Sean Brandow points out, He does so in spite of His intimate and total knowledge of who we are … of our weaknesses and failures, from what we mutter under our breath, to what we do when no one else is watching. This can be the more difficult part of understanding God’s love for us: when it becomes less academic and more personal.
It is here that it can be helpful to consider the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).
Taking for granted the idea that God is the father, we find ourselves in the role of the younger and/or older sons. The younger son’s story is quite familiar: his brash request for an inheritance (which is granted), the incredible waste of his newfound wealth, and the desperation that leaves this young man starving in a pigpen.
When he comes home, the younger son finds his father waiting for him, ready to celebrate this child of his home. No hearer of this story would imagine that the father was naïve about where his son had been and what he’d been doing … but nothing the younger son could do or say was going to stop the father from welcoming him back.
The older son did all the right things and felt like his younger brother didn’t deserve his father’s mercy. Luckily for the older son, the father shows him the same sort of mercy — seeking him out, listening to him, and encouraging him, so that his bitterness might not turn into a hardened heart.
An understanding of God’s love is at the heart of being a Christian.
It is a great gift knowing that God loves us, that He calls us to be in His family, and that in those moments when we are the ones who leave home or lack compassion for others, it is He who seeks us out and calls us back to Himself.
In many ways, what Sean Brandow said in Humboldt this past September echoed words spoken by the late, great St. John Paul II. During the final Mass of his 2002 visit to Toronto for World Youth Day, JPII’s homily concluded with the following: “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”