God’s love changes us

“’Love comes to life” in the church is the tag line for the celebration of 175 years of LCA’s mission. A tag line which I deeply appreciate and more than agree with. While it is true that “love comes to life” in the church through the preaching of the gospel and diaconal work, through which non-believers come to experience the love of God in a personal and concrete way, it is also true that love is sometimes absent in the inter-personal relationship of Christians in the church.

It is at least apparent that this is true of the church the apostle John was writing to, otherwise he would not be writing what he wrote in 1 John 4. The context was about inter-personal relationship in the church. Some external factors found their way into the church and affected the way the Christians related to and treated each other. That was why he warned them to test every spirit among them and, later, went on to say these words in 1 John 4:7a, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” He is reminding them of the new creation they now are in Christ and the capacity they have in and through the gospel to love each other, “Love comes to life” in the church, was obviously lacking in the church which the apostle John was writing to.

In the course of my work at Lutheran World Federation (LWF), I have seen churches in conflict and eventually divided because of power, money and theology. Love is murdered and is dead in these churches. What an irony!

These days, seminaries no longer talk about studying theology but doing theology because the chief end of our study of theology is not simply about ascertaining the right interpretation of the Scriptures in all its parts or to get all theological issues right as much as it is about how to better love God and love each other in the church and in the kingdom of God.

I don’t think that any church on this side of eternity can ever get it right in its interpretation of the whole Scripture. Even Luther was convicted at one point of time that the book of James, which he called the book of straw, should not be part of the canon. Even astute Lutheran scholars do not agree on every aspect Lutheran theology. I really don’t think any church on this side of eternity can ever get its interpretation right of all parts of Scriptures but I believe all churches can get the interpretation of the Scriptures in its totality right – to love God and to love one another. We must not miss the forest for the trees!

By that I am not saying that they are unimportant! They just don’t define the church. Therefore, they ought to be untaken with the utmost pastoral care that they do not undermine the gospel and the love of God among us. A church does not cease to be a church because it disagrees with you on women’s ordination. The church is defined by the love of God that comes to live among us, that comes to live in the church. Our Lord says in John 13:34,35 “A new commandment I give unto you: Love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Our love for each other and, not our position on women’s ordination, testifies to the fact that we are born of Christ. The church is, therefore, defined by the love of God among and in us and not by tradition or even theological issues. The best way for the devil to enter the church, to weaken and destroy it, is when the church is arguing about theology and interpretation, forgetting the all-important big and overall message of the Scriptures.

Our Lutheran theology tells us that the Christian is at the same time a saint and sinner. Thanks be unto God that while love is dead in some churches, it is resurrected, through Christ, in others. Therefore, we can still say that, indeed,” Love comes to live” in the church, in our preaching of the gospel, in our engaging in diaconal work and in the way Christians relate to and love each other.

I have a nagging suspicion that some Christians have misconstrued what Christian love or what loving one another is all about. And this led to conflict and division in the church. Some tend to think that it is a love from the charity of one’s heart, believing that because I have been regenerated and, therefore, I have the capacity to issue love. Such love is directed from one’s wisdom and strength and, hence, is prejudice, self-centred and unsustainable. It usually breeds conflict and division. It is a love that pats someone on the back, at one moment, and smacks the same someone on the face at another.

So what is Christian love? What does it mean to love one another? How does “love come to live” in the church.

1 John 4:9 says, “This is how God showed his love among us. He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” God’s love is about God doing what is best for his children mediated through Christ. So in this context the practice of Christian love is to do what God would do to others through us. In other words, it is to touch someone with the love of God on behalf of God. And I believe this is also the chief reason or motive why we preach the gospel and engage in diaconal work.

When Christian love is alive in the church, it releases the power of God to impact and change lives, not only the lives of the recipients, but also those whose lives are channels of God’s love.

I had the privilege of witnessing such great power of God’s love at work when I was heading Lutheran World Mission (LWM) in Cambodia several years ago. Many people were touched by God’s love in a personal and concrete way through our diaconal work and the preaching of the gospel. The preaching of gospel put our diaconal work in perspective. God’s love was more than knowledge but a reality in their lives. God healed their diseases through our medical mission, God fed children who had only one meal a day through our Daily Bread project, God provided the young people with livelihood skill through our computer program. Despite my repeated reminder and assurance that they didn’t have to be Christian to benefit from our diaconal service, many still wanted to. In the first year we had 56 baptisms and the oldest was 86 years old. In the words of this 86 year-old elderly man who have since gone home with the Lord sometime last year, “Who could resist such a God who loves and cares for me beyond my understanding.” People who experience the love of God cannot but have their lives impacted and changed.

One of the great blessings of LWM in Cambodia is that we are not short of volunteers, especially youth volunteers. We have had youth volunteers from LCA. Several groups have since come. I know for a fact that some of these youth from Lutheran Church in Singapore have made Cambodia mission a basis for choosing their university courses. These young people wanted to make Cambodia mission their life-long commitment. And one of them was my son.

If our lives are channels of God’s love, our lives will be impacted and changed as well.

“Love comes alive” in the church because we have been born of God. When it comes alive, it impacts and changes lives, be they the recipients or channels of God’s love.

1 John 4:7a “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God”. Amen.

This sermon was shared by Rev Dr William Chang, the LWF Area Secretary for Asia, the Middle East, Palestine and the Pacific at the 2013 LCA Convention.