Monthly Archives: February 2015

Love is NOT all you need

If we assume that the Christian mission is to bring God’s righteous rule on the earth,  we also assume that the values of God’s Kingdom are coherent with his character and as we have seen this week, God’s character is defined by love.  It would follow, therefore, that love is a defining characteristic of Christian mission.

Juan Luis Segundo, the Uruguayan theologian, made “love” so central to his theology that you could say his theme was “there is not love lost in the world”. The problem comes when we start to ask, which love? How do we differentiate between God’s and all other love? We are able to say God is the source of love but If we say ALL love is God’s love, we are in danger of deifying love.

However, can we limit God’s love to only Christian actions? Does not the missio Dei go beyond the mission of the church? If so what criteria do we need to employ to discern where God is at work? Love, in itself cannot be the key to unlock God’s action. Love is not all you need.

The Apostle of Love

The Gospel of John and I John are two books that take the theme of love to a whole new level. In 21 chapters the word “love” appears 39 times. John’s first epistle is even more “love” laden with a mere 5 chapters John makes 27 references to love. Chapters 3 and 4 account for 20 of those 27! Bearing in mind that the NT has 261 mentions of love; two chapters corner over 10% of them!

For this short blog, I would like to look at I John 4:7-21.

 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 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. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

This is an amazing passage with some huge missiological implications. I want to make a few brief comments.

All love comes from God (vs. 7) because God is love (Vss. 8, 16). The source of all genuine and self-giving love comes from God. This applies to Christians and non-Christians. Sometimes Christians have been disturbed by non-believers doing good and sacrificial act but they shouldn’t be. God’s grace works in all.

I used to challenge students asking them, what is it that God cannot do? They normally reply “nothing”. That of course is not true because God CANNOT NOT love. It is not possible for God to not love humanity. Love is that which defines God’s character. Unlike us, he is perfect and never goes against his character, so being love, he can’t not love. All he does is out of his great love: even judgement is not from hate but from love.

So if we want to live lives of love, love God.

Love is a prerequisite for knowledge of God (vs. 7). We cannot know God without first loving him and others. Those who say they know God and are not loving are, in John’s words, liars. Love opens us up to God’s love and knowledge of him as loving.

Finally, God’s love is active (vs. 9). “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”. “For God so loved the world, he gave his only son” (John 3:16). “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (I John 3:16). When God loves, God acts.

The logic is obvious, our love must also be active, and as John tells us “ Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar” (vs. 20). I John 3:18 tells us “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth”.

God’s love and God’s purpose

If we were to ask the Apostle Paul what was the most important concept in his theology, I don’t think we would get the answer “grace” or “mercy”. I think he would say “Love”. I am not saying that grace and mercy are not important to Paul’s theology, they are indeed but I think Paul would know that behind those two concepts I just mentioned is God’s love. God is gracious and merciful because he is love.

I want to reflect upon Paul’s most densely “loving” Epistle, Ephesians.  This is an interesting book for several reasons. Firstly, the fact that in most manuscripts “To the saints in Ephesus” do not appear, together with the lack of personal greetings at the end has made some scholars suggest that this is perhaps a “general letter” which would have been read in various cities; perhaps the seven churches in the area mentioned in Revelation. Also, Paul is not dealing with any are of church belief, as in Galatians or of church life, such as in the Corinthian correspondence but general themes. Finally, this seems to me to be Paul’s mature theology. It was probably written around about AD60 and the time of the Colossian Epistle and so by no means his final letter but the themes are the grand themes of salvation history, redemption, unity in Christ and how our individual lives are to be lived to fulfill those great plans.

The first three chapters speak of God’s love for us and the world. In love God predestined us for Sonship (1:4); he has made us alive because of his love (2:4-5); we can only know the unknowable riches of God’s love when we are rooted and established in love (3:17-18). God is calling out, choosing, redeeming and establishing a people for his purpose. Ephesians 1:10 tell us that this purpose is to “bring all things in heaven and earth under Christ”.

The last three chapters focus upon the love that we should have for others to bring those purposes about. We must bear one another in love (4:2); we should speak the truth in love (4:15); the body, the church builds itself up in love (4:16). In chapter 5 we are to follow Christ’s example (5:1) and live a life of love (5:2); the marriage relationship is to be marked by love (5:25-33). This may seem obvious but marriage was not always romantic! Finally, Paul greets the Ephesians with the love of God in love (6:23-24).

This gran purpose of God has its origin in God’s love for his creation; he chooses a people out of love; he saves them because of his love; he establishes them in love and unifies them in love. Then as they live out that unity in love and in all their loving relationships, God achieves his loving purposes.

Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so

The story is told of how, on a lecture tour of the United States, Karl Barth was asked to sum up his entire theology in one sentence. Apparently Barth used the children’s song “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so”. There are those who think this story to be apocryphal, but, whether it is or not, I think it sums up Barth’s theology succinctly (ok, those parts of his theology I have read up to this point!).

There is no doubt that “love” is vitally important in Jesus’ teaching. The word, in its various forms, appears over 25 times in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and in various situations. Obviously some of these occurrences are the Evangelists recording the same story.

Jesus hears the encouraging words about the Father’s love for him at his baptism (Matt 3: 17, Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22) and at the transfiguration (Matt 17:5, Mark 9:7). He says that to be his disciple we must love him more than even family (Matt 10:37).

The most important other occurrences are two important injunctions about our love for others. The first comes in the sermon on the mount/plain (Matthew 5:43-46 and Luke 6:27-35). But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44) and Luke’s expansion on the theme, “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35).  I need to qualify that the enemy is the person who hates you not somebody you hate. Love of enemies and doing good for them is a radical reversal of human ways of acting. Jesus loves me so I must love my enemies.

The second injunction is the one to love the Lord and to love our neighbour (Matt 22:37-39, Mark 12:30-33 and Luke 10:27). I just want to comment on the Marcan version of this because in Mark we have the reply of the teacher of the Law making a remarkable statement. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:32-33). Jesus commends this unnamed teacher because he understood that “love” is much more important than religious observance.

The media often speak of “people of religion”. Jesus in the Bible gives scant weight to religion. He doesn’t seem to value its observance very much at all. He heals on the Sabbath and associates with some rather dodgy women! Jesus is less interested in what you do in your religion and more interest in how much do you love others. The teacher of the Law is not far from the kingdom because he understands this. The kingdom of God is more definitely NOT about religion. Love God…with everything, and love your enemies and your neighbour…however distasteful, as you love yourself.

These are two startling assertions by the Gospel writers. The true love of God is seen in the love of enemies and that love is above any religious observance. What a radical way to live!

How can a xenophobic God be loving?

Racist chants and actions on the Paris Metro and at St. Pancras Station; the rise of UKIP; the strength of the religious right in the USA; boat loads of desperate people crossing the Med and the seemingly never ending tide of xenophobia in Europe. Richard Dawkins would blame these things on religious people and especially Christians as he sees the God of the Old Testament as “xenophobic”. This is the context in which we look at love in the Old Testament.

At 39 books and 1400 pages (at least in my NIV) and with over 400 mentions of the word “love” in English the Old Testament is long. For this reason a reflection upon love in the OT is necessarily selective. So today I want reflect upon one passage in Deuteronomy.

12 And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

14 To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today. 16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. 20 Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. 21 He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. 22 Your ancestors who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky.

Here we have a wonderful passage. Verses 12-13 are an ethical appeal to Israel to fear the Lord, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees. In the literary centre of these five commands we have the call to “love him”. Love is demonstrated by fear, walking in obedience, service and observance.

Verses 14-22 are a potted theology of creation, election, ethics and salvation, with a demonstration of love for God and others central. God is the creator God of heaven and earth (vs. 14), he is the electing God for Israel (vs. 15), he therefore can command Israel to circumcise their hearts and be pliable to him (vs. 16).

He is the God of Gods and Lord of Lords who is righteous and is not “bribable” (vs, 17). What is more he shows that greatness by defending the orphan and widow (vs. 18a) and loving the foreigner (vs. 18b). These were the foreigners who lived within Israel’s gates. This orphan, widow and foreigner were a class of people who represented those with no advocate.  The orphan had no father to defend them, the widow had no husband to take care of her and the foreigner, simply had no one, so it is God who takes up their case.

In care of the vulnerable, the love for God of verse 12 becomes concrete in love for the foreigner (vs. 19). God provides food and clothing for the foreigner and Israel are to love the foreigner as well.

This love for the foreigner and love for God are linked. The foreigner would not be able to give back anything to the loving Israelite. This is God’s love, it is “disinterested love”. The foreigner was dependent upon others for their food and clothing so by loving the foreigner the obedient Israelite was loving God.

The reason that God gives is because of Israel’s salvation in the Exodus. “You were foreigners in Egypt and God saved you therefore you love the foreigner.” This is linked to “take oaths in his name” because the reason for this is that God prospered Israel in Egypt and fulfilled his promises to them in performing miracles on their behalf and, even in their time in Egypt, he made them into a “great nation” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Love in the Old Testament is based upon the character of God as creator, elector, lover of the weak, saviour and sustainer. So care for the orphan, the widow and the foreigner is the way Deuteronomy 10 defines how we love others.

Its all about the Lurve!

A few years ago when I was teaching a module at All Nations on Christian Theology, About half way through the term, one of the students put her hand up and said, “Paul, in your theology it’s all about the the lurve”. This got me thinking and I came to the conclusion that she was right, it is all about love.

Love is such an all-encompassing concept in the Bible. In the NIV the word, in English, is mentioned 686 times. This translates a number of Hebrew and Greek words with different shades of meaning from romantic or erotic love to affection and even self-sacrificial love. Every New Testament book, except Acts, contains a word translated “love”.

Love, however, is a word that is used in so many ways in our culture–even wider than Greek meanings. We can love everything from our husband or wife, parents, children, etc. right down to ice-cream and summer days! I don’t think we are talking about the same quality of love in each case. I might fight to protect the person I love but am unlikely to utilize violence if you steal my walnut whip!

Today’s culture seems to limit love to sexual or erotic love. 50 Shades of Grey is portrayed as “a love story”. The film subtitle of the film Love Story is “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”. I don’t know about you but I think I apologize to my wife more than anybody! Romeo and Juliette is the classic “love story” where love of the lover surpasses familial loyalties and ends in tragedy where this “pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life”.

For Christian belief, love holds a very high place and could be seen as that which makes sense of our belief in Jesus the Messiah.

What is love? What does the Bible say about it? This week we will reflect on some of what the Old Testament says about love; what Jesus says about love in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke); what Paul says about love and finally what John says about it.

Eyes and hands

When you think about theology, do you think more of the picture at the top or on the bottom? Most people will say the bottom one. Theology is seen as done by the professionals, informing the students of deep theological concepts.

This week I have tried to show that theology should be done by the church. The church is, what theologians call, “the hermeneutical community”: it is the community who interprets both the text of the gospel and the context. Theology should be done by church members not by elites.

When I speak like this, people will often say but there will be a multitude of theologies. I then often ask them would they prefer to have one given theology that is handed down by some ecclesiastical power? Clearly not!

But what is the alternative? Paul speaks of such an alternative in I Corinthians 12:21-26. This we could call “mutual accountability”. The hand and the eye are of equal importance and cannot do without each other.The hand needs the eye to aim where to catch a ball. The eye needs the hand to actually catch it. One without the other and we drop the ball.

Churches cannot do without each other. And in this I mean churches at every level. Local churches cannot do without each other. Churches of different denominations can learn so much from each other. The Baptist cannot say to the Anglican “I do not need you”, nor can the Anglican say to the Pentecostal “I do not need you.” I have gained so much in theological discussions with non-Evangelicals, Orthodox and Catholic.

I also mean churches from different parts of the world cannot do without each other. The church blind spot of the Western Church can be seen very easily by the African Church. So the European church cannot say to the African “I do not need you.”

We need to read the Bible and the context ecumenically and internationally, holding firmly to our convictions but not at the expense of humility.

Thinking Church

This title could have two meanings. It could mean thinking about the Church, where the word “thinking” is a verb. “Thinking” could also be an adjective; i.e. that the church is characterised by the fact that it thinks.

Today I want to think about a church that thinks. More accurately I want to think about a church that “theologizes”; it does theology. Yesterday I talked about kinking the theologians out of their Ivory Towers and onto the street. The theologian should not be thinking theologically but the church community should.

When I say, “theologize” or “do theology” I am not meaning reading endless theological books and discussing endless theological doctrine. What I mean it that the church must be ready to think about their mission in the light of the context and the gospel.

William Temple famously said that the church exists for the sake of the non-member. That is true, however, more accurately the church exists for the glory of God and therefore for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The church has the task of announcing God’s gospel in the world.

The church has the task of announcing God’s gospel in the world.

This phrase is interesting and often misunderstood at almost every word. “The Church” is not the pastors or the evangelists, or not even individuals, but the whole church. In its words, works and wonders the church announces and lives out the good news of God’s purpose.

“Announcing” does not only mean verbal proclamation but also in its actions and traditions, the gospel is to be visible to the world. Now, don’t get me wrong, verbal proclamation will always be necessary. I don’t agree with St. Francis’ famous axion, “preach the gospel always, if necessary use words”. Words will always be necessary, if not then you are in danger of being simply seen as a “do-gooder”.

“God’s gospel” is not a truncated, “believe in Jesus as your saviour and you will go to heaven when you die”. The gospel is not so much taking souls to heaven as bringing heaven to earth. “May you kingdom come, and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. This is Jesus’ prayer to being the values of heaven–of justice, peace, love and forgiveness–to earth. This means living out those values in the church.

“The world” is the whole world and especially the world of the suffering. This brings us back to the thinking church. All of this living the gospel is done in the context. Therefore the context is an integral part of theological reflection. So many theological books seem to leave out the context in which the church lives.

When we go to a corporate worship service, we do not “leave our problems at the door” this is the place where we bring our lives to God. Our lives together can then begin to reflect and announce his kingdom.

In Ephesians 3:18-19 Paul prays that “may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ“. It is only together when the church thinks together that we can know the dimensions of God’s  love is for his church but also for the world.

Theologians out!

I ended yesterday’s post with a statement and some questions.

The task of witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ is a task of interpretation; it is essentially a hermeneutical task. How do we interpret the gospel for this time and for this place? How do I know I am not giving a gospel that is more influenced by my culture than the gospel itself? What does the context “speak back” to the gospel?

When I refer to ‘interpretation’ I mean to interpret both the gospel and the context and more to the point, what the gospel means in that context. One problem we encounter in Evangelical circles is that this task has often been handed over to individuals and that these individuals are normally professional theologians.

By saying this, you will note that I believe that the task of interpreting the meaning of the gospel for a given context is the task of the church community and that church community is one that lives in the context. Therefore the task of witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ is not the task of the individual professional theologian. They may have a role but they are NOT the most important.

This was the purpose of the Base Ecclesial Communities (Comunidades Eclesiales de Base [BEC] of Latin America. They met together and would discuss, in the light of the gospel, what their reaction to the context should be. This was true contextual theology.

In our churches, are there people who see their task as thinking about the context in which the church community is placed in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Do we leave this to church leaders who then tell us what to do, what projects we should undertake, what ministries should be resourced? Theology, as a discipline has been so elevated to the status of the elite that the average church member feels incapable of thinking clearly about their own task of mission.

Theologians should get out in two ways. Firstly we need to get out of our academic bubbles. Theological discussion at a high level is fun and I enjoy it but it is a luxury and one that the church cannot afford, either financially or missionally. Secondly, theologians need to get out on to the street. By street I mean into the place of mission. Theologians cannot do their real task in accompanying the church community in its theological task if it does not know the context in which the community is doing its work.