During our first year of marriage, Joy and I studied at the Ruhr University in Germany. We were part of a large, diverse foreign-student population. Men and women from Iran, Iraq, Argentina, Ethiopia, and Japan majored in engineering, computer programming, literature, and philosophy. By far the largest group came from China.
The office responsible for exchange students arranged regular, heavily subsidized bus trips to other parts of Germany and to other countries of the European Union. The university’s aim was to encourage international understanding of and relationships with Europe. Secondarily, these trips fostered community among the foreign students.
On one of our excursions, Joy and I sat across from a young Chinese woman whom we had come to know. She asked, “How can you Christians love everyone? I love my family. I will take care of my children as they grow up and my parents as they grow old. But there are billions of people. What do you mean you love them all?”
Our friend wasn’t challenging us or calling our faith into question. She was genuinely curious about how we would live out a faith that makes such a bold claim: We will love everyone. No exceptions. No prerequisites.
And we don’t mince words about it. We sing it boldly. “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love.” Love is not one thing among many that Christians might or might not do, like cross themselves or genuflect or eat fish on Friday. To follow Jesus is to love like Jesus.
So Jesus spent his earthly ministry teaching people what love is. Or, more precisely, Jesus showed us who love is. God is love. (1 John 4:8b) And Jesus is love in the flesh.
What Jesus does in the flesh shows us what love is. Love is no mere affection. It is the creative, transforming power of God.
John’s Gospel culminates in the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. But in the earlier chapters of the Gospel we read pointed lessons about the nature of love. These lessons gradually prepare us to experience the full impact of the cross and the empty tomb.
Listen to the Gospel’s familiar opening phrase. “In the beginning was the Word.” The Greek words translated “in the beginning” mean at the root of things. At the bottom of things. At the very core of things.
Everything that is, was, or will be owes its existence to God’s love. And it’s not that God made a bunch of stuff and then stepped back to admire the handiwork. Everything depends upon God at every single instant.
Each honeysuckle vine, white pelican, chubby baby, and grumpy old bulldog would tumble into the abyss of nothingness if God ceased even for a nanosecond pouring love into it. It would be like unplugging an electric appliance.
The mere existence of all the animals and plants, of all the oceans and stars, planets and rock formations, is a sign that God’s love is actively present. Creating. Sustaining. Making something happen.
For the rest of eleven chapters, John recounts seven signs of God’s love. The very first of those happens at Cana of Galilee. Along with his mom and his traveling companions, Jesus turns up at a wedding where the wine runs out. At the urging of his mother, Jesus turns several huge jugs of water into wine. And I mean the really good stuff. (John 2:1-11)
The sign is a showing, a revelation, of God as love. God’s presence transfigures things. In some ways, we’ve grown so accustomed to God’s transforming power that we take it for granted or think of it as merely natural. Caterpillars turn to butterflies. A child grows in a woman’s womb. Bare winter branches yield spring blossoms.
Other holy changes might more ably grab our attention. Parents forgive their child’s murderer. Heroin addicts get sober.
None of this is solely human achievement, luck of the draw, or brute natural law. This is God’s love working itself out.
When Christians say that we will love everyone, we’re admitting to an infinite desire even though we are finite beings. We yearn to have God’s love work itself out through us. To be signs of a loving God in a messy world.
God can make water into wine through us. God’s love can make strangers into friends, fear into compassion, resentment into reconciliation. When the hungry are fed, the homeless are sheltered, and the sick receive treatment, God’s love reveals itself.
In this life you and I will not love perfectly. But our imperfections do not prevent God’s love from showing through. After all, a crummy stable and a cruel cross served as signs of God’s love. So too can our own fumbling attempts to love what God loves as God loves it.
To follow Jesus is to be an imperfect sign of God’s perfect love. They will know we are Christians by our messy love.
Looking for a book to study during Lent with a group or on your own? Check out this brief clip about my latest book A Resurrection Shaped Life. You can learn more or get a copy here: https://www.abingdonpress.com/ResurrectionShapedLife