Vision & Mission Conversations: “Embracing the Community with the Love of Christ”
Psalm 19 & 1 John 4: 1-8 ~ October 3, 2021 ~ Northwood United ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook
“What the world needs now, is love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” In 1965, Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote that iconic tune that we all know so well. “What the world needs now, is love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” What do you think of when you sing this song? (and I know you all do…even if it’s just in the shower) For me, this passage from the First letter of John pops into my mind. In one of the most poetic parts of scripture, we gain this insight into the nature of God, the agency of the Holy, the essence of the Divine…how God is love.
Among those existential questions we ask, they all stem from that central understanding of who God is. Who is God? John answers…God is love. And this text gives us a direction into uncovering our understanding to our spiritual quest in life. God’s chosen self-definition is presented in 1st John as something beyond what we can fully see. As Christians, we begin with God’s self-revelation to us through the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ: something theologians call the Incarnation ~ God’s incarnational love revealed in Jesus. And as we witness God’s self-revelation through Jesus’ varied expressions of love, we come closer to an understanding of who God is. Yet, we also are reminded that God’s revelations of love do not conclude there. We come to know God, also, in the intimate and embodied sense as God’s love flows through us in our living. We learn from this text that it is not enough to know about God through Christ’s expression of love in his life, death and life beyond. It is good and right to be touched and moved by this. But, we learn that we must also experience, embody and express this love to truly understand God. To know the God who is love, we must allow God’s love flow through us!
In his book The Courage of Love, William Sloane Coffin, one of the great theologians of the last century, put it this way: “God’s love does not seek value. It creates it. It is not because we have value that we are loved. It is because we are loved that we have value.” So often, we have the ordering reversed on this. We might think of love from humans towards God as being foundational; however, this corrects us as it reminds us that the love of humans for each other is representative of the unseen God in our midst. “God’s love does not seek value. It creates it. It is not because we have value that we are loved. It is because we are loved that we have value.” And our active expressions of love towards others is a witness of that dynamic at work. The mysterious, unknowable and invisible God first establishes this connection with us and that love, in turn, is further perfected in our actions of loving sister and brother, neighbour and enemy.
This is what John is helping us understand in the writing of this letter: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love…” This is the intention that lies behind our vision statement “embracing the community with the love of Christ.” What a powerful and profound vision you captured as you prepared to break ground and create this new building almost a quarter century ago! Imagine…two congregations preparing to unite in holy ministry…North Surrey and Fleetwood United Churches viewing a call of unity to gather upon this property and find this as your core expression of faith. And what you saw at the foundation was…love. “What the world needs now, is love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” And, indeed, that song is continuing to sing in our hearts today?
As you know, that song also goes on to articulate what the world doesn’t need more of: The lyrics remind us that we don’t need another mountain; there are mountains and hillsides for climbing, there are oceans and rivers already there for crossing; cornfields and wheatfields are already growing; sunbeams and moonbeams are already shining. What the world needs is…love. As the text articulates what God is, it also articulates the opposite of this. God is not power; God is not prosperity. God is not even order or goodness for order or goodness sake. We notice that John avoids all these descriptions in favour of the one profound word for God…agape…the Greek word for the self-sacrificial presence of love. That is what we are embraced by when we come to the communion table. The origin of this sacrament, as you know, is a love feast ~ an agape feast ~ where the table is already set for you by God; where we are invited to come forward; where all are invited to gather. Not that we have earned it, or we deserve it, or (as members of the church) it is ours to claim. We come forward to receive this act of grace knowing that before we even place our hands together to beg for this gift of God…what we are really doing is placing our hands together in a prayer of thanksgiving and gratitude. For God is lovingly bidding you to come and receive in your thirst and in your hunger. You are being embraced by the agape-love of Christ.
Theologian Clifton Brown, in a commentary on this passage, contrasts our worldly inclination toward a Godly one. Our worldly tendency towards a reciprocal ‘quid pro quo’ ~ you do this for me and, in return, I will do that for you ~ kind of relationship. This is contrasted with a new relationship of God’s unconditionally loving initiative. God has already decided in your favor. Before you have done anything; before you have earned it, God graces you with love. Prior to any initial response we might offer, God loves us first. And for no reason other than that, love expressed is the very nature of God. Love expressed is the way we know God. And our love towards others is the most divine expression we can make in our living. Embracing the community with the love of Christ.
Love is the overflowing of God’s delight offered throughout Creation. Love is the outreach of God's mercy throughout time. Love is a little baby that redeems ALL creatures with expressions of love and a cry of agony. Love is the transforming spirit poured out and permeating all things, making them whole and holy. God's love is first and last and utterly constant. All things begin through love, flow from love, are perfected in love, and circulate as love.
As I mentioned at the beginning of our service, we will be reviewing our vision statement, as we are doing this morning as well as the mission statement which was a 5-year plan crafted at the beginning of 2016. They are listed in the bulletin and the Board and I seek your wisdom as we review and refine our direction for the future. From a strategic planning perspective, I highly value these statements because it helps us to focus on our direction. It helps us clarify what we are called to do and what we are not called, or able to do. Every organization has its capacity and limits. We need to be clear on ours or we will exhaust ourselves. On the Board’s agenda lately, they are dealing with many things on your behalf. In no particular order has been Refugee sponsorship, conversations of a building in need of repair, property re-development options with the advent of the Skytrain line, the need to increase our staffing team, a congregation that has been declining in number.
And so, we begin reviewing and clarifying who we are and what we are to be about. This morning, we begin visiting our vision. In the midst of the Covid pandemic, we do have some challenges in doing this. However, it is not impossible…especially for Northwood! On the slip in your bulletin, you can see that there is a feedback sheet for today’s topic. It is my prayer that you might take time to fill it out today, or in the coming week. Embracing the community with the love of Christ. What do you cherish about this? What do you think needs to change? Be added, deleted, re-written? What do you see as being the vision for Northwood?