1 John 4:16b-21
John 13:34-35

So here’s my question:

If God is love—and I believe God is; if the most important thing we can do as children of God and disciples of Jesus is to love one another and our world—and I believe it is; if the Bible is the dramatic, profound, life-giving account of the timeless love story between God and God’s people—and I believe it is . .

Why is it that I don’t get to the “God is love” part of my Bible until . . . page 1,480. Page 1,480!?! Okay, so maybe I’m not being fair. My Bible does include the Apocrypha and, if you take that out, let’s see, “God is love” is on page—ooh, page 1,194—out of 1,217.

What is up with that?

In the news business, which I used to be in, this would be called “burying the lede.” The lede is the most important fact, the newsiest news, the story-in-a-nutshell part of a news story, usually the very first paragraph of a newspaper article. Doesn’t “God is love” strike you as the “lede” of our faith?

And that’s the real point. Not where “God is love” comes in the Bible, but where and how it fits into the context of our lives, in the day-to-day living out of the ministries each one of us has, in the missions, activities and character of First Church, Amherst. Because if we step back and prayerfully consider the ministry of Jesus and the totality of who God is as expressed in the Bible, it seems fairly clear that love is at the heart of it all.

And yet it’s so easy to lose sight of that.

Loving can be so hard that instead we focus on justice or worship or stewardship or seeing our friends . . . or, as I’m discovering, the 24/7 nature and the endless details involved in pastoring a church. Or, as the writer of First John saw in the first-century church, Christians can get tied up in arguments over doctrine and scriptural interpretation and which church is right. Members of the same church, this writer saw, could get distracted by the logistics of actually setting up a church and keeping it going. (Not that anyone here would do that.) And so, the writer of First John tries to bring those early Christians back to the basics: God is love.

In a similar way, Jesus made love his parting message to Peter. After Jesus has treated the disciples to a resurrection breakfast on the beach, he takes Peter aside for one last heart-to-heart. Does Jesus appeal to Peter’s guilt or his sense of obligation? Does Jesus give Peter a holy “honey-do” list? Does Jesus take this opportunity to give Peter some pointers on new church starts, how to increase membership and pledges or who should be allowed to take communion? No.

What the Risen One asks Peter not once but three times is this:

“Do you love me?”
“Of course, I do,” Peter says.
;Again, Jesus asks him, “Do you love me?”
Peter again says that he does.
When Jesus asks the question for the third time—“Do you love me?”—Peter feelings are hurt.
Frustrated, he says, “Lord, you know that I do!”

By repeatedly asking Peter about love and telling him what that love requires, Jesus boils it all down; he gives us the bottom line: “Following me, being my disciple, serving me,” Jesus says, “is all about love. And loving me is all about taking care of my people.”

Maybe I’m just slow, but it has taken me a while to begin to figure this out, to start to understand what Jesus means when he tells us to love one another as he loves us, and to live into the truth that Jesus’ new commandment, the love commandment, requires me—and all of us—to let our lives be shaped by the God who is love.

So, as I join your ministry here at First Church, as our once-separate paths of following Jesus merge and we begin ministering together as Christ’s church, I want to start what I hope will be a long, shared conversation about what ministry is. I’ll begin by telling you a little bit about where I’m coming from.

Four years ago I was working hard at a prestigious, high-paying job, a job I had worked hard to get and to hold. And yet something else, someone else, had a hold on me. And so I left my 22-year career in journalism for three years of seminary. I left the high-profile, fast-track life of chasing after senators, truth-squading the president, and getting the truth onto the front page . . . for the no-profile, slow-lane life of listening to seminary lectures, writing papers, praying for hospital patients and, at the advanced age of forty-something, becoming an intern.

I’ll admit it: There were times along the way when I thought, “What have I done? Either this is of God, or I am crazy.” But, thank God, there were many more times when God’s Spirit touched my heart, or God touched someone else through me in such a way that I would realize, “Never in a million years could I have planned this or designed this. This has to be God. This has to be love.”

*Every November 1 while I was in seminary, for example, I led a ragtag band of students in making luminaries and setting them out on Wesley’s steep lawn, so they could be seen by the thousands of cars that passed by during rush hour. Each All Saints’ Day luminary represented the life of an American soldier or Marine killed in Iraq, and each vigil honored them and all Iraqis and others killed in the Iraq war. The first year we made 1,300 luminaries; the second year it was 2,013; the third year it was 2,817; and this past November (I went back), there were more than 3,800 luminaries.

Every year I looked at the hill of light and cried, praying that we wouldn’t need to do it the next year, and knowing that only Love—God’s love working in and through us—would get us out of it.

*Then there was the morning when I was working a hospital chaplain that I got a call from a nurse in Labor & Delivery. A little while later, I walked through a door with a paper butterfly on it, to comfort and pray for the parents of a so-called “fetal demise.” I heard their cries and their questions; I listened to the sobbing father ask what he had done wrong; and then I blessed and baptized their baby girl as she slowly turned blue in her mother’s arms.

And I knew: Only Love—the love of God working in them and through their family and friends—would get them through their grief. (And on the one-year anniversary of his daughter’s birth and death, the self-described non-religious father wrote me a note to tell me that, in essence, God’s love had been with them.)

*And if I ever needed anything to pull me back from the brain-hurting abstractions of systematic theology to the real-life stuff of faith, I had only to recall the patient’s wife who rushed down the hall to tell me, “It worked! Your prayer worked!”

And I knew: As important as medicine and surgery and science are, nothing beats knowing and feeling that God, who is love, is with us.

*When I told the children at my church about my upcoming trip to South Africa, I explained that country’s remarkable history in terms of skin color. Suddenly, one little girl asked, “What color was Jesus?”

And I knew: God’s ways are not my ways; God’s thoughts are higher than mine; God’s radical, barrier-breaking love can work through anyone, anytime, anywhere.

*Then there was the experience I had just last week, at our Ash Wednesday service. It was a simple service (maybe too simple), but as I said each person’s name, imposed ashes on his or her forehead, and said those old, solemn words that remind us of our mortality—“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”—I had a poignant and somewhat startling realization. “Dear God,” I thought, “I’ve been their pastor only six days, and already I love these people.”

I could tell you more stories, but the point is this: The most important thing I have learned about this ministry to which I am called; the most fundamental belief I bring with me as I begin to minister with you here at First Church, is that following Jesus, pastoring a church, doing God’s work, is not about what we believe, or how hard we work, or whether the church grows and we attract more children and students.

What I’ve come to believe is that my ministry—our ministry together—is not the church business, or the religion business, or the saving-souls business. It is not the finding-meaning or giving-comfort business, or even the peace-and-justice business. It is, I believe, the love business. It is about knowing, through Jesus, the God who is love, and sharing that love with one another and the world.

In other words, to paraphrase what is possibly the single most spiritualized and de-contextualized scripture passage we know:

If I—or we—grow the church, start a new outreach program, visit the sick, revive the youth ministry, feed the hungry, counsel the troubled, welcome the stranger, embrace the outcasts, work to end the war in Iraq and the genocide in Darfur, build houses in New Orleans and Nicaragua but have not love, . . . I am nothing more than a burned-out do-gooder.

Or, if I—or we—lead workshops in centering prayer, but our hearts doesn’t break when I hear about more deaths in Iraq and Darfur; if I oversee the stewardship program, but don’t feel shame when I consider that 1 billion people live on less than $1 a day; if we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, but don’t agonize over the realities of ongoing racism and white privilege; if I hold healing services, but am not concerned about the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the growing number of Americans without health insurance; if we preach openness and inclusion but judge harshly those who are less open and inclusive—or just different—than we are; if I pray for our country and its leaders but my blood doesn’t boil when missiles are fired, prisoners are tortured, lies are told, and hatred is fomented in my name; if we march for peace, but don’t forgive our persecutors and love our enemies; if I believe I do the Lord’s work, but worship at the altar of U.S. individualism and consumerism; if our values put us in the minority, but our lives looks just like everyone else’s, . . .

Then we need to reconsider what it means to serve the God who is love, what it means to feed Jesus’ sheep, what it means to be transformed by God’s love—what ministry really is.

Ministry as the love business is the business of the love that heals and transforms individuals and empowers them to change the world, the love that lays the foundation for the “subversive, countercultural” community known as the church. If working for the Peace Corps is “the toughest job you’ll ever love,” certainly a calling to ministry should be “the loving-est job I’ll ever live.”

And if the devil is in the details, the love is in the living. It is in knowing the incarnational love of Christ that we come to be “filled with all the fullness of God,” and by the Spirit of grace we can then feel with God’s heart, see with God’s eyes, and know that we are indeed God’s children, realizing that if God is our Father/Mother/Creator, then everyone around us is our sister or brother.

“I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you,” he says, “you also should love one another.”

Loving as Jesus loves, it seems to me, means loving as God loves. Loving as “God so loved the world” means giving our lives away for the sake of one another and the world. Jesus’ way of love is not one of self-denial but of living faithfully and loving fully—with all our heart, mind, soul and strength—no matter what the consequences. Loving as Jesus loves does not mean believing in certain doctrines but “beloving” one another and the world with the ever-merciful, healing, reconciling, steadfast love of God as expressed in Jesus.

“By this everyone will know you,” Jesus says, “if you have love for one another.”

The late Jesuit priest Pedro Arrupe compared finding God to falling in love. “What you are in love with,” he said, “what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

“Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

And so it does. And so it will.