Intro: As the number of cases of Covid-19 continue to climb to over 40 million people, and the number of deaths due to the disease are more than 1 million, heroic efforts are taking place around the world to develop a vaccine. At this time, there are more than 180 different vaccine candidates and 42 of those are presently undergoing human trials. So there is hope that an effective vaccine will be developed soon.
But a question that has not been at the forefront of public discussion is this: Assuming that an effective vaccine is developed, how will it be distributed? Will the first country that develops it vaccinate their leaders, so they have a political advantage, their army, air force and navy, so they have a military advantage, and then all their people in their work force, so that they have an economic advantage over all the other nations in the world? Will the wealthy countries, and the wealthy people in those countries, get vaccinated first while the poor are left to die in the streets while they wait for their turn to get a life-saving vaccine? The challenges posed by Covid-19 will not be over if and when a safe and effective vaccine is developed. Right now, the potential impact of the coronavirus is shared equally all across all of humanity. You see, the virus doesn’t care who you are, where you live or whether you are rich or poor. But a vaccine is going to introduce a human factor into the equation, and then things are going to get even more complicated than they already are. Are we going to have a “me-first” attitude when it comes to vaccine distribution? Or are we willing to wait, even though we will put ourselves at risk, so those who need it more can get vaccinated before us?
- The Pandemic of Sin and the Vaccine of God’s Love
As real of an issue as that is, I am raising it to point towards another issue of far greater importance. You see, the biggest issue facing the world right now is not Covid-19. Covid-19 is only a symptom of a deeper, far more serious issue. The world is in the grip of a pandemic that has been caused by the virus of sin. It started when our first parents turned away from our good Creator God, broke the harmonious relationship of life and love that they had with God and jumped onto a path that would inevitably lead to estrangement, isolation, illness, condemnation and death. Within one generation, we have the first murder, and that is soon followed by brokenness in the human realms of relationship, health, sexuality, politics, business and family.
But I have Good News for you today. There already is a vaccine for sin, and that vaccine is love. But the kind of love that conquers sin is not friendly affection or romantic infatuation. What is needed is what the Bible calls agape love: selfless love that chooses to love sacrificially for the sake of the other with no expectation of anything in return. Agape love originates with God. God is one God in essence and yet three distinct persons–Father, Son and Holy Spirit–who live in a community of perfect, self-giving love. It was agape love that moved God the Father to send His one and only Son, Jesus Christ, into this world to become one of us in order to save us. It was agape love that moved Jesus to willingly go to the cross and take upon Himself the sins of the whole world so that His one perfect human life could be the sacrifice that pays the full cost of forgiveness for all the sins of the whole world. On the third day that followed His death, Jesus rose from the dead to defeat death and begin the process of healing all creation from the inside out. It was agape love that moved the Holy Spirit to draw us toward having faith in Jesus as our Lord and Savior. It was there that our journey of faith began, and as we walk along the path that God has set out for us, the Holy Spirit guides and directs our steps and helps us to grow in holiness and become more like Jesus. For Jesus not only saved us, He shows us what an ideal human being looks like.
The vaccine of God’s agape love has changed everything for us for we now live a new life in a new realm. Because of Jesus we are beloved, forgiven children of God who live in His Kingdom, even as we still live in the world.
And the vaccine of God’s agape love has given us a new future. The healing work that Jesus has begun in us with His agape love will continue throughout this life and reach its fulfillment in the life to come. For one day Jesus will return to this world in a visible way to make us and all things right. On that day, the evil virus of sin will be eliminated from this world forever and all the damage it caused will be healed and restored and all of creation will be made new once again. Jesus will raise to life all who look to Him in faith so they can live with Him in the new heaven and earth forever. Our recreated physical bodies will be perfect in every way and the abundance of life that we will enjoy then will be far beyond anything we could ever ask or imagine.
- Is Our Relationship with God Transactional or Loving?
All these things that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are doing for us are acts of choosing, sacrificial, selfless love for us. But how are we receiving those acts of love? Do we experience them as God pouring His love into our hearts through the relationship we have with Him as we daily get to hear from Him in His Word, the Bible, and talk to Him through prayer, and see Him at work in our interior world and in the world around us? Or do God’s saving acts of love seem to us to be more like fireproof underwear that saves us the fires of hell or a wristband like the ones we used to get at the PNE that let us go on all the rides in the Midway? If the second scenario sounds a little more real for you than you would like to admit, like it does for me at times, then what is happening is that our focus is more on what God gives us than it is on God Himself. If that is true for you, then I invite you to join me in shifting our focus from the gifts to the Giver.
When our focus on God’s gifts, instead of on God, we have what is called a “transactional relationship” with God. It is like we are doing business with God and we trade our obedience for the things God gives us. We don’t want God, we want God’s stuff. We are like the older brother in Jesus’ story of the father with two sons in Luke chapter 15. An example from our human relationships would be to write a thank you note to our Grandma after Christmas that says, “Thanks Grandma for the socks that you gave me at Christmas. See you next year, if you are still around!”
In contrast to a transactional relationship, a loving relationship focuses on the person, not what the person can do for you. In a love relationship, you don’t really care about the gift, you care about the person. The gift doesn’t really matter, it is only a sign of the love that person has for you. So my encouragement to you is to set aside the things that God has done for you and focus instead on who God is and how much He loves you. Consider this passage from Psalm 8:3-6: When I consider your heaven, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet. (Psalm 8:3-6) Who does that? A God who is head-over-heels, unconditionally, infinitely in love with you. A God who loves and accepts you, just as you are, both on your good days and your bad days. A God who loves you when you do the right thing and when you experience a spectacular moral failure. A God who loves you whether you thrive in the spotlight or prefer to be hidden from view. A God who is cheering for you regardless of whether the people around you are building you up or tearing you down. God delights over you, He sings over you, He has an incredible amount of joy over you. Can you open up your heart to receive that love? Can you drop your guard and let God’s agape love for you change your heart so that you love Him in return?
- Who are You Going to Share God’s Love with?
As your capacity grows to receive God’s agape love and love him in return, you are better able to share God’s agape love with others. And the focus of today’s reflection is this: with whom are you going to share God’s agape love? Because of God’s agape love that has been poured into you, you contain with you the vaccine for all that is wrong with the world. Who are you going to share that vaccine with? Will you share it only with people who already love you? Will you share it only with people who are like you? Both of those approaches make sense from a human perspective. Loving those who are like you and those who already love you seems to be the safe and sensible thing to do. But God is constantly calling us to move away from looking at things from a human perspective and viewing them instead from His perspective. Looking at things from God’s perspective is what we do when we live in God’s Kingdom. If we limit our giving of God’s agape love to only those people within our circle of family and friends, then there are going to be people who die forever without knowing God’s love for them because we made ourselves the gatekeeper of God’s love.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said many profound things. Among them is this, from Matthew 5:43-45: “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.
So what is Jesus saying here? I think that He is telling us that agape love, both in what it is and what it does, is so much more than what we think, so it needs to be shared much more broadly than what we think. I have already shared with you what God’s agape love is and what it does. What I want to do is leave you with a three-fold challenge to broadly share God’s agape love more widely, along with the reasons for doing so.
First, Jesus is calling us to love our enemies because that is what He does. Not only does God give sunlight to both the evil and the good and send rain on the just and the unjust, God the Father sent His Son, Jesus, to be the Savior of all people, including those who are enemies of God. And we were once in that category. Our natural-born human tendency is to hate God because we want to be God of our own life. It is only when Jesus changes our heart, and helps us to see that love and a desire to redeem and restore all things is behind all that God does in our lives and in the world, only then do we switch from being an enemy of God to being His friend. But we are unconditionally, infinitely loved by Jesus whether we are His enemy or friend. Remember the prayer Jesus prayed for those who nailed Him to the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Jesus also prayed that prayer for us and for all people. Jesus is calling to love our enemies because He does.
Second, Jesus is calling us to love our enemies because our enemy needs our love. Love is the only thing that will overcome evil and change a human heart. In Romans 12, Paul writes, Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God…. Instead, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink….” Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good. (Rom. 12:19-21) We don’t need to worry about ourselves because God is holding us in His loving care. We don’t need to please others to get love back from them because we already receive all the love that we need from God. So we are free to give God’s agape love to that other person. If we retaliate to their evil action against us with our evil action against them, we only add to the evil in the world. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ““If we do an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we will be a blind and toothless nation.” If we love them with selfless, sacrificial love, there is the potential for them to be drawn closer to the God who unconditionally loves them and can change them from being agents of evil to agents of His love. But even if they don’t change, we still love those who hate us. As we read in 1 John 4:19, “We love because He first loved us.” It is because of God and His love for us that we are moved to give our enemies the agape love they need.
Third, Jesus is calling us to love our enemies because we need to love people that are hard to love. Our capacity to love is like a muscle, we need to exercise it for it to be healthy and strong. Loving our enemies is not something that we naturally do. For us to even make an attempt to do so creates a Kairos Moment where we prayerfully look inside ourselves and ask, “What is stopping me from loving my enemies?’ It takes great courage to do that, but when we do, Jesus will show us some things that we need to give up and hand over to Him. He will then lead us into a new truth that we can believe and live out as we move forward to do with Jesus what we cannot do on our own, namely, to love our enemies.
Conclusion: God has created us with the ability to love, and with Jesus living His life in and through us, we are able to love far, far more than we think we can. At times, our love tank seems empty and it feels like we can’t love anyone anymore than we already are. But that is because we are holding on to our own life and trying to preserve what we think we should have. In Matthew 16:25, we have these words from Jesus, If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.(Mt. 16:25). For the longest time, I have struggled to understand what Jesus meant when He said these words. Lately, I think that Jesus has been helping me to finally get what He is saying. For nearly all my life, I have tried to live my life my way and I have tried to preserve those things in my life that I thought I needed. Things like good health for me and my family, productive work that accomplishes worthwhile things, a comfortable life where I have the things that I think I need. What Jesus has been saying to me recently is, “I have something better for you. You think that, if your circumstances are just right, you will have peace, joy, love and life. I am inviting you to open up your eyes of faith and see that, in Me, you already have peace, joy, love and life, even when your health is not good, even when it seems like you didn’t get anything done, even when life has been turned upside down and is now harder than you ever thought it could be. You can let go of that drive to have your circumstances just right. You can let go of all the things that you are trying to control. You can let go of your life. I’ve got you. I am carrying you. I always have been and I always will. Let go of the life that you are trying to make for yourself, relax in my loving arms and receive the life that I have for you. It is a life with peace in the middle of any storm, joy that shines through the darkest cloud of sorrow, and a rich, full, abundant life that nothing, not even death can ever take away from you. You are not alone. I and My love are always with you.”
Dear friends, the reason that we find it so hard to love our enemies is because we fear that they could take something precious away from us, or even take our life. But when we have already laid down our life before Jesus, there really is nothing that our enemies can ever do to us. Jesus loves us, He is with us and we are forever safe with Him. Safe and secure in the everlasting arms of Jesus, we have been freed to love our enemies. Amen.
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church on October 25, 2020. To hear or view the podcast of this message, click here. For more info about WGLC, click here.)