The first things that are said at the beginning of a new relationship are the most important. We know that in courtship, in relationships with friends, and even in job interviews and sales appointments. The time of charging a new pastor and the congregation is no different.
I once read that the immortal football legend, Coach Vince Lombardi, used to begin his training camp for rookies by standing in front of them, tossing the pigskin up-and-down in one hand, as he scanned the formation of new Green Bay Packers players and say, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”
Well, ladies and gentlemen, pastor and people, the way I want to charge you is to begin by saying words I pray that you will never forget. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Bible. And this Bible teaches us in 1 John 4:7-12 that God is love.” That simple, profound teaching should change everything about your ministry, your church, and your future.
This is the inerrant and infallible word of the living God:
“Beloved let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4.7-12 ESV).
I once read that Peggy Noonan, former speechwriter for Pres. Ronald Reagan, and now a columnist with the Wall Street Journal, declared that the deepest, most profound things in life are said the simplest. For instance, what could be more profound, deep and enduring than the simple words, “I love you.” Yet as simple and as profound as those words are, even more profound and yet at the same time as simple—childlike, if you will—are the words that John Guest called the most transformative words in the world: “God loves you.”
As you begin your ministry together I want to charge both pastor and congregation to focus on the love of God. And when I say focus on the love of God I want to concentrate on three truths for my charge to you from this text. First:
1. Lead With Love
We recognize in this text that the word “love” is repeated several times in this passage. In the original text, this word comes from the root word “agape,” referring to the covenantal love of God. This is a love like no other, as Martin Luther reminded us in his famous Heidelberg disputation.
The love of human beings is a reactive love. It reacts to impressions of beauty, or kindness, or sympathy, or some other impulse. This is entirely different from divine love. The love of God, which St. John speaks of in this passage, is a creative power independent of people qualities. God loves out of His own being. All children know the passage contained in this text, “God is love.” And so he is. And thus he loves us, not based on what we can give to him, or what beauty He sees in us, or even what potential we may see in us, but he loves us out of himself. He is love. And that love overflows unto his own creation. Out of that love you and I have been elected unto eternal life.
So, what does a theology of the love of God have to do with pastoring? Or with being the people of God in the world? Or relating to each other as pastor, pastoral family and congregation? Quite simply, everything. For if we focus on God’s love, indeed, Pastor, if you lead with love, that is leading with God’s love, not with what you find desirable in your people, not with what you find as advantageous for your ministry, but out of the sacred encounter you have had personally with God’s love, then the love of God will be perfected in you. In this case, then, your vocation will become your sanctification. In this session, diaconate, women of the church, children of the church, and all the people of the church, as you all walk together in this love, you’ll become a congregation that is, literally, out of this world.
How does this work out practically? For this minister of the Gospel, it means that his pastorate, following the love of God, will seek to minister out of nothing else but the love of God. That means when a cranky congregant, or a peeved parishioner sends e-mails to say that they didn’t appreciate your closing illustration that you felt was rather brilliant, and not being deeply offended and hurt, you take that to the Lord, you ask how can the love of God be shed abroad in the heart of this one? Maybe you even asked, out of God’s love, how can my closing illustrations better show the text? Maybe it wasn’t the best close! The bottom line for those of us who preach and pastor is that we must continually examine our motivations for ministry. There have been times when I have asked myself that question and not liked the answer. In such times there must be a recalibration to seek to reflect the love of God in my ministry.
And for the congregation? Leading out of love means bringing the Pastor and his family before the God of love each and every day. The love of God was shed abroad, according to this passage, in its most glorious way, through the giving of God’s own Son to the world, so that we might live through him. Therefore, there should not only be the giving of pastor to congregation, there should be the giving of the congregation to the pastor—and I’m not talking about used tea bags or even Christmas bonuses. I’m talking about love. It remains for you to work out the love of God among yourselves. It will be your creative challenge to discover ways of showing love to each other. But each of you must lead not the way the world leads, but lead with love, God’s love.
This leads me to my second charge from this passage:
2. Leave in love
There is an evangelistic component in this passage that causes us to leave, like Christ, and go to the world with the love of God.
This passage says in verse 12 that “no one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” It seems that the Apostle John is concerned about the role of the congregation in the community. John’s theology of love is expressed here in order for the people to understand that as God’s love is lived out among them—the redeeming love, the agape love that sent the Lord Jesus Christ to live the life we could never live and die the death which should’ve been ours, and to liberate captives to sin and death, giving us abundant life and eternal life—so that others may know this love. A theology of love at work in a congregation is the beginning of the fulfillment of the great commission.
Pastor, as you pastor out of this divine love, not out of a human love, and here I mean a love that is a reactive love, i.e. “if you don’t give me any trouble and let me have a really nice, comfortable pastorate, then I may love you back,” you will know joy inexpressible. If your pastorate is known by love, even more so than by your preaching, or your administering, or your teaching, then hurting, broken people will be attracted. For divine love is not native to this old world. The people only understand human, reactive love, to borrow from Luther once again. When they see or hear about a divine love at work, even though they don’t even know what to call that love, they are attracted to it. Indeed, the Holy Spirit draws his elect to the Father as the love of Jesus is manifested through your ministry.
People of God, because of the imperatives in this passage to focus on the love of God and to lead out of that love, you will, naturally, or should I say supernaturally, reach out to your community in that same love. This love bubbled over is the reality of God’s love in our lives and it in turn, bubbles over into others. This is the way of divine love.
An old Burt Bacharach classic was, “what the world needs now is love, sweet love.” And that is true. But it is not the love that is a reactive love, but the impulse of divine love displayed in the Lord Jesus Christ, lived out in his people, and shared with others, in word and in deed.
I will never forget the Rev. Dr. James Baird, former senior minister of First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi, coming to our seminary in my first year there. He spoke to the class and his last words in his pastoral ministry class were, “if you preach to the broken hearts, you will never lack for a congregation.” I would paraphrase Dr. Baird tonight and say to you, “if you will preach the love of God to this loveless world you will never lack a vision or a mission for your Ministry together.”
So Pastor and People of God: lead with love, and reach out in love. But to do so will require one last thing, and this is the most important aspect about this passage:
3. Learn of Love.
Your time together will be a great experiment, if you will. It will require learning how to live together, just as the Saints were doing in the epistle we read, forgiving each other, lifting each other up, and always leaving an empty space for others to join you, as you love one another. The Bible tells us that if you do that, God will abide with you, and his love will be perfected among you. And I say these things so that in your greatest challenges, as well as in your most glorious successes, together as pastor and people, you will always return to these first words, the simple words, these profound words, “God is love.” And that changes everything.
In the Name of The Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This message was given at the installation service of a pastor.