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Christians, Muslims, and the God of Love
May 6, 2012
1 John 4:7-21
Eleven Christians. One Muslim.
We were 12 American men, boarding a plane for Honduras. Our goal was to do a week of work at a Youth for Christ camp, a Christian boarding school, and a mountaintop medical clinic. In addition to daily construction work, our schedule included nightly Bible study and prayer.
But what Scriptures could we discuss together? Our team was made up of 11 Christians and one Muslim, a man who was a good friend of one of our church members.
I wondered about this: Where was our common ground?
Muslims do not consider Jesus to be the Son of God, but they do revere him as a prophet. Because of this, I decided to focus our group’s Bible studies on the parables of Jesus. Rather than debating his divine nature, our team dug into his teachings.
At our evening gatherings, we listened to Jesus say, “You are the light of the world.” Then we considered how we might let our light shine before others, so that others might see our good works and give glory to God in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).
Responding to the parable of the sower, we talked about how we could improve the quality of soil in our own lives (Matthew 13:1-9). The lost sheep taught us that everyone matters to God, and that no one is expendable (Matthew 18:10-14). Reflecting on the parable of the talents, we discovered the importance of taking risks to do God’s work in the world (Matthew 25:14-30). And when Jesus said that he could be found in the hungry, thirsty, and sick of the world, we talked about where we had seen the face of Jesus in the people of Honduras (Matthew 25:31-46).
Were there disagreements in our group? Of course. Conflict is the norm, not the exception — especially while experiencing the stress of foreign travel, the clash of strong personalities, and the strain of manual labor.
But the wisdom of Jesus did not drive us apart. Instead, it brought us together. Eleven Christians, one Muslim … one community.
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God,” says John to the Christians of the first-century church; “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). This is a word that our fractured world desperately needs to hear, especially as tension continues to exist between Christians and Muslims in a post-9-11 world. “Whoever does not love does not know God,” John goes on to say, “for God is love” (v. 8).
We dozen men in Honduras discovered that the command to “love one another” is one that Muslims and Christians can agree on. In fact, our Muslim friend was one of the most loving and compassionate members of the group. A Muslim chaplain named Bader Malek says that the moral teachings of both Mohammed and Jesus “impel us to be kind to weak people, respect them, and serve them as much we can and never ask for a reward except from God.”
It’s good that Muslims and Christians agree that we should “love one another.” But how about the assertion of John in today’s Scripture passage that “God is love”?
That’s a different story.
At the very heart of our Christian faith is the bold assertion that God is love. Not simply that God loves, but that God is love. That’s a claim about the nature of God that does not appear in the Scriptures of Islam, the Qur’an.
God is love. That is a bold and uniquely Christian claim.
Theologian Miroslav Volf has written on the topic of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. He says they do, but not everyone agrees with him. In fact, evangelist Pat Robertson has said that Muslims worship the moon god of Mecca, while Jews and Christians worship Yahweh, the God of Israel. Moon god, Yahweh — different gods.
But listen to what Miroslav Volf has to say. At my 25th reunion at Yale Divinity School last fall, Volf gave a lecture. In it, he said that Christians and Muslims have the same God, but we understand this God in different ways. In our distinctive views of God, there are four significant similarities and two important differences:
- First, Christians believe that God is One God. Muslims believe the very same.
- Second, Christians believe that God created the world out of nothing. Muslims, ditto.
- Third, Christians believe that God is radically different from the world. God is the Creator, the world is his creation, and the two should never be confused. Muslims agree.
- Fourth, Christians believe that God is just, merciful, and a giver of commandments. Muslims have the very same view.
These are important similarities. They mean that you have a lot in common with the Muslim family down the block, or the Muslim worker in the next cubicle. Because of these common beliefs, we should not be surprised that a group of 11 Christians and one Muslim could travel to Honduras and work together to help the poor. Nor should we be shocked when Christians and Muslims agree on the teachings of Jesus about helping the hungry, thirsty, naked, and sick.
But don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that Christianity and Islam are the very same road to God. There are at least two important differences:
- First, we Christians believe that God is a Trinity. We are monotheists, but also Trinitarians — we believe that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Muslims believe that God is fully one.
- Second, we Christians believe that God is love (1 John 4:8). Muslims agree to a certain extent; the mercy of God is huge in Islam. But “God is love” is not to be found among the 99 Muslim names for God.
God is a Trinity. God is love. These are distinctly Christian beliefs about God.
So what difference does this make? I’m giving a sermon here, not a lecture. I’m convinced that our belief that “God is love” is not just interesting — it is life-changing.
When I say that God is love, I’m saying that there is nothing in God that can be separated from love. It is at the heart of God’s nature. In his first letter, John does not simply say that “God loves,” which would mean that God expresses love along with a number of other emotions: Anger, pride, jealousy, joy. No, John says, “God is love,” which means that love is the solid center of who God is.
What kind of a God do we worship and serve? The God who is love.
John backs this up by saying that “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (v. 9). This echoes the classic verse from the Gospel of John, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).
We know that God is love. Not because God says it, but because God does it — God shows his love by sending his only Son into the world, so that we will not perish but have eternal life.
This is not the kind of love we see in romance novels or rom-coms — romantic comedies. It is not a warm and wonderful feeling. “In this is love,” writes John, “not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). John makes the case that God’s love is seen most clearly in the death of Jesus on the cross — a sacrifice designed to bring us forgiveness of sin. We remember this sacrifice every time we gather at the table, as we will today, for the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
So God is love, at the very core of God’s being. God reveals his love by sending his Son to bring us forgiveness and new life. This is a gift for me, and a gift for you. We don’t have to earn it or deserve it; we only have to accept it. And when we do, our lives are changed — we are given forgiveness and new life.
This gift comes with a challenge, however: To show love to one another. John says, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (v. 11). And if “we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (v. 12). If we take the bold step of loving one another — friends, enemies, blacks, whites, gays, straights, Muslims, Christians — God will live in us and bring his love to completion in us.
Love is at the core of what it means to be a Christian. John tells us that God lives in those who love, and at the same time God lives “in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God” (v. 15). Loving one another and believing in Jesus are two sides of the same Christian coin.
Such a powerful love can change our lives, giving us “boldness on the day of judgment” (v. 17). It can eliminate fear, for “perfect love casts out fear” (v. 18). It can also be a test of our integrity, showing that our words about love are matched by our actions. “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars,” insists John; “for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (v. 20).
The bottom line is this, according to John: “those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (v. 21).
When this Christian teaching takes root, an amazing fruit is produced. Mamie Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, was asked if she harbored bitterness toward the men who murdered her son in 1955. “I did not wish them dead,” she said. “I did not wish them in jail. If I had to, I could take their four little children — they each had two — and I could raise those children as if they were my own and I could have loved them. … I believe the Lord meant what he said, and try to live according to the way I’ve been taught.”
The Lord meant what he said: Love one another. In the United States, in Honduras, in conversations with fellow Christians, in dialogue with Muslims, we need to live according to this way. Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also, no matter their race, creed, culture, or nationality.
Our distinctive Christian belief is this: We love, because God is love. Amen.
Malek, Bader. “Muslim attitude toward Jesus Christ,” www.geocities.ws.
Terkel, Studs. Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession. New York: New Press, 1992. 21-22.