Editor’s note: The following are adapted excerpts from a talk given by the author in November 2018 to an audience from various faith backgrounds at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
The 2018 Parliament theme, “The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love,” holds out hope for all men, women, and children—whether part of today’s millions of refugees, or a child bullied on the playground.
The Bible’s books, stories, and characters are filled with spiritual seekers who found answers to pressing issues similar to today’s challenges (such as gender equality and social justice) by understanding the power of love and why we can rely on it. The book of First John says: “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (4:7, 8, New Living Translation).
The prophet Jeremiah also understood this steadfast love: “The Lord appeared to them from a distance: I have loved you with a love that lasts forever. And so with unfailing love, I have drawn you to myself” (Jeremiah 31:3, Common English Bible).
The Bible’s relevance, with its application of this profound yet simple idea that God is Love, is one of the many reasons the Scriptures continue to give people of many different races and ethnicities hope and tools to live lives of purpose. And it is surely one of the many reasons the full Bible is translated into 683 languages and continues to be translated every year into new dialects for coming generations.
The New Testament’s book Acts of the Apostles teaches how this love breaks down boundaries and prejudices. Acts records the mission-driven activities of Jesus’ followers after his resurrection and ascension, when they no longer had the personal Jesus around to help them. This makes their story relevant, because we learn how ordinary people—fisherman, tax collectors, wives, and mothers—developed extraordinary courage and boldness to prove and share what they had learned of God’s transforming love.
These apostles (from the Greek, apostolos, a representative sent out) expressed an authority that came not from compelling human personalities or advanced rhetorical skills. Rather, it was the Holy Spirit that infused and empowered these early Christians. This divine influence is described in various ways throughout the Bible (particularly in Luke and Acts), including as:
- The prophetic voice of King David that pointed to the Messiahship of Jesus Christ
- The divine power present at Jesus’ baptism
- The divine power operating at the Pentecost when Jews from various nations each heard Jesus’ followers speak in their native tongue
- The holy influence that strengthened Peter and other apostles with the divine authority to speak truth to power
- The guiding Spirit that directed Jesus’ followers to include and love those who would have before been considered ritually unclean
The Holy Spirit brings the power of God as divine Love to the receptive heart, guiding and emboldening individuals to accomplish what they might never imagine. The book of Acts has multiple examples of this power of divine Love, God, such as when Peter, Jesus’ disciple, had long obeyed Jewish dietary laws that forbade both eating non-kosher foods and eating with Gentiles. Yet through a dream, Peter received a new directive: “Never consider unclean what God has made pure” (Acts 10:15, Common English Bible).
Immediately after this, Gentile men sent by Cornelius, a Roman Gentile centurion who loved God, appeared to Peter. Acts 10 describes the encounter between Cornelius’ men and Peter, a meeting that broke through prevailing ethnic, socioeconomic, linguistic, and religious barriers. The Holy Spirit revealed the love of God that unites rather than divides, moving together the most disparate of parties toward unity and peace. “Then Peter replied, ‘I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right’ ” (Acts 10:34, 35, New Living Translation). What a timeless and loving directive that can break down barriers today!
The Acts of the Apostles teaches how love breaks down boundaries and prejudices.
A second example from Acts tells of another boundary shattered: the low social status and alienation of a eunuch. As one Bible dictionary explains: “In ancient societies that placed a high premium on male virility, the effeminate eunuch embodied shame, impotence, and social deviance” (The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible). Acts 8 relates Philip the Evangelist’s meeting with an Ethiopian eunuch who served his queen as chief financial officer. It’s important to note that even royal court status didn’t overcome the religious ostracism that excluded eunuchs from worship in the Jerusalem Temple.
Philip was directed by an angel (the Greek, aggelos, means messenger) to approach this spiritual seeker, who sat reading the book of Isaiah in his chariot. Then, “the eunuch asked Philip, ‘Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or someone else?’ So beginning with this same Scripture, Philip told him the Good News about Jesus” (Acts 8:34, 35, New Living Translation).
Philip explains this good news realized in Christ Jesus and his resurrection, that even death cannot stop God’s love for His creation. In a profound moment, the eunuch asked if he could become part of the community of Christ followers by being baptized. We can almost hear his hope that finally the punishing social customs causing exclusion and shame would be replaced with acceptance and love. And so they were as Philip baptizes the man based on his belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
The man’s encounter with Philip is another example of the Holy Spirit speaking to both, ushering them toward each other. The beauty of Acts is how intentionally Luke captures this pattern of ever-outreaching love. He constructs the book as outwardly moving concentric circles of inclusion, both geographically and theologically, overriding the false boundaries that would separate us. Starting in Jerusalem, Jesus’ followers would first reach out to fellow Jews. Next, the stories of Peter and Philip include another concentric circle of taking Christ Jesus’ message of God’s love to the before-hated Samaritans. And finally, with the conversion of Saul to Paul, the remaining chapters of Acts track the greatest concentric circle of all: the mission to the Gentiles, who began to embrace the teachings of Christ Jesus throughout the Roman Empire.
What is behind such movement? Again, it’s the God-impelled force of the Holy Spirit, the same divine impetus that gave the healing career of Christ Jesus its transformative power. This Love that is God is divine and brings with it all the uninterrupted goodness and power that changes lives. Peter, Philip, Cornelius, the eunuch, and many women followers of Jesus’ teachings, were part of the early Church’s model for inclusion. This is a practical, not theoretical, Christianity with its unmistakable message to love one another (see John 13:34). And Christianity continues to demand that we express love to all. The Holy Spirit is at work today. God, Love, continues to direct, defend, and deliver.
A recent experience in my own life illustrates how God’s love is not just comforting but transformative. It also taught the power of forgiveness.
I love the Middle East and was leading a group of travelers on a trip throughout Israel. The highlight of the trip for many was going to the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus spent his last night in prayer prior to his arrest and trial. We had an appointment in a private part of the garden, and our group was settling into the quiet receptivity such a holy site demands.
As we waited for the guard to open the gate, a man suddenly appeared and began urging our group to buy souvenirs. I asked if he could move on, since this didn’t seem to be the right time. At that moment, his business partner, before unseen, suddenly appeared at my side screaming obscenities inches from my face.
The gate opened, and we all filed in, everyone taking half an hour of quiet time to pray about the events that occurred in the garden. I went off to a section by myself, but instead of thinking about the events two thousand years ago, I was fixed on what had occurred two minutes prior. It was so shocking that it took a moment to gather my thoughts to pray. Immediately the word forgiveness came to thought, but curiously, not about the man, but myself. I realized that I had initially responded to the souvenir seller with a rather brisk and less-than-loving attitude. This had upset the man who’d screamed at me. I spent the whole time in that garden asking God to forgive me for believing qualities such as anger and aggression were ever part of any of God’s children, including me!
As we wrapped up our visit, I actually felt deeply peaceful—I can only describe it as clean—as all those ugly thoughts and emotions drained away. In their place was a genuine feeling of affection for both myself and the men, as well as forgiveness.
We left for more sites and had a full, inspiring day. As the group was loading into the bus at least three miles from the garden of Gethsemane and several hours later, I suddenly saw the same two men. I went over and found myself thanking them for providing tourists symbols of their beautiful country through the merchandise they sold.
We ended up introducing ourselves, talking, and within about two minutes, hugged as we said goodbye. I don’t know if they even recognized me from our earlier encounter, but it was a beautiful bookend experience showing the transforming power of divine Love available to all as we are receptive.
This is the divine Love that permeates the Bible and which we can call on and practice—as universal and available as numbers are to a mathematician or musical notes to a composer. We have so much to give our world that can bring hope and healing to every situation. Then we meet Paul’s glorious standard for interactions with all our neighbors: “Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another” (Romans 13:8, New Living Translation).