On June 25, 1967 television reached an historic milestone. The first live, worldwide satellite broadcast took place, a two-hour special filled with musicians and other artists. Closing the show was the Beatles, singing All You Need Is Love, which would reach number one a few weeks later. As much as I love the song and appreciate the sentiment, I can’t really agree. Love doesn’t pay the electric bill or the mortgage. I don’t think it would work if, at the grocery, I told the clerk at the checkout that I would offer a hug and some love in lieu of payment. Some couples are disillusioned when they discover that in spite of their great love for one another, life’s mundane matters and pressures are a reality. We don’t live on that wonderful cloud of romantic love all the time, do we?
But love is undoubtedly the most powerful force in our lives. It is the subject of numerous movies and countless songs. It has inspired artists and authors since the beginning of time. We all long for it, and sometimes we find it, thankfully.
As we conclude our series of messages on the Fruits of the Spirit, we come to the first one in the list, that I have left for last – love.
As I began this message I have to confess that my first thought was what is there left to say about love? Well, there’s a lot actually. In our larger culture love is seen most often through the lens of romantic love. That’s a wonderful gift, certainly, but there is more to love than just romance. I want to try and briefly cover some of the most fundamental definitions about love from a Scriptural perspective.
1. Love is the greatest value – Matthew 22:33-40
33 When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.
35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’
38 This is the first and greatest commandment.
39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
I continue to be amazed at the media attention Pope Francis attracts, and the reasons why he attracts the attention. His call to a greater expression of love to people, avoiding becoming entangled in theological disputes, or being defined by what the church would oppose draws a lot of attention. What he has done is to call for a greater expression of love. And that becomes, literally, front-page news. Imagine that.
We all know this passage from Matthew. It’s one of the foundational passages of the gospel. Perhaps we’ve heard it so many times that we lose the impact of Jesus’ words. The Pharisees and Sadducees, in their swollen sense of importance and pride, come to Jesus and, in essence, challenge him to declare that laws and rules are the supreme value to a life of faith. Jesus turns the conversation into a challenge not just to the Pharisees and Sadducees, but to every person who adopts a life of faith. Never forget, he says, that the supreme value of faith is that of love. Nothing supersedes love. Nothing.
Some people see Christianity as a system of beliefs and regulations about behavior. There are, certainly, particular beliefs that belong to our faith, and there are standards of behavior, but there is one primary regulation, one supreme law, and it is love.
While some people want to make faith about laws and regulations, we must remember that doing so creates legalism, where people want to dictate how we should think and how we should behave, but there is only one law, and it is love.
2. Love is not reciprocal. Matthew 5:43 – 47.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
If we think about it, most of the people we love are people who love us. That’s just natural, isn’t it? And it is certainly love when we love someone who loves us. But the kind of love of which Jesus speaks, what we call agape love – the kind of love expressed by God – is not dependent upon whether or not someone loves us in return. It is not a transaction – you do something for me, and I’ll do something for you.
It’s easy, most of the time, to love those who love us. Another person may occasionally irritate us, but we love them and they love us, so we don’t worry about it. But how do you love someone who doesn’t love you in return? Jesus says this is one of the most defining qualities of the kind of love he advocates – love others whether or not they love you in return.
At the Last Supper Jesus demonstrates this so powerfully. There he was in a room with his disciples, a group composed of those about to do one of three things – deny him, betray him, or desert him. What did he do, in spite of his knowledge of what was to come? He takes a bowl of water and washes their feet in an act of love and service. Their love was shaky or missing, but Jesus loved them in return.
3. Love is challenging – I Corinthians 13:4-8.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails.
I have done a lot of weddings over the course of my ministry. At many of those weddings I have read I Corinthians 13, which is such a powerful and eloquent statement on love that we call it, simply, the love chapter. At the heart of that chapter we read these words – Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails (I Corinthians 13:4-8a).
Imagine using those words as a template for everything we say and do in life. Imagine the difference it would make in our lives and in the lives of others. Imagine the hurts that would be erased. Imagine the healing that would take place in relationships. Imagine the heavy burdens that would be lifted.
But notice the challenge in those words. The good news is that love is the supreme law, but here’s the difficult news – sometimes love is really, really tough. Love is tough because as people sometimes we can be difficult to love. And sometimes we don’t always agree, we don’t always have the same perspective. We have values and beliefs that clash and all of these differences test love.
Love is challenging. Love isn’t for wimps. For all the beauty and wonder of love, love is tough. Love is the single greatest challenge in our lives. Love will challenge us to forgive in spite of our hurts. Love will challenge us to reach across the divide of hurt and heal a broken relationship. Love will challenge us to embrace a wayward child or an indifferent parent. Love will ask of us what we don’t believe we can do, but the power of love will challenge us to do so.
We talk about falling in love, and we do fall in love. But agape love is not automatic, it is a practiced love.
19 We love because he first loved us.
20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
You can’t fake love.
It is so tempting to want to sort people into so many categories and then determine which groups we will love and which ones we will not love. As the people of God, that is not our option.
It is so sad to see churches deciding they will be the gatekeepers of God’s kingdom, sorting and picking and choosing who they will deem worthy of love. Jesus railed against such an attitude, and it was his acceptance of all people and his unfailing love for all people that brought him into conflict with, of all people, religious people.
Everything, Jesus says, hangs on love. Everything Jesus said goes back to love; everything he did was based on love.
Paul says that love never fails. I believe that. I have witnessed a lot of heartbreak because of people failing love. I don’t think there is a person here who hasn’t felt the heartbreak of someone failing love. And one of the great tragedies that occurs when people fail love is the scars that are created - scars that cause people to pull back from one another and create a failure to trust and create an atmosphere of hurt and bitterness.
We may fail love, but love itself never fails. Love calls us ever higher. Love calls us to live with grace rather than judgment, love calls us to forgiveness rather than bitterness, it calls us to move beyond hatred, it calls us to go places we would not ordinarily go, it calls us to people we would normally shun, and it asks of us what we sometimes feel we cannot do; but love will still ask of us all those things and more.