Wednesday, June 22, 2016

June 19, 2016 The Abundant Life: Love

This morning we complete the brief, three-message series called The Abundant Life.  Taken from John 10:10, where Jesus says I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (NASV) it forms around what I refer to as the foundational values of the Christian faith – faith, hope, and love.

In this final message we will consider love, and my first thought in considering this topic was to wonder what I could say about love that has not already been said, and probably said better.  As I considered a message on love, it brought to mind an article I read some months ago on The Beatles, where the writer began by asking what is there to say that hasn’t already been said?  That is certainly a legitimate question when coming to the topic of love.  So much has been said and so much has been written that it is difficult to bring anything new or original to the subject.  It is not, however, always necessary to bring a new insight to a topic, as some things simply bear repeating, and a call to love is a theme that is always worth repeating.

In choosing a Scripture text for the message my first thought gravitated to I Corinthians 13, which I read for the Call To Worship.  I Corinthians is rightly deserved as one of the most beloved passages in all of Scripture and has earned its name as the love chapter.  After some reflection, however, I decided upon Matthew 5:38-48, which comes from the Sermon On the Mount. 

Paul, in I Corinthians 13, presents us with a beautiful portrait of love.  It is a passage that is very well suited to occasions such as weddings and other times of beauty.  It is what we might call more of an ivory tower approach to the topic of love, as Paul considers his topic in a more poetic, philosophical manner. The words of Jesus, however, are more street level than they are ivory tower.  Paul writes of a beautiful ideal to which we aspire; Jesus speaks of the messy reality of how our highest ideals can be tossed aside as our various opinions, perspectives, and ways of living clash.

We heard the words of Paul for the Call to Worship.  Now let’s hear the words of Jesus –

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’
39 But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.
40 If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.
41 Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.
42 Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
47 If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
48 Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

In considering our topic this morning, I want to ask several questions, questions that I hope will get you thinking about these words of Jesus.  The first two questions consider love in the micro context, that is, how we live out love in our own lives.  The third question considers love in the macro context, that is, how we as a collection of individuals live out the call to love.

The first personal question, then, is –

How do I, as an individual, live out these words?
I have said before that I believe Jesus was a pacifist, but I am not.  I believe, however, that if Jesus was a pacifist, then I must ask, why am I not?  I am of a dual nature on this topic.  Intellectually and spiritually, I think I am a pacifist, but emotionally, and probably in the real world of everyday life, I don’t think I am.  If push came to shove, I think I would probably push and shove back.  And if I do, I might find some way to justify my actions but I must remember that those actions will only continue the ageless cycle of violence and retribution that have taken us nowhere for all of history except into more violence and immeasurable heartbreak.

The love that Jesus speaks of is such a tremendous challenge, and is a love that goes so far beyond how we generally define love.  What we call love is often based on the principle of reciprocity – you love me and do something for me and I’ll do something for you and love you back.  But Jesus says that is neither true love nor much of an accomplishment.  In 5:46-47 he saysfor if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Real love, Jesus says, is one that is not predicated upon someone doing something for us or even their willingness to love us.  Real love is so deep, so profound, and so challenging that it brings us to the point of loving an enemy. 

But really, who can do that?  Sometimes we struggle to love those who are kind and helpful.  Sometimes we struggle to love those who love us.  Sometimes we struggle to love those who are easy to love.  And Jesus wants us to love our enemies?  Yes, that is exactly what he asks.  As we have such a hard time loving people who are decent and nice people how in the world can we love someone who seeks to do us harm?

So having said that, there is a second, personal, question for us to consider –

Are their any exceptions to these words of Jesus?
I once heard a story about a boxer who left the sport to become a minister.  One day he was setting up a tent for a revival he was sponsoring when a couple of local troublemakers stopped by to harass him.  One of them said, we hear you used to be a boxer.  How about I challenge you to a fight?  The boxer turned minister said, I don’t fight any more.  I now believe in the words of Jesus that I am called to turn the other cheek.  One of the troublemaker said let’s test that, and stepped forward, took a swing at the minister, connected the punch to his jaw, and the minister dropped to his knee.  But then he stood up, shook his head, rubbed his jaw, turned the other side of his face to the troublemaker and he said, I will do as Jesus commanded and turn the other cheek.  The troublemaker took another swing at the minister, connecting that punch to the other side of his jaw, and down the minister went again.  But as he stood up, the minister took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, rolled his hands into fists, looked the troublemaker in the eye, and said, and now, as the Lord has given me no further instruction…

But did Jesus make such an exception?

Years ago, in my first youth ministry position, I was asked by one of the kids if I believed Jesus really meant for us to turn the other cheek.  I answered that I believed he did indeed mean that.  Not long after that conversation, the father of the young person came to see me, and he was not happy.  He did not appreciate me telling his child to be a doormat, and he angrily told me so.  I continue to stand by my belief that Jesus meant exactly what he said in this passage.

Sadly, violence seems to be part of the DNA of humanity.  From the beginning, violence has plagued us, as the story of Cain and Abel set the template for all of history that followed.  To love, especially our enemies, seems to go against the grain of humanity.  But love is the foundation of who we are as followers of Jesus, and he is very plain about what that love entails.  After all, he doesn’t bury this command in any fine print.  Most of us are not readers of the fine print.  How often do we read the fine print on a web site before we click on the agree button?  Does anyone ever read all that information in a privacy policy?  Researchers, in fact, have concluded that if a person read all the policies they encountered in a year on web sites it would take them 25 days to read them all (!  There is no fine print when it comes to Jesus and what he says about love.  In this passage, plainly stated in the Sermon On the Mount, one of the most important sections of his teaching, he offers it in plain sight and in plain language.

The question of whether or not there are any exceptions, then, is a moot point, as Jesus tells us that we are to do love our enemies, and he lists no exception to his command (and make no mistake, it is a command and not a request).  We manage, however, to find ways to work around this command, claiming that Jesus is not calling us to be doormats and that he would expect us to stand up for ourselves.  One of the reasons we do this, perhaps, is that we don’t always understand the concept of agape love, the kind of love that finds its fullest expression in God.  Agape love is far deeper than simply acting kindly and nice towards others (not that there is anything wrong with acting kind and nice towards one another).  Agape love strips bare the violence and power that the kingdoms of this world use to both keep and justify their existence.  Agape love is a love that refuses to bow to such methods and, when push literally comes to shove, will not retaliate in a way that only perpetuates the cycle of violence and hatred that has dominated our world throughout history.  Agape love, in its willingness to suffer rather than to impose suffering, reveals that coercive power and force is ultimately an empty vessel that can only accomplish its goals because of the fear and force that it inflicts.  People will react to such force out of fear, and even do its bidding – up to a point – but ultimately will rebel against it and seek to be free from its grasp.  Love, however – agape love – inspires people to such an extent they are willing to lay down their lives rather than inflict violence upon others.  This is exactly what Jesus did, and in doing so demonstrated that his love was greater and far more powerful than all the might of Rome.  Although Rome had the power to nail Jesus to a cross, it could not stop his message, his followers, or, most importantly, the continuation of his love.

The third question, then, moves from the micro to the macro, from the personal to the larger world and it is this –

How do we, as a nation, live out these words?
Monday a week ago was the anniversary of D-Day, the day 71 years ago when the allied troops landed at Normandy.  Two of my mom’s brothers landed in that invasion.  It was a battle that turned the tide of WWII, and it came at the loss of so many lives.  D-Day is a reminder that we live in a dangerous, violent world, a world where our nation has, at times, decided upon the necessity of taking up arms against other nations.

Our world continues to be a very dangerous, violent place and, to be honest, I struggle to reconcile these words of Jesus with much of what happens in our world.  These words of Jesus are, in my opinion, the most difficult in all of Scripture.  It is really possible to love our enemies?  In a world where there are very real enemies, such as ISIS, how is it possible to love them?  Is it even wise to do so? 

The early Christians were not welcome in the Roman army because the Romans did not want soldiers who might love their enemies and to possibly turn the other cheek.  They understood the logical outcome of these words of Jesus, and the Romans did not build their empire on such thinking, that’s for certain.

Many centuries ago, not long after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the great theologian Augustine formulated what we now call the Just War Theory.  The Just War Theory holds there are conditions must be met in order to justify the use of force –

1. There must have a just cause.  To justify the taking up of arms the cause must be one of grave importance.
2. It must have a just intention.  Force cannot be used for the expansion of an empire or for the gain of resources, to cite two examples.
3. It must demonstrate comparative justice; that is, an armed response cannot exceed the harm inflicted by an attack.
4. It must be declared by a legitimate authority, which in almost every case would be a legitimate government.
5. It must demonstrate discrimination, which means that civilians and non-combatants must never be targeted or deliberately put in harms way.
6. It must be used only as a last resort, after every other option has been exhausted. 

But can we ever truly justify war?  I have heard our political leaders refer to the Just War Theory in support of military action, although they have often misconstrued what Augustine sought to clarify.

People often refer to the United States as a Christian nation (because we have not made any official proclamation affirming this – and it is proper that we have not – I have long believed it better to say that we are a nation comprised of many Christians and greatly influenced by Christian principles rather than to say that we are in any formal way a Christian nation).  But if it were true that we are an officially Christian nation, I think it is safe to say we would certainly find evidence of how we have lived out these words of Jesus.  Those words certainly have not formed the cornerstone of our foreign policy.

As individual followers of Jesus we must remind our government about the importance of making peace.  There is a high cost to war, both in money and certainly in lives.  Our nation has spent a great deal of both in the past 14 years alone, and now our government is recommending a $1 trillion upgrade of our nuclear weapon stockpile.  It is insanity to think that the ability to destroy the world a number of times over is insufficient and so must be increased.

War is a political action, not a spiritual action (David learned this, as he wanted to build the Temple, but God said he could not because he was a man of war and had shed much blood – I Chronicles 28:3).  I believe that as people of faith it is incumbent upon us to remind political leaders that all options must be considered before resulting to force, and if force is engaged, that all proper safeguards are exercised, most especially against civilians.

But let us also consider more recent events.  Our nation was rocked last weekend by the violent action in Orlando.  When I awoke last Sunday morning, like everyone else across our nation I was shocked to hear of the news of the killings in Orlando, Florida.

One of the questions that we must grapple with is this – why is our society, and our world, so plauged with violence?  The causes of violence are many, and because they are, I reject the simplistic answers that are so often given.  Orlando was not caused by religion, as some have predictibly stated.  Having said that, however, I believe that all religious communities must think seriously about the words and the language they use when speaking of other groups of people. 

While I believe that it is far too simplistic to state that religion encourages violence, I would say that some religious people sometimes use language about other people that only serves to create an atmosphere in which bigotry not only exists, but also flourishes, and bigotry can lead to hatred and hatred can lead to violence.  Our country is built upon the belief in free speech – and I support free speech – but personally, I will not use langauge that demonizes any individuals or groups, any language that marginalizes them, or any language that contributes to an atmosphere that results in hostility or bigotry and then hide behind the claim that I am simply exercising my free speech.

We must also resist the temptation to return to life as normal.  Our tendency is, after mass killings, to go back to life as it was before.  We weep over Orlando, and rightly so, but the sad reality is that it is not an isolated incident. While it stands out because of the tragic numbers in one violent event, the violence continues, and is often largely unreported, every day in cities and towns across our country.  In 2014, there were 14,249 murders in our country, about 5 times the number that died in the Twin Towers on 9/11.  Over Memorial Day weekend 69 people were shot in Chicago, a city that is reeling from a level of violence that has reached alarming levels.

Closer to home, in Louisville, from January through April of this year, Louisville experienced 36 murders and 149 shootings, an increase of 44 and 33 percent over the same time period of 2015, which also saw a large increase over the preceding year.  In 2015 Chicago had 468 murders, Baltimore 343, New York 333, Detroit 295, Los Angeles 280, St. Louis 188, and New Orleans 164.  Seven cities, totaling 2,071 victims.  While the large, mass violence grabs our attention, we don’t always hear much about the steady, smaller numbers of everyday violence, but they add up to huge numbers of victims.  The media either overlooks much of this violence or moves on to other stories, and we in turn become preocuppied with other concerns.  After all the pronounciations that things must change, it often seems as though not much actually changes.

On a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, I purchased a rock engraved with the words Never Again.  It’s an important message, but the tragedy of violence is that it does happen again, and again, and again.  Humanity, it seems, is addicted to violence in all its many expressions, and the only alternative, the only answer, is love and not just any love, but the love that is exemplified in the love of God in Christ.

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