I had the opportunity to preach this sermon on what defines loves at the West Chester Church of the Nazarene yesterday morning.
John 15:9-17 (NRSV)
9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.
15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.
17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
At the core of this passage is Jesus’ instruction for his followers to love one another. These are instructions that are demonstrated by Christ’s life and teachings; it is also a theme that is present in both the Old and New Testaments. In fact, mostly everyone knows the latter half of 1 John 4:8; we recite it to each other all the time: “God is love.” However, many times in talking about love, whether it be the love of Christ or the love of God, or even in our culture when popular or well-respected authority figures instruct us just to “love one another,” we never really elaborate on what defines love. One of the most popular songs by the “Black-Eyed Peas” is titled “Where is the love?” Another song from the early 1990s by (the musical “great”) Haddaway asks, “What is love?” Movies, popular music, books, poetry, and philosophy: they all talk about love. Most of the time (though not all of the time), answers about love are not very deep and only skim the surface.
We rarely hear a description of what love actually is. Maybe it is simply assumed that we know? Or maybe we just think we know? A lot of what we think we know is actually just about the feeling or emotion of love itself. But as many of us know, feelings of love come and go; feelings are fleeting. Even if love feels so strong, that feeling still may dissipate after years and years. And if we, humanity, really think that we have got a grip or a handle on what love really is, why is it that everyday on the news we hear about wars in various parts of the world, someone being shot on the street corner, a store being robbed downtown, a millionaire banker stealing millions more in their greed, or pop culture stars (ironically, they are often times the very same ones who are telling us that all we need to do is “love one another”) getting divorced and married to someone else after only a couple months? Not only does so much of humanity base its idea of love off of only a feeling or an emotion, but how are we supposed to know what love is, if on a daily basis humanity is separating itself from God – God, who is the very beginning of all love, the author of all love, and where all love flows from and out of?
Humanity separates itself from God through our very own sinfulness and selfishness; but true to what love actually is and not what we think love is, and true to God’s eternal demonstration of that love, God still shows us and demonstrates his love to us whether it is through grace, patience, mercy, protection, justice, and blessing and granting our needs and prayers. God does not base love, his holy love, off of only a fleeting feeling or emotion, but through a practice of love. And it is a practice of love that is found in sacrifice and obedience to God which we can build our love with. Perhaps today, each one of us must change our concept of love from feelings and emotions to a practice of love that is consistent with the practice of love that God continually demonstrates to each one of us. Perhaps our view of love needs to be reoriented so that it does not have a foundation in us, but rather that it becomes a love that has a foundation in God; then we may truly find what love actually is and learn how to show that love to one another.
What, exactly, is this love? Christ tells us in verse 12: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Christ tells us in verse 17: “I am giving you these commands that you may love one another.” But Christ does not stop there; Christ elaborates on what exactly his love is. It is not a fleeting feeling or emotion that comes and goes, but it is a practice of love that finds eternal fulfillment; it is a love that gives us joy, it is a love that gives Christ himself joy, and it is a love that gives others joy.
Love means sacrifice. Christ says: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” He then follows this piece of instruction with: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Christ is, in fact, alluding to his very own death, saying that his death is an act of love for his friends. His own death is a sacrifice of himself so that humanity, and you and I, might be reconciled to God. But Christ tells us to “love one another as I have loved you.” Christ loved us so much that he was willing to die for us so that ultimately we may be together with him. Sacrifice to the point of death: that is the depth of love that Christ has for us, yet it is also the depth of love that Christ desires us to have for other people. Sacrifice is an integral part of love for others; we, as followers and friends of Christ, are called to that level of love for one another. Perhaps today it may not mean death; but what does it mean? Our lives are valuable to us, but what else is valuable to us? Time? Money? Material goods? Food? Water? Shelter? Our unique skills? Perhaps this level of love means sacrificing those things for others when they are in need so that we may show the love of Christ to our neighbors. Perhaps it means a death of our selfish selves, and living anew in Christ, so that we may freely give of these things in a way that is like the love of Christ. (We cannot forget that there are countless numbers of people living in poverty all over the world. Many of them are Christians; our own brothers and sisters are going without food, clean water, and shelter everyday. What does loving them through sacrifice look like in your life?)
Love means obeying God. Christ foreshadows that love is “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” but then adds the stipulation: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Christ also tells his disciples in verse 10: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” Here is Christ’s commandment: “That you love one another as I have loved you.” Christ calls on us to live in obedience to God and to Christ. It is an exercise in the selfless nature, not the selfish nature, to live in obedience to another. Christ even calls those who live in keeping with the commandments his friends. Perhaps in our own lives, living selflessly and not selfishly, to others is what the practice of love actually is. Maybe this means taking the time to listen to another’s story. Maybe this means giving of yourself in a way where there is no gain for you. Maybe it means spending time with another person who you do not necessarily want to spend time with. Maybe it means humility and respecting another person’s wishes. Sacrifice and selflessness: these are examples of what love actually is. Both of these are demonstrated by Christ.
God loves all of us; in fact, there is so much love within God that in the beginning, God created people. From the very beginning, and from the outpouring of God’s love, God desired to be in relation with others; that is the reason God created us – so that we may be in communion with God and with each other. In fact, it is something that is evident in the very nature and character of God himself! If we look at God, God is one, but God is also three (in one); three very distinct aspects of God all in relation with one another in the trinity – God is relational even within himself. And God is love; out of this relational and self-giving love, God created humanity. God created the world that we live in. God created the mountains, the oceans, the atmosphere, and the land that we walk on. God created the birds, the deer that roam the woods, the big cats of the jungle, the fish that populate the sea, the bees that pollinate the vividly colored flowers in our gardens, and even the snakes that slither around, all to be in harmony and balance with one another. And out of love, God entrusted us to have a role in taking care of this world. (The responsibility we have as stewards of God’s creation is something that we simply cannot forget about, but it is critical as we give others a glimpse into the kingdom of God. Out of love for God, love for others, and love for what God has made, we must therefore do a better job of fulfilling this responsibility.)
And out of love God gave us free will, even if that meant the possibility of turning against the very one who created us, even if that meant that people may choose to live in disobedience to God and even if that meant the resulting physical manifestations of evil, sickness, and disease within this world, things that have come about from living in a world filled with generations of people who have long since removed themselves from a foundation of love in God.
But it also means, by the basic characteristic of freedom found in love, we may choose to respond to God’s grace and the love that is inherent in his kingdom. It is only in the hope we have in Christ and the renewing of ourselves by the Holy Spirit, and by the present work we are called to in the kingdom of God in this world, that these evils will be overcome.
Nevertheless, out of love and desire for God to be in communion with us and for us to be in communion with God, God loved humanity even in our sinfulness against him. God chose a group of people as his own, and through that group of people, all the people of the world would one day be reconciled to him. God made a covenant with Abraham that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars. And through Israel, and through Christ, through whom we Gentiles are grafted in to God’s chosen people of Israel, becoming one of God’s chosen people in the Church today, that covenant and promise with Abraham still holds true. It is through Christ and the Church today that God calls us to live out his message of practicing love in both sacrifice and selflessness.
Moreover, as a testament to God’s grace and love, God provided a way for humanity to return to him through both obedience and faith in God. In the Old Testament, this was the law given to Moses; that through this law, the Israelites in their own disobedience to God, might be once again reconciled to God. Part of that involved sacrifice in order to atone for their sins, a sacrifice of their very best animals and livestock to God. God desired their best; today God desires the very best of what we have to offer. However, today this is not through the sacrifice of animals and livestock, but in our time, our talents, our skills, our belongings, and in fact, you and me. God asks us to give it all over to him and God asks us to give ourselves over to him in obedience.
In the Old Testament, ultimately it was a law that taught love. The prophet Micah tells us the meaning of the law, writing: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). In Mark, when a scribe asks Christ what the most important commandment is, Christ tells him: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31). Paul, an expert in the Jewish law, tells the Church in Galatia: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14). And here, in this passage in John, Christ tells us: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” The meaning of the law: to love God with everything that we are and to love each other in the same way that God loves us and in the same way that we love God. This is a practice of love that involves sacrifice and selflessness.
Ultimately, as Israel abused this law and its rulers and religious leaders manipulated and exploited this law and obedience to God, God sent his own son, Jesus Christ, so that the law of love in obedience to God may be made known: Jesus Christ, who was there from the very beginning, who is part of the trinitarian, relational, loving nature of God, and who is love itself. In this way, Jesus Christ is the manifestation of the law given to Israel; Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of that law. The law given to Israel was meant for love; Christ, the manifestation and fulfillment of the law, is love itself.
However, just as Christ tells us in this passage that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Christ alludes to and foreshadows his very own death. The law demanded sacrifice of the very best, and in order for Christ to truly fulfill this law it meant his own death. This moment, of Christ suffering and dying on a cross which was designed for humiliation and shame, is God’s love embodied in a practice of sacrifice and selflessness. However, in this atoning death of Christ, it not only meant a redemption for the people of Israel but it meant the possible redemption of all of humanity throughout all of history, so that as long as we have faith and we believe in Christ, Christ, too, is our atoning sacrifice. And through Christ’s resurrection, Christ conquered the sin and the death and the evil that separates each one of us from God; through the grace of God found in Christ, our sinfulness is overcome by Christ’s death and resurrection. It is overcome by love itself manifested in Christ! Moreover, through this we may learn to have a foundation of love in love itself: Jesus Christ.
This story that is found in the Bible, from the very first verses in Genesis to the very last verses in Revelation, is the greatest love story, ever. It is a story of God loving humanity, then humanity in pride, selfishness, arrogance, and disobedience to God (each of these in sinfulness), separating ourselves from God. But God, in his vast love for us, for humanity, for his created beings, wanted for all of us to be in communion with each other once again. So God created a way, and ultimately that led to the sacrifice and resurrection of his own Son; through God’s grace and through Christ, each one of us may be redeemed to God, and humanity and creation may be restored, redeemed, reconciled, and renewed in God. It means that we may once again find love, true love of sacrifice and selflessness which emanates from God, and have a foundation for practicing that joyful, fulfilling love in God; out of the joyful, sacrificing, selfless love that is found in Christ, we too may find fulfillment. But it is not a fulfillment that we keep to ourselves, but it is a fulfillment that we are called to share with others. It is a love that Christ asks of us, now as his friends and no longer as servants, so that we may love one another as Christ has loved us.
Christ asks us to show this practice of love to one another: this includes our neighbors, the people around us, and even our enemies. What does this sacrificing and selfless love look like in your life? How does sacrificing and selfless love transform your relationship with your husband, your wife, your fiance, your boyfriend, your girlfriend, your brother, your sister (and your brothers and sisters in Christ), your father, your mother, your coworkers, your friends, and even your friends who you find to be just a bit annoying? What about the person who cuts you off while you’re driving? How does this view of a sacrificing and selfless practice of love, of loving others in the same way that Christ loved us, form your relationships with those who you would consider to be your enemies, the people who have done wrong against you, or the people who you hold, for one reason or another, a grudge against?
Christ selflessly died for us so that we may be restored to God, so that this overarching love story between God and humanity throughout all of history may be complete in you, God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. How does the idea of sacrifice, whether it is of our time, our interests, our money or other material goods, affect our relationships with all of those people I have listed?
It is a contrast between selfishness and selflessness. Culture, society, the world: they will always tell you to put yourself first. They will tell you to put yourself above others and get what you want or what you think you need even if it is at the expense, manipulation, exploitation, or unjust treatment of others or entire other groups of people. The world, in discussing love, inevitably returns to selfishness. The gospel, on the other hand, implies selflessness; Jesus Christ tells us to put others before ourselves. (A warning though: this is one of the reasons the gospel is so dangerous; it is not selfish, but selfless and sacrificing. Sacrifice and selflessness are problems for a world that promotes manipulation, exploitation, and injustice – all for a selfish purpose – whether it is on behalf of a person, business or corporation, or a government.) Selflessness is what Christ demonstrated in his life; sacrifice and selflessness are what Christ showed with his death on the cross, dying so that humanity may have an opportunity to be restored to communion with God. In this way we can know what love actually is; love is not selfish, but selfless. And through Christ’s act of selflessness, our own selfishness, pridefulness, arrogance, and sinfulness are overcome by the power of Christ’s resurrection. Ultimately the practice of love, founded in God and demonstrated through sacrifice and selflessness, does conquer sin and our separation from God.
God’s Holy Spirit works in us and creates in us a new and restored person, that we may show what true, holy, sacrificing and selfless love is to our family, friends, and even our enemies. Christ instructs us: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Demonstrate and practice this fulfilling yet sacrificing and selfless love, in obedience to God, in your lives and in your relationships with all who you encounter.