Here Is the Love
Here Is the Love
Introductory remarks from Bryan Wilkerson:
Each year we choose a ministry focus for the church year, which we introduce in September and address from the pulpit in two or three sermon series. The first series in the fall is a vision-casting series, in which we help people visualize what our lives and/or church would look like if we were to embrace God's truth in that particular area. Our goal is to create a "want-to" in the hearts of people to become the people/church God created us to be. As the year unfolds, the series become more instructional and application-oriented.
Our theme for 2008-2009 is "One Another: Building Up the Body of Christ." I introduced the theme in a stand-alone message the first week, and the message you are about to read was what I used to introduce the vision-casting series—a series based on the Fruit of the Spirit, entitled "Fruit: It Does a Body Good."
In addition to exploring each of the fruit of the Spirit from week to week, we went to the gospels to see how Jesus demonstrated that particular fruit in his own life and ministry. I had always wanted to explore that idea—the fruit of the Spirit in the life of Jesus—and it seemed to be effective. The chief challenge was working with two primary texts in each message. This first sermon was especially challenging, because I had to introduce the series as well.
As a part of the series, we invited artists in the congregation to create a work of art that captured a particular fruit of the Spirit visually. The work of art would be on the platform during the message, covered with a drape. At the close of each message, we unveiled the artwork, projecting it on the screens so all could see. Week by week the artwork would be added to a gallery in the main lobby, with a short summary of the message and the artist's interpretation. I didn't always know what the artwork would look like until a week or so before the message—which was a challenge. But I found that each week the art provided insight into the text that I would have missed otherwise. Having the artwork on the platform created an expectancy in the listeners, and provided the preacher with a visual and creative punch at the end of the message.
I opened the sermon with a story about John McCain's days as a POW. I picked it not only because it worked, but also because we were in the middle of the election season. It was effective, but it also turned out to be a distraction for some who felt I was trying to make a political statement. I found that quite frustrating—especially since I was pleased to recall a powerful prison camp illustration I'd heard in seminary, bringing the message full circle.
On a September day in 1967, a young fighter pilot named John McCain was shot down over North Vietnam. With his plane spiraling to earth at 500 miles an hour, he ejected. He struck the plane on the way out, breaking his left arm, his right arm in three places, and his right knee. He landed in a shallow lake, before he was dragged out and beaten by an angry crowd. Finally an army truck arrived and hauled him away. He spent the next five years as a prisoner of war.
In his book Faith of My Fathers, McCain tells the story of those years. His experience was every bit as harrowing as you would imagine it to be: sadistic guards, windowless cells, torture, dysentery, and despair. McCain was tough and well-trained. He had a strong faith and a deep love for his country. He had a wife and daughter waiting for him back home. But by his own admission, there was only one thing that kept him alive through those awful years: his fellow POWs. There were about 80 of them in the prison called The Plantation. Even though their captors kept them separated from one another, little by little, through careful observation and passing along bits of information, they came to know and depend on one another.
Like most of the prisoners, McCain spent a good portion of his time in solitary confinement, in a three-foot-by-six-foot cell. He writes: "It's an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment. Having no one else to rely on, to share confidences with, to seek counsel from, you begin to doubt your own judgment and your courage." He goes on to describe the ways they found to communicate with each other: flashing hand signals, tapping out messages on the walls, leaving notes left behind on bits of toilet paper, and talking through drinking cups pressed to the wall. He writes, "Of all the activities I devised to survive solitary confinement … nothing was more beneficial than communicating with other prisoners. It was, simply, a matter of life and death."
All the prisoners observed a nightly ritual: before falling asleep, they would lie on their bunks and quietly recite the name of one of their fellow prisoners. McCain writes, "Knowing the men in my prison, and being known by them … affirmed our humanity [and] kept us alive."
John McCain's testimony reminds us of a fundamental truth about human beings: we need each other. We were hard-wired for relationships by a God who said, "It is not good for man to be alone;" by a God who lives in community himself (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit); by a God who has ordained that his people should do life together in a community called the church. This fall we are casting a vision for what those relationships are meant to look like in the church and in all other areas of our lives.
Last week we introduced our "One Another" theme for the year by learning that the church is like a body—that every part is important, no part stands alone, and that all the parts functioning together make up the body of Christ. With that in mind, today we begin a series called "Fruit: It Does a Body Good." We are going to explore the nine qualities of Christ-like relationships found in Galatians 5:22-26: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
This passage is from a letter Paul wrote to a church he had established in a region called, Galatia. The theme of the letter is freedom—freedom from the power of sin, freedom from the law as a measuring stick, and freedom to let Christ live through us by the power of his Spirit. As the letter comes to a close, Paul tells us that when we allow God's Spirit to live in and through us, that Spirit produces a set of Christ-like qualities or virtues. He lists nine of them, calling them the Fruit of the Spirit.
In the same way that Paul used the image of a human body to describe a fully-functioning church, he uses the image of fruit to describe what life in the Spirit is like. So, let's ask ourselves a critical question: how are these nine virtues like fruit?
First of all, there are many different kinds. I didn't try to find out how many varieties of fruit there are, but we could pretty quickly come up with a long list: apples, bananas, cherries, kumquats, etc. They all have similar qualities: seeds, skin, etc. But each one is distinct in shape, size, color, taste, and nutritional value. Just as there are many Christ-like virtues, there are many kinds of fruit.
Second, fruit is the natural outgrowth of a healthy plant. An apple tree will produce apples, a blueberry bush will produce blueberries, and a grapevine will produce grapes—provided, of course, that the branches are properly connected to the rest of the plant. I think Paul chose this image very intentionally, because he wants us to understand that these qualities are not produced by our effort, but by the presence of power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. He didn't say: "The works of the Spirit are …," but, "The fruit of the Spirit is …." When Christ lives his life through us, these things will be produced naturally.
We have talked before about the difference between a "doing" approach to discipleship and a "being" approach to discipleship. Together we learned that growing in Christ is less about a list of spiritual activities—read the Bible, go to church, pray before meals—and more about making space for Christ to take up residence in our souls. It's not that we don't do those things; it's that we approach them from the standpoint of a relationship to be enjoyed instead of rules to be obeyed.
The same principle applies to these qualities or virtues. We don't grit our teeth and try harder to be loving and joyful and gentle. Rather, we stay connected to Christ, like a branch to the vine, and he produces this fruit by the power of his Spirit.
Third, like fruit, these qualities are good for you. The Galatians had never seen the Food Pyramid, but they knew that their bodies functioned better and stayed healthier when they ate fruit. We now know we should have two or three servings of fruit every day to stay healthy and energetic. Nutritionists and parents go to great lengths to get us to eat more fruit, even referring to it as "Nature's Dessert." In the same way that apples and oranges and pears are good for the human body, love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control are good for the spiritual body, the church.
All of this leads to a fresh insight I gained into this passage. I've studied and taught the Fruit of the Spirit many times before, but I have always treated them as personal attributes and private virtues. If I allow the Spirit to produce these qualities in me, I become a more Christ-like individual. That's certainly true. But this time around I realized that these qualities are also inter-personal qualities—community virtues. In fact, it was a relational problem that prompted Paul to write this section in Galatians. Consider Galatians 5:13: "You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use our freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: Love your neighbor as yourself. If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out, or you will be destroyed by each other."
Clearly the church in Galatia is facing a few relational issues. Instead of loving one another, they are being hurtful toward one another. You may have noticed that he ends the passage with a similar emphasis in 5:26: "Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying one another." It's clear that when Paul teaches about the Fruit of the Spirit, he's not just talking to individual believers about their private lives; he's talking to a body of believers about the quality of their corporate life. In other words the Fruit of the Spirit are meant to be practiced and experienced in community.
This puts a whole new wrinkle on this list of attributes, doesn't it? It's not just about you and the Spirit; it's about you and me and the Spirit! This means that if we allow the Holy Spirit to produce these qualities within us, we will not only become more Christ-like people, we will be come a more Christ-like church. This fruit really does do a body good!
With that understanding in mind, let's look briefly—but pointedly—at the first fruit in the list: love. Let's make sure we understand what kind of love Paul has in mind here, and how it might transform our relationships.
Paul uses an interesting word for love in this text, and throughout his writings: agape. In Christian circles we've gotten used to hearing it, but it would have probably caught the Galatian readers by surprise. Agape was an uncommon word in the ancient world. It's rarely found outside the New Testament. It seems that the biblical writers seized this unfamiliar word in order to infuse it with new meaning.
In Scripture agape describes a love that is unconditional. It is not contingent on the other person's performance or desirability. This love is also willful. It's not a matter of feeling or inclination, but rather a decision to act in another person's interest. Finally, it's sacrificial. It costs you something to love in this way; it's not just giving, but giving up for the sake of someone else. We could say that agape love is acting in someone else's interest unconditionally (no matter who they are), willfully (no matter how you feel), and sacrificially (no matter what it costs).
We could spend a lot of time trying to define and describe this love, but it's much more helpful to see this kind of love in action. Let me share a story from John 13 in which Jesus demonstrates this kind of love.
An example of agape love in the life Jesus
This story takes place on Jesus' final night with the disciples before going to the cross. He's told them several times about his impending suffering and death, but they don't seem get it. Notice how John introduces this scene in 13:1: "Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love."
That's a very curious expression: "the full extent of his love." It could mean simply that he showed them love "to the very end," meaning "even on his last night with them." But the words seem to mean more than that, suggesting that what he was about to do was the ultimate expression of his love for them. That's a fascinating thought, because the thing he was about to do was an incredibly common and mundane thing. He was going to wash their feet. It would be like saying, "On their 50th wedding anniversary, Bob showed his wife the full extent of his love: he mopped the kitchen floor."
Footwashing was a menial job, but it had to be done. It was especially important in a situation where people sat on the floor with their dusty, fragrant feet in plain view. Everyone around the table knew it had to be done, but no one wanted to do it, because the task usually fell to the lowliest person in the room. In fact, Luke's account about this last supper seems to suggest that the footwashing issue led to an argument over "who was the greatest among them."
The one person in the room who shouldn't have done it was Jesus. First of all, he was the rabbi. There is no evidence anywhere in ancient literature of a rabbi stooping to wash his disciple's feet. But even more so, from a human perspective, Jesus was the neediest person in the room. He was hours away from a cruel and lonely death. If anyone needed to be served that evening—to be loved and cared for—it was Jesus. But look at what happens: "He [Jesus] got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that he poured water into a basin, and began to wash his disciples feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him."
My guess is, this brought an end to the argument that had broken out over the footwashing. In fact, it was such an awkward and embarrassing moment that Peter protested: "No, you shall never wash my feet!" We can understand his discomfort. As humbling as it is to serve, it can be downright humiliating to be served. But Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me."
We now understand that Jesus was foretelling his death on the cross and the salvation that would be accomplished there. Peter, like the rest of us, would need to have his sins washed away by the shed blood of Christ. But Jesus was also using this moment to tell Peter, and the rest of us, something important: Unless you are willing to serve and to be served, to love and to be loved, you cannot be my disciple.
I'm not sure Peter understood fully all that Jesus was saying, but in the days to follow, Peter and the rest of the crew would be transformed by that love, and shaped into a community that would turn the world upside down.
Agape love is acting in the interest of others, no matter who they are, how we feel, or what it costs. It is putting another person's well-being ahead of our own—not because they are loveable or likeable or because we feel like it at the moment or because it's convenient or comfortable or even reasonable, but because that's what love does.
Imagine what our church would be like if all of us became people who instinctively acted in the interests of others, naturally putting other's well-being ahead of our own. Imagine the transformative impact that kind of love would have on this congregation and our witness to the world.
The prison camps of World War II were every bit as grim as The Plantation camp that John McCain describes in his book. In a book entitled To End All Wars, a Scotsman named Ernest Gordon tells the story of his experience in a Japanese prison camp along the River Kwai. According to Gordon, the first months in the camp were brutal: prisoners were abused, tortured, and worked to exhaustion on a railroad their captors were building. The Scottish soldiers hated their captors, and the camp was filled with rancor and despair as each man fought for survival.
One day the prisoners were taken out on a work detail along the railroad. At the end of the day, the guards lined up all the prisoners and counted the shovels. It was determined that one of the shovels was missing. The guards demanded that the man who had lost or stolen the shovel step forward. No one moved. The guards raised their machine guns and warned that unless the guilty man stepped forward the whole squad would be executed. One prisoner stepped forward. A guard walked over, picked up a shovel, and proceeded to beat him to death right before the squad. The prisoners were marched back to camp, where it was discovered that there was no shovel missing after all; there had been a miscount at the work site. The soldier who stepped forward had laid down his life to save the others.
Soon after, one of the prisoners became deathly ill. In times past he would have been left to die—as it was each man for himself. But this time, a prisoner named Scotty took it upon himself to care for the sick man. He gave the man his blanket while he shivered through the night. He saved his meager rations of bread and soup and fed them to his sick friend. In time the friend recovered, while Scotty fell over dead a few days later. He had literally given himself away to save his friend.
Those two acts transformed the camp. In the days that followed, the hatred, bitterness, and selfishness vanished as the prisoners began acting in love: sharing their rations, nursing each other's wounds, and showing kindness whenever possible—even toward their captors. When the Allied forces finally penetrated the jungle and arrived to liberate the camp, the prisoners placed themselves between their liberators and their captors. There would be no more killing.
If love can transform a prison camp, it can certainly transform a church or a home or any relationship at all. All it takes is a person willing to act in the interest of others, no matter who they are, how it feels, or what it costs.
We've invited some of the artists in the congregation to help us visualize the qualities we'll be looking at from week to week. This week, Jack Bordenca shares with us a painting entitled, "I Made You Lunch." We have to use our imagination a bit to figure out what might be going on here. Who is the old man? Is he a grandfather, a nursing home resident, a homeless man? He's wearing a red carnation in his coat—the kind veterans wear. Does he wonder if anyone appreciates the sacrifices he and his comrades made for our country? And who's the little girl? Is it his granddaughter, a kid on a service project, or just a neighbor who passes by the man every day? For some reason, on this day, she has made him lunch. My guess is, she didn't go out and buy that lunchbox. It's probably hers, and she's freely sharing it with the old man. It's a simple painting, and a simple act.
When I first saw the painting a week or so ago, I was a bit surprised. We were going to be talking about agape love—the kind of love that Christ showed us to transform a person or a church—and this is the painting! But then it struck me: that's the point! Loving one another doesn't usually require something as dramatic as laying down your life. It can be as simple and mundane as making someone lunch or mopping the kitchen floor or washing someone's feet.
In the same way that Jesus showed the full extent of his love by wrapping a towel around his waist, the painting reminds us that loving one another in the church might be: "I Made My Family Dinner. It could be: "I Stopped by the Hospital to See How See How You Were Doing." It could be: "I Parked at the High School, So You Could Find a Closer Spot for Church." It could be: "I Held Your Baby, So You Could Worship." It could be: "I'll Sing Your Music, Even Though I Prefer Something Else." It could be: "I Came Over to Say Hello, Even Though I'm Not Sure How to Pronounce Your Name."
Who knows what simple act of love might transform your community or youth group or neighborhood or workplace? We have a lot to learn about "one another-ing" this year. But I'm convinced that each of our journeys will begin with an act of love—something as profound as giving yourself to another, or as simple as, "I Made You Lunch." But here's the thing: before you can offer this kind of love, you have to receive this kind of love. Peter wasn't ready to wash anyone else's feet until he himself had been washed. It wasn't easy for him. Sometimes the hardest thing in the world is to let someone love you.
If you have never allowed Jesus Christ to love you, to wash away your sins through his death on the cross, that's where your journey begins. I invite you to seek out someone when we're done and say: "I want to know more about that love." Someone would be happy to tell you about it. And for those of us who have been washed, let's invite the Holy Spirit to produce in us the fruit of love. Let's look for opportunities to love and be loved, that we might do for one another what Jesus has done for us.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.