I want to know what love is.
Sooner or later, it had to come around to love. For six weeks now, we have been considering tests of true faith—the marks of a real Christian. John has written at length about the ethical test (how we live) and the doctrinal test (what we believe). But if you know anything about John, you know that sooner or later it had to come around to the relational test: who, and how, do you love?
After all, it was John who quoted Jesus as saying, "By this will all people know you are my disciples, that you love one another." It's John who's been described as "the apostle of love." In fact, an ancient tradition says that when John was an old man, the elders in Ephesus would carry him into the assembly and sit him down to teach. When they did, John would simply say, "Dear children, let us love one another."
So it's no surprise that we're talking about love this morning. I'm sure we'd all agree that love is essential to "living deep" as a Christian. But this week's letter writer has raised some interesting questions. Yu-Fen is not a Christ-follower, but she's intrigued by Jesus and Christianity, and in particular by the emphasis on love. But she has some questions: What is this love? Why is it so important? What does it look like to live a life of love? And does she dare embrace such a life?
These are questions that any one of us might be asking this morning, whatever our cultural background, whether we are Christ-followers or not. So let's dig into John's letter and see what we have to learn about love. We're going to begin in 1 John 2:9-11.
There are schisms in the church.
We pointed out early in the series that John structures his letter in a unique way. It's not in a linear, outline format with sub-points under each main point (Point 1: the ethical test; Point 2: the doctrinal test; Point 3: the relational test). Instead, John lays out his letter in a cyclical fashion, introducing his three themes and then coming back to them again and again, drilling a little deeper each time.
So he first introduces the subject of love in chapter 2:9-10: "Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble." It's a rather abrupt transition, and John uses pretty strong language: love and hate; light and darkness. Apparently, there was a problem in the church at Ephesus. Remember that John is writing as a pastor to the congregations in Ephesus, and it turns out there were some serious relational issues in the church. We don't know the details, but it appears to have begun as a doctrinal disagreement over the person and work of Christ, but as so often happens, the doctrinal dispute led to other things—in fighting, power struggles, factions, etc.
It's hard to imagine brothers and sisters in Christ "hating" each other, but it must have been pretty serious for John to use such strong language. And it's disappointing to learn that the church is having problems so soon, even with an apostle pastoring them! It's equally disappointing to realize that 2,000 years later the church is still struggling with unity and lack of love.
One of the major themes of the Cape Town Congress I attended recently was the challenge of unity in the church. It turns out that a lack of love and a lack of unity in the church is a problem all over the world. In South Africa, with the legacy of Apartheid, the society is still quite segregated between black and white, and so are the churches. In other African nations, the divisions aren't racial but tribal, as believers from one people group don't trust believers from another people group. In India the church continues to struggle with the caste system as upper caste believers don't always want to associate with lower caste believers. In Latin America there is tension between the Pentecostal church and other Christian movements. And here in America we fight over worship styles and ministry strategies and what color carpet to put in the sanctuary!
If someone were to ask you how we were doing relationally here at Grace, how would you answer? On the one hand, there is a lot to be excited about. We're a pretty diverse community of people—theologically, culturally, socio-economically—yet we've come to appreciate those differences and have enjoyed great unity over the years. Overall there's a feeling of warmth in the congregation: people are friendly; newcomers say they feel welcomed. There's a lot of caring through our ministries as people prepare meals for one another, make hospital visits, support each other through hard times. On a certain level, I think we could safely describe Grace as a "loving" congregation.
But how deep is that love? Are we satisfied with the levels of intimacy, care, and prayer we experience together? Are we able to have hard conversations with each other? Do we love each other only when it's convenient, or do we truly make sacrifices for one another? Is ours the kind of love the world would stand up and take note of?
You get the sense that John isn't talking about polite smiles and friendly handshakes and token displays of unity. He's writing about a love that is distinctive—different from any other love anywhere else in the world. He's calling for deep love.
What is love?
There's a popular song from the 80's that still haunts the airwaves. In 1984 it was the #1 song in both the U.S. and Britain, and according to Billboard magazine, it's one of the top classic rock songs of all time.
It turns out there were a lot of number one songs in the 80's about "love." It began in 1980 with Queen singing about "A Crazy Little Thing Called Love." Diana Ross and Lionel Richie followed with an ode to "Endless Love." REO Speedwagon promised to "Keep On Loving You." Joan Jett announced, "I Love Rock and Roll." Tina Turner asked, "What's Love Got to Do with It?" Stevie Wonder raised the possibility of a "Part-Time Lover." Huey Lewis and the News reminded us of "The Power of Love." And there were half a dozen more I won't bother to mention.
But the song played more often than any of them, nearly 30 years later, is "I Wanna Know What Love Is,' by a band called Foreigner. It's the chorus that we can't get out of our heads or our hearts: "I wanna know what love is / I want you to show me / I want to feel what love is / I know you can show me."
People want to know what love is. They want to see it and feel it and experience it. That's what Yu-Fen was asking in her letter. She's familiar with the concept of love. She knows what it means in her culture, and we know what it means in ours. We talk about it and sing about it and spend the better part of our lives chasing it. But what exactly is love?
John speaks to this question the second time he raises the topic in 3:16: "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers." The first thing that strikes me is that according to John, love isn't something you feel or something you say. Love is something you do. It's an action. Jesus "laid down his life for us."
Just to be sure we don't miss it, John tells us again when he comes back around to the topic in chapter 4: "This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him." God didn't just tell us he loved us. He showed us he loved us by sending his Son into the world.
Based on what we find here in 1 John, I tried to come up with a definition of love: Love is giving of yourself. If love is fundamentally something you do, the fundamental thing you do is to give—and give not just anything, but something personal and precious, something of yourself. God gave his Son. Jesus gave his life. If you see a homeless person and give him five dollars, that's an act of kindness, but I'm not sure you could call it love. If you invite a homeless person to come home with you, and you help him find a job and get on his feet, now we're talking love. You haven't just given five bucks; you've opened your home; you've taken a risk; you've invested time and money; you've given something of yourself.
But love is not giving of yourself indiscriminately just to prove a point or do something admirable. Love is giving of yourself for the good of others—to meet a need, to serve a purpose. Jesus didn't lay down his life just to prove how devoted he was. He laid down his life for us, to pay for our sins so we could be forgiven. God didn't send his Son just to get our attention; rather, he sent his Son to rescue us, "in order that we might live through him." If you bring a homeless person home just to relieve your guilt or to show how compassionate you are or to make life interesting, that's not love. Love isn't about you; it's about the other person and doing something good for them.
So we might say that love is giving of yourself for the good of others. As I thought it through, I felt pretty good about that definition. I felt even better when I found it word for word in a book by James Bryan Smith called, The Good and Beautiful Community. If someone smarter than me said it, it must be okay! But as I turned that phrase over in my mind, as I thought about all that John has to say about love, it seemed to me that this definition wasn't quite strong enough. It wasn't distinctively Christian. Something was missing. I looked again at John's letter and realized that he wasn't finished yet with his definition of love. Look at 4:10: "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins."
The remarkable thing about God's love is that he extends it to people who aren't even interested in it, people who, in fact, want nothing to do with him. Like Adam and Eve, every human being has turned his or her back on God. We've chosen to do our own thing and live life our way. And like Adam and Eve, we didn't go looking for God. God came looking for us. And when he found us, he laid down his life for us, and he did that while we were in the very act of sinning against him!
So I added a phrase to my definition: Love is giving of yourself for the good of others, even for those with whom you have differences." Now to say we had "differences" with God is to put it mildly, I admit. But I want this definition to work practically in situations in which we are likely to find ourselves. The point is we don't get to choose who we love. We're not called to love only those who like us or who agree with us or who ask for our love. We're called to love those who are different from us, who disagree with us, and even those who may be actively against us.
A pastor from Oxford named Vaughn Roberts put it this way: "When you love people who are like you, that's ordinary. When you love people who are unlike you, that's extraordinary. When you love people who dislike you, that's revolutionary." That's the kind of love John is calling us to—the kind of love the world is waiting to see.
Why is love important?
But the second question Yu-Fen asks in her letter—the question we might all be asking—is this: Why is love so important? We can understand why John makes such a big deal about truth and about righteousness. Certainly a Christian needs to believe the right things and behave the right way. But why is love so essential?
John answers that question pretty directly in 4:7-8: "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." Notice he doesn't say, "Love is God," as if who we believe in doesn't matter, as long as we love. John doesn't deify love. And he doesn't say, "God is loving," as if love is just one of his many attributes and activities. John says, "God is love." His very essence and nature is love. Every other aspect of God—his wisdom, his justice, his mercy, his goodness—is ultimately an expression of love.
So if we have been born of God, as we discussed last week, we can't help but love. It's in the genes. It's who we are. And when we love, we make God known to each other and to the world.
Remember how the song goes: "I wanna know what love is, I want you to show me." In this post-modern world we cannot argue people into the kingdom of God. We can only show them. People today aren't asking if Christianity is true. They're asking if Christianity is good. We have to show them. When we give of ourselves for the good of others, even for those with whom we have differences, we show people what love is and what God is like.
But what does love look like in everyday experience? That's what Yu-Fen is asking, and that's probably what you're asking now, too.
What does love look like?
John has something to say about what love looks like, too. Look at 3:17-18: "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth."
Love is very practical, according to John. It's not just words; it's action. It's giving of ourselves every day. It's doing good for people in ordinary ways.
Earlier I mentioned a book by James Bryan Smith called The Good and Beautiful Community. In one of his chapters, he offers some simple suggestions for living unselfishly. Let me share a few.
At home, ask your spouse or roommate how they're doing, and really listen. Even if you have other things to do, practice putting his or her needs ahead of yours. If you have children, give them the honor of choosing how to spend one evening this week, any way they want. At work, stop by a co-worker's desk and ask, "What are you working on today that I might be able to help with?" Make some fresh coffee for the office, or clean up the break room. At church, sit up near the front of the sanctuary or in the spaces where people seldom sit, leaving the more desirable seats for others. When driving, be on the lookout for opportunities to let people get in front of you.
I realize that none of these things are likely to change the world, but they might change us into the kinds of people who give of ourselves for the good of others.
Honor one another.
Beyond the practical choices we can make to show love, there are mindsets we can have as the church that will affect all of our interactions with one another and show the world what love looks like. The first is to honor and respect one another. Romans 12:10 says, "Honor one another above yourselves." And 1 Peter 2:17 says, "Show proper respect to everyone."
There are two arenas in particular in which we can honor and respect one another. The first arena is the political arena. Politics can be so frustrating, especially around election time. We're tired of the ad campaigns and the signs on the side of the road. But mostly, we're tired of the negativity—the smear tactics, the slanderous accusations, the caricatures, the inflammatory sound bites. We've come to expect those things from political campaigns. It's what you have to do to win, they tell us.
But wouldn't it be wonderful if the church could show the world a better way to talk politics—a way characterized by respect, even for those with whom we have differences; a way characterized by honor for those who hold office, even if we're opposed to their positions? I'm troubled by our inability as Christian people to have thoughtful, respectful dialogue with each other about political issues. We are so quick to draw lines in the sand—so quick to pass judgment on one another's spirituality, based on who or what we vote for. I'm amazed at how harshly and even hatefully Christians can speak of politicians or parties. We wouldn't let ourselves talk that way about any other person or issue, but somehow when it comes to politics we feel we can let it fly. It's true on both sides of the aisle. It was true when President Bush was in office, and it's been true with President Obama in office.
I'm not saying we shouldn't be politically active. I hope we all cast votes that are informed by our faith as well as our political philosophy. I'm not saying we shouldn't be passionate about a cause or a candidate. But before we speak about a cause or a candidate, before we forward an email, let's ask ourselves if what we're about to say is true and helpful and respectful. And I'm certainly not saying we should all agree with each other. I'm thankful for the diversity we have in this congregation, including our political diversity. We need to challenge and stretch one another's perspectives. But let's do that in an atmosphere of respect and honor and civility. I think we'd all agree it's a toxic environment out there politically. Let's show the world a better way to do politics.
We can also honor and respect one other in the congregational life of our church. Church business meetings have been known to put relationships to the test, so let's take advantage of those opportunities to love one another in practical ways. Let's listen respectfully to one another, without rushing to defend our position. Let's speak respectfully of one another, not just in formal meetings, but in the hallways and parking lots. As members of this body, let's honor the work and wisdom of leaders who have invested many hours of prayer and deliberation in matters we discuss together. As leaders, let's honor the perspective and contributions of members, believing that God can speak through anyone in his body. Let's believe the best about one another, as we pursue unity and the bond of peace.
Serve one another.
A second practical way to love that seems especially relevant to us right now is the command to serve one another. First Peter 4:10 reads, "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others." If love is giving of ourselves for the good of others, then love means giving our time and talent and energy to and for one another. When a children's ministry volunteer sits down with a group of children, asks how their week was, and helps them understand a Bible story, it's an act of love. When a coffee shop volunteer offers you something to drink and a place to sit and talk, it's an act of love. They're giving of their time and energy to bless you on a Sunday morning. It's wonderful.
Where are you serving? In what ways are you giving of yourself to your brothers and sisters here at Grace? Can I offer a paraphrase of a verse we looked at earlier? "If anyone has a gift and sees his church in need but does nothing to help, how can the love of God be in them?" If you want to go deeper in your faith, if you want to get closer to your church family, the best thing you can do for yourself and this body is to serve somewhere. Can I encourage you again to make a 2—hour commitment on Sunday mornings? It's one of the best things you can do for your spiritual life, for your church life, and even for your family life.
It's wonderful to be a friendly church—to smile at each other in the hallway and exchange pleasant greetings in the pew. It's important to help each other out once in a while with a meal or a visit or a ride. But if that's all we're doing, how deep is our love?
There is no fear in love.
So Yu-Fen is intrigued by Jesus and Christianity, and especially by this love she keeps hearing about. But she's still not sure she's ready to embrace it. She's afraid she might not be able to do it; she's afraid she might disappoint people. She's not the only one. Years ago, a Catholic priest named Father John Powell wrote a book entitled Why Am I Afraid to Love? We're afraid for all kinds of reasons. But the love we've been talking about this morning, the deep love that God has shown to us in Christ, overcomes fear. "There is no fear in love," John writes, "but perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18).
When you disappoint someone who loves you deeply, they love you anyway! So instead of punishing you or rejecting you, they forgive you. They're patient with you. They give you a second chance, and a third, and a fourth, and however many it takes. That's how God has loved us, so that's how we love one another.
When you're loved like this, you're free. You're free to make mistakes. You're free to disagree. You're free to take a risk. You're free to be yourself. That's why love is the greatest gift we can give to one another: it gives us the freedom to become the people we long to be and were meant to be in Christ.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.